'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.
'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be fair,
'Tis the gift to wake and breathe the morning air.
To walk every day in the path we choose.
'Tis the gift that we pray we never, never lose.
'Tis the gift to be knowing, 'tis the gift to be kind,
'Tis the gift to wait to hear another's mind,
That when we speak our feelings we might come out true,
'Tis the gift for me and the gift for you.
'Tis the gift to be loving, 'tis the best gift of all,
Like the warm spring rain bringing beauty when it falls,
And as we use this gift we might come to believe
it is better to give than it is to receive.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed,
to turn, turn will be our delight,
'Til by turning, turning we come 'round right.
– From Worship in Song: A Friends Hymnal
You probably recognize this song. The first stanza comes from a traditional Shaker song, while the rest is filled in by the Quakers (also known as the Society of Friends). Richard Foster himself is a Quaker, so it's not surprising that he included simplicity as one of the core spiritual disciplines.
what is simplicity? it's not so simple.
In this post, I continue in my series on Richard Foster's book, Celebration of Discipline.
I recently wrote about generosity, which goes hand in hand with simplicity.
It's going to be hard for me to succinctly cover all there is to say about simplicity. That's not because it's a complex subject, but because the culture I live in and the culture I'm writing to are fundamentally complex. In fact, the culture is so complex that we can't even imagine what it means to live simply.
So, here's a good place to start: simplicity is the inverse of complexity. Things are complex when they require many intricate steps to complete. Things are complex when they're difficult to understand or teach. Right now, it's hard to describe simplicity because it's the opposite of everything I know. Therefore, we can't simply understand simplicity only as it relates to complexity.
Simplicity is not, as some understand it, intentional poverty (or "minimalism"). It's not necessarily a renunciation or a reduction of the things we own, but if we're currently living a complex, cluttered life it will certainly require a reduction of possessions.
complexity is precarious
Complexity is a precarious balancing act that requires many delicate things to all work together precisely. In engineering, we call this an unstable equilibrium. You know you suffer from complexity when one thing breaking leads to a cascade of negative effects.
This happened to me the other day: I needed to drive across town. Unfortunately, I'd left my truck lights on, so my battery was dead. Fortunately, I live one block from the mechanic's shop. Unfortunately, he refused to sell me a battery. "This is a mechanic's shop," he said. "We don't sell parts." He offered to tow my truck three doors down the street so he could install a new battery, but in response to that, I told him an alternate location where I thought he should install it. He didn't like my idea, so I severed relations with this mechanic's shop.
No worries! I had my phone with me, so I called a friend. She drove from a few blocks away to help me jump my truck. Unfortunately, when it's -10 outside, batteries don't like to jump. After that, I cancelled my plans for the morning and looked for a place to get a new battery. No busses would get me close to any of the autoparts stores (which is more than a little ironic), so I called another friend. He was happy to take me to buy a new battery. Together we got the battery, installed it, and my truck started right up.
Here are my conclusions from this story:
- Vehicle: When it works, simple way to travel. When it doesn't, breeds complexity.
- Phone to call friends: Wonderfully simple! Dial a number and communication happens.
But, let's ask a couple more questions: 1) Would I need a vehicle if I weren't part of a complex culture that wants me to do things that are miles away from where I live? 2) Would I need a phone to call friends for help if I didn't have a broken vehicle and an appointment across town?
simplicity is stable
The inverse of an unstable equilibrium is a stable equilibrium. When you're in a stable equilibrium, if someone pushes you, you will always fall back toward where you started. In other words, things will never "snowball" out of control.
Using the above situation as a starting point, does that mean I shouldn't have a vehicle? Maybe, but not necessarily. Does that mean I shouldn't make appointments on the other side of the city? Maybe, but not necessarily. Does it mean that I shouldn't rely upon something that requires me to drive across town, in my functioning truck? Definitely.
If that appointment I cancelled had been a centrally important thing in my life, I would be much worse off today. Fortunately, it wasn't.
From here, we'll use this as our working definition:
Simplicity is centering your life on things that are certain.
Using this definition, we clearly see that simplicity isn't an elimination of complexity, but ordering your life in such a way that we don't rely on things that are unreliable.
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