Matthew 6:22 The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.
Try just repeating it to yourself: simplicity. The word itself sounds so, well, simple.
Why is it that we Friends are so concerned with simplicity? We seem to write about it a lot. I’ve thought about it a lot, too, and as I see it, simplicity is not as easy as you might think. Simplicity means very different things to different groups of Friends. Most Friends’ books of Discipline or Faith and Practice will address the issue somewhere, either under “Testimonies” or the category of “Advices and Queries,” if they still maintain them. In the older Disciplines, it won’t appear as “Simplicity,” but will show up here and there under “Temperance and Moderation,” “Plainness,” and the like. We don’t know where to put it, but we manage somehow.
In general, the recommendations fall into two categories. First, the pursuit of simplicity calls upon Friends—and everybody else, too—to avoid superfluous possessions, expenditures, and consumption, so as to simplify our responsibilities and impacts as stewards of the creation. That’s commendable and pretty straightforward. Second, it calls upon people to avoid activities, occupations, and excessive attention to anything that might result in a lack of attention being devoted to more eternally significant spiritual matters.
My own Ohio Yearly Meeting’s Discipline section on “Simplicity” follows our traditional practice of never stating anything clearly when oblique and vague alternatives are available. (You gotta love us.) “Simplicity” is talked about in several places, but never defined. The best we can do is to state this much about simplicity:
The heart of Christian simplicity lies in the singleness of purpose which is required by the injunction to seek first the Kingdom of God. As men seek to express the spirit of God in the daily lives they realize the necessity of putting first things first . . . . The call to each is to abandon those things that clutter his life and to press toward the goal unhampered. This is true simplicity.
Actually, this isn’t so bad, for Conservative Friends, anyway. We also mention it in other places, too, here and there, without really going into why simplicity is less distracting than complexity. After all, having too much of something is sometimes less distracting than having too little of it. Food, for instance. Or shelter. Many years ago, George Orwell wrote that the only people who didn’t think about money were people who had lots of it; people who had very little money thought about it all the time.
And is there a point where the pursuit of simplicity becomes a distraction? Can simplicity itself become a notional pursuit that enslaves, rather than frees, the follower? What about Zen and the art of archery, or Lao Tzu and his impossible parables? And voluntary poverty, and those annoyingly persistent Franciscans?
It turns out simplicity is actually sort of complicated.
In my own case, the pursuit of simplicity has been a calling that I have pursued all my life, consciously, actively. With greater and lesser success in different ways, at different times. When choosing between two tools to add to my inventory, I generally choose one that solves the problem with the fewest unnecessary features. Features are the enemy of simplicity, the mission creep of non-necessities that whittle away at our attention. When selecting a new pocket knife, for example, I avoid the all-in-one tools with a gadget for every purpose. My pocket knives all have a single blade, one that locks in place so that it won’t fold shut on my fingers, and a design that can be opened with one hand. That’s it. I used to carry switch blades because they satisfied all these conditions admirably, but that particular tool makes me unpopular in some circles, so I don’t carry them anymore.
There are other examples. In automobiles, I prefer cheap and easy standard transmissions to automatics, windows that crank open without a motor, rubber mats rather than carpets, and mechanical actuators and control systems rather than hydraulic, electric, or solid state. I also prefer carburetors to fuel injection, and no, I don’t care if it’s just a throttle body. In kitchen tools, I avoid anything with a power cord, and when I cook (rarely now that I live in my truck) I generally cook from scratch. (Ask me sometime about how I discovered that you can buy cornbread mixes in a box—I hadn’t a clue that you could do that.)
I bought a used motorcycle when I was in school, years ago. It worked okay for me, and so I’ve kept it for the last 33 years. It works better now than it did when I bought it, and I don’t see the need to replace it with something else. It’s not as quick or as fast as a newer, more complex machine, but I know every single part inside it personally and if I twist the throttle it will still double the legal speed limit.
