Our lives are frittered away by detail; simplify, simplify, simplify!
These words from Henry David Thoreau, transcendentalist, naturalist, writer, and Unitarian, are as much a challenge today as they were in the mid 1800s when he wrote them.
The call to simplicity, by its very nature, seems like it should be, well, simple. Wouldn’t it be nice, to sift through the complex matrix of our lives, appointments, tasks, agendas, responsibilities; to break out of the tangled thicket of a life, a world, complicated by frenetic news feeds and incomprehensible conflicts. Wouldn’t it be nice, to have not just a less cluttered life, but a more intentional, focused, and simplified version of who we are and who we are called to be.
The Quaker tradition has a historic practice of simplicity. Part of that tradition comes out of a type of living that rejected the modern world and the constant wheels of industrial and societal progress—a humble style of resistance to what seemed, from a spiritual perspective, to be a world trampling values of generosity and community for the vices of greed and individualism.
There is also a thread within the Quaker tradition that was less focused on rejecting the modernization of the world, and more focused on how to live in a way that was congruent, intentional, aligned with one’s values and hopes for a more just and equitable world. It wasn’t a simplicity that was only about living calmly and quietly, but a simplicity that focused one’s time, energy, resources on a life that, for that person or community, was worth living.
Quaker Christin Snyder expressed this by writing,
Simplicity is not so much about what we own, but about what owns us. If we need lots of possessions to maintain our self-esteem and create our self-image and to look good to our neighbors, then we have forgotten or neglected that which is real and inward. If our time, money, and energy are consumed in selecting, acquiring, maintaining, cleaning, moving, improving… our possessions, then there is little time, money, and energy left for our other pursuits such as the work we do to further the Community of God.
Simplicity is a way of living by heart. Heart is a word that relates to cordo and creed – pointing to what is at the core of a person.
To live simply, to live by heart, is as diverse as there are people. What is simple and a way of the heart to one might be quite hard and stressful to another. A simple life might mean leaning into the invitation of finding where your gifts and your passions and a need in the world find some common ground. Within that simple life, there may be many complex processes, techniques, approaches, and details – but to live by heart is to give as much of one’s energy, skill, and resources, to the creating of beauty and hope in the world in the best way you know how.
While carving out the time, and simplifying a life might be a little complex at times, any move toward focusing the intention and attention of the heart to what you feel called to do might be healing and life-giving.
Putting color on canvas, lifting notes off a page, firing up the skillet, fixing an engine, or wiping a nose—whatever it is—if it heals your heart, if it grows your soul, if it serves the world, in ways noticed and unnoticed, then lean away from the distracted life toward something you give your heart to. When you give your heart to something, or many things, if you lean more and more into your values and hopes for your own life and the life of the world, then perhaps no matter how complex and draining and hard it seems at times – the act of choosing it, whatever it is, again and again, may feel quite simple.
-Rev. Luke Stevens-Royer