Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What Is a Simple Life?

It's been quiet around here for a few weeks because I've been stumped.

A friend of mine recently posted a question on Facebook: "What is simple living?"

Well, don't I feel like a bonehead for not asking that question of myself in the first place.

Seven other people responded to her question. Some said simple living with kids was not possible. Some described what was essentially a peaceful afternoon. One said, no, who cares about a simple life? Embrace its craziness!

My response to her post went like this: For me it's a matter of making only the choices that are important to my quality of life, including commitments and belongings. It's not having to spend time taking care of things and having more time and mental space to do, think, create, and share.

I thought about her question a bit more and added: I think a simplified life requires constant vigilance because of the difficulty of saying no.

But now that I've had three weeks to stew about the question, and look around at different ways that people have tried to answer that question, I think I have at least something to throw out there. As a start. And I reserve the right to change my mind or expand on the ideas I'm kicking out here today.

The original impetus for simplifying came during a time when I felt totally overwhelmed with my life and unable to make time to do the things that were important to me.  I've already recounted how I discovered The Zero Waste Home and the impact Bea Johnson had on me. Johnson actually has two simultaneous endeavors going on at once in her household: zero waste living and also "simplifying," which when you read what she's actually doing sounds more like minimalism.

In one of her posts Bea Johnson said that Little House on the Prairie was her favorite TV show because of the simplicity of life that it portrayed. Ignoring the many anachronisms from that show (my personal favorite being how people drove their gigantic wagons pulled by gigantic horses around just like they were driving a station wagon... but I suppose I can laugh about that another time), I want to point out that if you actually look at the sets they are chock full of stuff, including lots of multiples -- something Johnson finds offensive in her own home life. Moreover, I don't know what's "simple" about, for example, rousing all your children, aged 5 and up, out of their warm beds at two or three in the morning to save the corn crop from an unseasonable snap freeze, as Laura Ingalls Wilder recounts in Farmer Boy. Or in eating the same meal over and over and over again for weeks at a time because there is absolutely no other food available. It's not simplified living if you can't choose where you simplify.

But I digress.

So what is simple living? I think it's focused living. I have some goals and some values.

  • To live in a way that hurts as few people as possible
  • To never stop learning or changing my mind about what I thought I knew
  • To be kind and supportive of other people
  • To be healthy for my entire adult life so that when I'm old I don't die infirm
  • To be as good a writer as I can possibly be
  • To be pretty (I know it's vain, but it's true)
  • To make all the choices that reflect how rich and varied life can be that are consistent with the path I have set for myself

For my children, I want:

  • Good health and an excellent sense of themselves
  • Diligence in the presence of failure or uncertainty
  • Habits that will make it easier for them to make the choices that will make them happy
  • The time and leisure to do childish things
  • The opportunity to find out what they love and what they are good at
For our entire family:
  • Gratitude for all that blesses us

Anything that distracts me from these goals and values for myself or my family is complicating my life. This doesn't mean that the life I have laid out for myself is simple in itself; in many ways it's a lot more complicated than living unconsciously. Just the goal of being healthy, for instance, requires a lot of effort. I have to determine what kind of diet will best further that goal; I have to be conscious of what is actually going into the foods I bring home and prepare, or what I choose when we eat out. I have to make the effort to make exercise a part of my schedule, and figure out how to make it part of my kids' schedule as well, so that they will learn it as an ordinary and necessary part of life, like sleep. When I fall off the wagon (as I do regularly) I have to pay attention to what I let distract me from my goals and make the effort to rebuild in a way that won't set me up for failure again.

No, this kind of life is not simple, but it's a lot simpler than relying on (and paying for) ten prescriptions with all the complications (read: side effects) they bring. It's simpler than being miserable for being fat and not fitting my favorite clothes and thereby violating my goal of being pretty. It's simpler than trying to undo the consequences of not making the effort -- and that I know for sure, because I'm doing it now. It's simpler than wondering what life could have been if I had lived it according to my own desires.

Owning too much stuff also distracts from my goals and values. I can't be grateful for my blessings if I'm drowning in them. Not being able to find things is my biggest, biggest peeve ever. I resent and loathe the waste of every minute spent looking for things that are buried under things I don't care about. Downsizing from the Big House has been a great improvement on this problem -- there are only so many places any given thing can be in this little house -- but it still happens occasionally. I do not want to spend my life looking for things. That is so not simple.

Of course the lists above are only partial, but it probably would help me a lot to make a more thorough, personal list for my own use to keep me on track. As my children get older I'd like to distill it into a family motto that we could post in our home, something they have had a say in so that they have a stake in living it. I'm also finding that over-simplifying is not a good idea. Living in a little rental house in a walkable neighborhood is nice in many ways, but it precludes the vegetable garden I enjoyed, and the decorating possibilities that make me feel creative and capable. That's not simple, it's unnecessarily ascetic and unsustainable. Finding and maintaining a simple life is, I think, a constant work in progress.

If you want to explore all kinds of ways of adopting a simple life, here are some of the resources I looked at while I was stewing over this post:

Since I'm a Wikipedia junky I'll share the definition for simple living found there:
Simple living encompasses a number of different voluntary practices to simplify one's lifestyle. These may include reducing one's possessions or increasing self-sufficiency, for example. Simple living may be characterized by individuals being satisfied with what they need rather than want. Although asceticism generally promotes living simply and refraining from luxury and indulgence, not all proponents of simple living are ascetics. Simple living is distinct from those living in forced poverty, as it is a voluntary lifestyle choice.  
Adherents may choose simple living for a variety of personal reasons, such as spirituality, health, increase in "quality time" for family and friends, work–life balance, personal taste, frugality, or reducing personal ecological footprint and stress. Simple living can also be a reaction to materialism and conspicuous consumption. Some cite socio-political goals aligned with the anti-consumerist or anti-war movements, including conservation, degrowth, social justice, ethnic diversity, tax resistance and sustainable development.


  1. This is a great post. I really enjoyed how you worked through to find your own definition of simple living. It's something the hubby and I are working on as well right now. Thank you again for visiting my blog.


  2. Hi,

    I just wanted to let you know, that I linked this post on my blog to give you credit for the inspiration for my newest post. :)


    1. Thanks so much for your comments and for the shout out! And your description of Saturday at the book store sounds like bliss...