And I’ve ditched televisions sets for many years now, and almost completely abandoned radios, too. I don’t have a lot in the way of recorded music, and I don’t pursue a lot of time-consuming entertainments: motion pictures, sports, politics and so on. Let’s not talk about books. I’m no good at getting rid of books, and besides, I don’t have to. God regularly destroys the books I accumulate in traumatic ways, so I try not to worry about them much anymore.
In a previous life, I used to consciously try to add to the complex of data available in my head. For instance, I made it a point to learn to identify all the species of mammals in my state, all the genera in my country, all the families in the world. Not so hard with mammals, actually, as there’s not very many of them, and most are my favorites anyway: bats and rats. I can still identify most of the canids in North America (wolves, coyotes, and various foxes) by nothing more than isolated lower jaw bones. But I’ve mellowed on mammalogy, and while I still enjoy the critters, now I’m not so intense. I’ve mellowed on a lot of things, actually, as I’ve learned that spreading myself too thin with interesting but distracting matters lessens the time I have available for each one of them. I try to limit my attention to fewer but more important things, and work on deeper understandings of each of them.
There are exceptions to this pattern, of course. I accept necessary complexity in aspects of my life that require more of it. I dress in the manner generally referred to as plain, and it adds complexity to my life that clothing myself more simply would avoid. It’s hard to get certain types of clothing in certain places, for example, and often more expensive. But I don’t dress the way I do as a witness to simplicity, I do it as a witness to other things. And living as I do out in the country with a wife and five kids, a four-ton pile of coal for heat, a twenty-four foot hole in the ground for intermittent drinking water, and a four-foot hole in the ground for a toilet, also adds complexities to my life that just living in town would remove. But I do that for other reasons as well.
I consider it distracting to have to relearn the same things over again unnecessarily, if obsolescence or progress renders a satisfactory system unviable. I recognize that my time is limited, and so is the attention that I can afford to devote to mastering duplicate additions to my mental chores. There are things that I want to know, and things that I want to become better at, and things that I want to understand. But there are also lots of intrusions into my sphere of simplicity that I reject out of hand, even if they might make something easier, quicker, or even cheaper. Like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, I believe that I have reached the point where I don’t learn something new without forgetting something that I learned before—I can’t become better at certain things without sacrificing time and mental energy to them that I might want to devote to other things that I think are more important.
I’m not always successful. I once spent most of a day experimenting with an electric fan and plastic airfoils mounted on the tops of toy cars, proving to myself that it was actually possible to sail a boat into the wind in the way my lovely wife patiently explained. I had never really believed it, but now I know it’s true. Could I have done something more spiritually useful to my life that day? Maybe. The problem with simplicity is that sometimes it’s not really obvious what things are actually distractions, and what are thresholds to new ways of looking at something important. There’s lots of things that still continue to clamor for my attention. Gyroscopes (try holding a spinning bicycle wheel by the axle), and mixing colored light, and how music works, and why salmon swim up into little creeks to breed, and the different types of woven textiles. Maybe I’ll have time to figure them out someday, or maybe not.
I choose simplicity, in the end, mostly for the reasons described in my meeting’s Discipline. I choose it because it frees me from distractions, and allows me to spend my energy, time, and thoughts pursuing other aspects of life that I find more important, rather than catering to the ephemera of transient complexity. I spend a lot of my time now thinking about God, and thinking about how other people have thought about God, and trying to get better at thinking about God. At least in the sense that I’m trying to get better at doing the things he wants me to do, and being the kind of person he wants me to be.
And I actually do end up with more time for reflection about God, and trying to understand more of what I’m to do in my life here in that context. By reducing distractions, I do find that I have been able to concentrate more on spiritual issues, and applying them to my life. So it does work, when I let it. But I have a very long way to go.
The problem is that these other various other topics are so interesting. But maybe some of them will turn out to be important to the way I think about God, and need to be added to the short and simple list of things that I pay more attention to.
Did you know that there are only 130 species of ferns in the whole world? Why did God do that? Ferns represent the only major biological group of organisms that a single systematist can ever hope to master in a lifetime. And there’s two species that I know of right down by the creek. I could start right there. Just a few months. How hard could it be?
You know, simplicity just isn’t easy.