What is simple living? I talk about it a lot here on the blog (because it’s kind of what the blog is about), but I’ve been thinking about how the words “living simply” conjure up very different images and meanings for different people. For some, it evokes the idea of super-minimalistic “zen” lifestyles where we strip our lives and our habits down to the simplest possible expressions (and probably also do yoga or something). To others it may suggest some kind of hippie idealism, our lives surrounded by nature and simplicity and little else. Still others might be reminded of those people who take their perfectly normal house and spend way too much money making it look like a kitschy farmhouse in the name of “the simple life”.
In seriousness, I don’t have any objections to those kinds of outlooks (except when they get silly). But for me, although living simply doesn’t exclude these ideas, it means something broader and a little more personal. It’s a way of living that allows us to enjoy our lives and our relationships, and not be ridiculous, wasteful, strung-out people.
Look at the Problems
I think it’s easier to see what I’m trying to talk about if you look at some of the things that are wrong with our lives. We all have unique challenges and obstacles that we can’t do too much about: income, health, relationships, goals. And whether we admit it or not, all of us have some bad habits when it comes to figuring those issues out. Don’t deny it. Maybe we aren’t very careful with our spending in certain areas, or we push away people who we love/who intimidate us/who could help us somehow. Maybe we avoid stress by eating too much or too poorly, or maybe we let that stress control us and wear ourselves thin through insane levels of exercise or self improvement or career ambition.
As a result we’re strapped for cash, or overweight, or never home, or irritable, and it’s kind of our own fault, and it sucks. It’s a humbling and extremely frustrating moment when we realize that we could be living in the exact same circumstances with a lot more poise or friends or health or happiness (or money), and we aren’t making the changes necessary to let it happen. Have you hit one of those moments? Almost all of us have, and at some point we decide to start really trying to make those important changes.
And that’s exactly what I’m talking about when I refer to living simply: living in our same circumstances with less stress and less crap. Sure, we can always hope and/or strive for a better job or different friends or a more pleasant neighborhood, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the small yet significant shifts in perspective and attitude that allow our lifestyles to fit more naturally into our circumstances.
Simple vs. Smart
But why should that be called “living simply” and not “living smartly” or “living intentionally” or whatever? No reason in particular I guess; those words also describe parts of what we’re trying to get at. The reason I find myself coming back to the idea of simplicity in particular though is because it encapsulates our goal rather than our process or our problem. We can all say we’re trying to get out of debt, or we’re trying to live more wisely, or we’re trying to not be so stressed out, etc., But all of those ideas focus on where we’re leaving or what we’re changing and not where we want to end up.
And where we want to end up is simplicity, whether we call it that or not. We want to never feel like we have too much stuff, or too little money, or too high of a blood pressure. We want to feel that we are enjoying the lives we can afford to live, and that we have time for the people we want to see, and that our bodies won’t be upset at us for the choices we want to make. We want to be content. Most of us believe stupid things and make stupid choices about what will make us “truly” happy, but you already know about how dumb it is to think more money or cooler friends or a nicer house will really fix everything. On some level we need to learn that it’s less about changing what we have (although it can be a little about that) and more about changing how we see it.
Not Just Positive Thinking
“Todd,” someone is saying, “Don’t start telling me that my life would be fine if I just saw things in a better light. Life can be rough, and I’m having a hard time, and people who harp on the ‘power of positive thinking’ are annoying and make it worse. Don’t be that guy.”
Thanks, fictional interrupting person. You’re right. Let’s not be jerks about self-improvement and simplicity. We’re not talking about breaking some secret code to make our whole life feel organized and perfect. But we are talking about living in such a way that we are as confident and calm as possible in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. No amount of self-encouragement is going to get our debt to disappear quicker or our health to improve or our kid to pick some better friends. But we can find ways to ride out those circumstances without destroying our health or ostracizing our loved ones or sabotaging other things we’ve worked for.
So what does living simply look like? That’s a great question. I think it looks a little different for everyone. Maybe for some it actually does mean stripping out the extra fluff in our lives or getting out into nature more. Maybe it means more sit-down dinners or less time in front of the TV. Maybe it’s getting more involved with your neighbors or setting a really smart budget. There are seriously so many ways we can make simple choices that result in life not driving us so nuts, and the idea of living simply is to be wise about making the ones that help us do that the most.
In the end, it’s about our perspective. There’s a word I learned that comes out of the ancient Hebrew tradition and still exists in some form in many Middle-Eastern cultures: shalom. A lot of you have probably heard it; it’s usually translated as “peace”. But you also may know it means a lot more than that, and it paints a great picture of what we’re talking about here. Shalom describes a kind of peace that doesn’t stop with a lack of war or hostility, or even with a metaphorical “inner peace” that we try to achieve. It actually describes an idea of “wholeness”, of harmony with ourselves and the world around us, of an absence of debt or fear or waste or destruction. It’s a cool word.
Shalom is a word that helps me a lot when I try to look at my circumstances and what a “simple life” means. I don’t like the idea of plowing through the years all stressed out and chasing debt and always looking for a better version of everything I have. I do like the idea of freeing up some more energy and money and time in my life for things that really matter. I like the idea of building a better community and helping heal relationships and baking some homemade bread every once in awhile. I like the idea of shalom. I like those ideas so much that I’m willing get my butt kicked a little bit to get me where I need to be to let those things happen.
How about you? Are you willing to be real with yourself about dumb habits, or give up some of your indulgences, or even make some pretty big lifestyle changes in order to get a simpler perspective? If you made it to the end of this kind of article, I’m guessing your answer is “yes,” or at least “I’m seriously thinking about it.” You and I probably aren’t going to make the same choices, or even value the same goals, but we’re starting to get the idea that we need to make the most of what we have available to us. Life is too short to spend it complaining about how life is too short.
Let’s get moving, folks. Let’s be ambitious about living simpler lives.