Involuntary Simplicity

When I reviewed my statistics, I discovered the phrases that pulled in the most visitors is “voluntary simplicity.” Indeed, my denunciation of voluntary simplicity as a toy of white, middle class liberals is #30 in the Google.com search for “voluntary simplicity”! (that article)

Recently, I read a review of the magazine Real Simple that denounced that magazine as practicing minimalism, not simplicity. It is about the appearance and aesthetic of simplicity, rather than the thing itself. Isn’t that itself an example of kitsch? Certainly, if applied in the realm of religion, it would be denounced as hypocritical.

I believe in “involuntary simplicity” — part of a proper reading of a life’s vocation that leaves no other alternative. I’ll admit being incompletely simple, but who said simplicity in and of itself was a good thing? The good associated with simplicity seem to be the harmony derived from not craving luxury, and living in proportion to the needs of others. It is the corrective of gluttony. William Barclay, the popular Scottish theologian, and professed universalist, wrote in his interpretation of Philippians 2:1-11 in Great Themes of the New Testament about two things Paul said the church at Philippi must give up: strife and vainglory.

The word for trife is eritheia. . . . [The word] enters the world of municipal and national politics; and it describes the spirit of the man who is actuated by no other motive than the motive of ambition; he has no idea of contributing to the public good. His one aim in seeking office in whatever society he may happen to be is his own honor, his own prestige, his own prominence, and his own gain. Eritheia is selfish and factious ambition.

. . . .

[On vainglory.] The word is henodoxia, literally ’empty opinion.’ Suidas defines it as ‘any vain thinking about oneself.’ Kenodoxia is that conceit which is founded on a false view of oneself.

Following this, Christian faith is an calling to involuntary simplicity as an aid to keeping my own sense of self in proportion. It need be followed in proportion to the ways we indulge our spirit of self-delusion. A “minimalist” masquerading as one following a simple life really leads a live out of control, and no amount of spending at the Container Store is going to fix that. So enjoy what you have, if you have it, and don’t be precious or pretentious about it. And don’t lust for things or people, which degrades yourself and the other.

So enough with the preaching. Here are six practical suggestions for ‘involuntary simplicity.’

  1. Limit your wardrobe. If you know you aren’t going to wear something, give it away. If you’re tempted to buy a garment you don’t have express plans for, don’t. Look at your wardrobe as if you were traveling and had to carry it everywhere. What would you value? What is dead weight?
  2. Simplify your diet. People get more precious and pretentions here than with clothes. Do you talk about your eating more than your faith or other core beliefs? Consider connecting with your ethnic heritage by eating what your ancestors did, and in the proportions they did. Old cookbooks, and especially those written in times of shortage and war, are very telling about what people valued. Lastly, if and when you “eat out” do you usually eat above your means? Do you ever order food to impress someone else (even the wait staff) ?
  3. Pray for one another. Jesus bid us to not heap up prayers; God accepts a simple address. Use this simplicity and freedom to be more generous with those you pray for. If a stranger asks for prayer (perhaps that’s a Southern thing, but it does happen) ask for a name (first name will do) and a specific prayer request. And then pray like you’ve never prayed before. When you pray like others really, really matter, you begin to live like it, too.
  4. Take time and be honest with yourself. Find something you know doesn’t work in your life, make a plan to change it, and follow through. It doesn’t need to be big, but you need to complete it. This is about being truthful, and in being truthful, you have to start with yourself. When truth wins over falsehood, the systems that allow falsehood to continue are weakened.
  5. Open your home in hospitality. Have friends in from out of town. Welcome people over for a meal. Host a meeting. When we do this, we take some of the punch out of “social space equals commercial space” and we reclaim ourselves as something other than consumers.
  6. Make a habit of valuing honest work. Increasingly, we value work in society by its remuneration rather than by its good effects for people. Offer verbal thanks for a job well done by someone who isn’t otherwise well respected. (Like that really good experience I had in the DMV last week. Who knew?) Exceptional good service deserves a letter of commendation to a superior. Remember that nurse who was so diligent and kind when your parent was dying? Remember him in the written word as a sign of your thankfulness, and of the good work done.
  7. Allow the “next big thing” to pass without comment or purchase.

Enough said.

One Reply to “Involuntary Simplicity”

  1. It’s the fatal contradiction at the heart of our economy–we are killing ourselves with pollution and garbage in order to maintain a ridiculously extravagant standard of living. I like William McDonough’s notion of an abundance that resolves into two waste streams only–that which decomposes without harm and that which must be returned to the technical cycle because although necessary, it will cause environmental damage. He has many other good ideas, as laid out in the October 1998 issue of The Atlantic Monthly in an article titled “The Next Industrial Revolution.”

    I’m not exactly a cultural materialist, but I find it hard not to see the wars in the Middle East and the staunch US support of Israel as fundamentally about oil. I’m not looking forward to the wars about water that will be next, and I feel ashamed of the way Americans waste it. On what will we build prosperity if we stop wasting and consuming? The failed countercultures of the late 1960s have had a positive but miniscule effect. It looks like things have to get to the point of crisis before change can occur on a wide scale. Simplicity will be involuntary. Thanks for your suggestions.

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