Why is simple so difficult? While we spend enormous efforts to simplify our lives, simplicity seems forever to elude us. We find new ways of doing the same things because we assume the new ways will make our lives easier. We want to accomplish more in less time, giving ourselves more money and more free time. Then we spend our new free time frenetically searching for new ways to nullify the old ways and make life, we suppose, easier.
No doubt, new ways may gain us more money and ease of living. But then, of course, new problems raise their ugly heads with each new device: How do we secure our "advances" and how do we manage it all and keep it all working! No worries, we've got a whole raft of therapists and medications that can deal with our anxiety disorders.
The myth of "more choices makes us happier" only amplifies the difficulty of simplicity. Do I want my latte regular or skinny, caf or decaf, foam or no, what size? Do I want my carwash with no touch or soft touch? And do I want my undercarriage washed? Well who doesn't? Even those who have deliberately chosen a simpler life with less report at times driving themselves crazy with anxiety, obsessing about whether or not to purchase an item and what to throw away.
I've come to believe that our human tendency, unwitting as it may be, is not to simplify but to complicate life. My daughter recently announced we had "only twelve" Barbies in the house. Are we actually running away from simplicity rather than toward it? And if so, is there any way to embrace simplicity and free ourselves from the anxiety of the growing snowball?
This summer I and my family visited my wife's parents in Manitou, Manitoba. The name itself is like a mantra that lulls you into a sense of ease. Manitou Manitoba... I said it over a few times as we drove past wheat fields bending in the wind, letting the name roll languidly off my tongue. Manitou has about 900 people and no espresso bars or malls within miles. (Where does one get his morning fix in this place on his way to another frenetic day?) You can't be a stranger here. People really notice you and say "hi." They trust each other enough to leave their cars running while they go into the store to buy groceries. Kids wander the neighborhood on their bikes till they find other kids to play with. Who needs to arrange a play date? Our girls found two of my wife's old tricycles (remember those?) and scooted off, seeming to understand intuitively the absence of danger and a sense of freedom. Between the homes lie massive gardens. I watched as goldfinches landed on spikes of blooms, bending them as they gleaned seeds. Fifteen minutes passed seemingly in seconds.
I watched wheat fields surrender to the wind, and I felt myself surrender to God, my soul expanding with the great breadth of the prairie. The views are unbroken by city high rises. (My gosh, they're hardly broken by a tree!) Like many, I've assumed Vancouver was the place to expand a person's vision beyond that of parochial villages like this one. But the reverse was true. The sweeping spaces drew my vision beyond my anxious little niche back home. The quiet and the scarcity of human life was initially frightening, but as I settled into it, the simplicity of the place lured me.
My wife's parents are the most genuine, generous, salt of the earth people you'd ever hope to meet. I love them for how unquestioningly they've taken me in as one of their own. They have focused their lives on people rather than things. Except for books. My father-in-law, like me, loves books. But I think he loves people more. He's devoted his life to teaching, my mother-in-law to raising eight kids and twenty-one grandkids, and both of them to their community. Meal times with great home cooking are highlights of the day, accompanied by long chats, stories, and laughs around the table. They exemplify a simple life.
But, you might argue, there aren't many distractions in a small town, so it's easy to live simply. Ask those who live there. They'll tell you even in a small town it's easy to get wrapped up in a complicated life. Well, you may say, they had to live simply with that many kids and on a teacher's salary. True, but they chose that life when they were fully capable of a more complicated life pursuing wealth.
But why? They obviously love their lives and the people in them more than almost anyone I've met does. They're the people I think of when I hear Jesus' words: "The meek shall inherit the earth." It's not first of all the life of simplicity they've chosen. It's the Jesus of the gospels they've chosen. It's obvious they've caught what Jesus meant when he called people to a rest and simplicity that only God can give. They embody the kind of faith Jesus was on about when he pointed to the birds of the air and the flowers of the field to understand what it means to trust God without fear of tomorrow.
My visit to Manitou called me back to Jesus: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." All Jesus wants is for me to partner with him, and other matters like lifestyle choices will fall in place.
What a relief from a world that insists on easier and happier lives by finding new yokes to burden ourselves with, only to find that the substitute yokes are as oppressive as the ones we left behind! So, I've gathered then - from the prairies, the goldfinches, my wife's parents, and Jesus' words - that the ultimate answer is not only striving for a simpler life but letting God fill me, trusting that he'll supply every need. The simpler, more anxiety-free life will then be easier to adopt.
I started writing these posts thinking of them as interruptions of grace in the ordinary and mundane events of life.