Simple is not often the most flattering word.
A simple math problem is easy, solved quickly, and forgotten—practically useless for learning anything or challenging the mind.
To say that someone is “simple” (or a simpleton) is to imply that their mental acuity is nothing to get excited about.
When someone asks for help, and another person replies, “But that’s so simple!”, it does nothing but discourage and intimidate the one in need.
Despite all these unfavorable connotations, how often do we long for a simpler life? Nostalgia takes us back—to centuries long ago or just a few decades earlier in our own lives—when life was simpler. We think of being a child, when life was relatively free of complexities—and the complexities it did hold were not so great in comparison to those of adulthood.
We consider our earlier days, when decisions were not so grave, when dilemmas were not so daunting, when lightheartedness and levity were more common companions.
But we cannot go back to those days. My wife and enjoy sitting in our living room, I reading a literary classic aloud while she works at some craft or domestic chore. But that’s about as close as we can get to reenacting the simple life that we all imagine from two centuries ago.
And yet we find this yearning for a simple life. What is it that we are we looking for?
It’s not to say we want an easy life. Some might term the life of agriculture to be a simple life, though most would admit that a farmer labors greatly from sunup to sunset.
It’s not to say we want an impoverished life. Although possessions might weigh us down, we would generally prefer to have resources available to us in order to meet the challenges of life.
It’s not to say we want a boring life. A child engages in new adventures every day, all while enjoying the banner of simplicity.
It’s not that we want to trade away our intellect. We may say that ignorance is bliss, but no one really wants to live life in naïve disregard for reality.
So what is it that we want?
I think that we are looking for freedom.
When we examine our lives and take stock of the number of masters that exert control over us—possessions, employers, schedules, decisions, routines, expectations—we feel the complexity and slavery of trying to appease them all. And it is wearisome. It is trying on one’s soul to be continually shifting gears to be what each master expects—achieving, producing, and responding according to their (often competing) demands.
It is not simply the matter of having too many things to do. Monks stay busy—from sunup to sundown, and often longer. Yet we would readily acknowledge them to live simple lives. Why is that? Because they are not tormented by so many masters. They set about to do one thing: to live a life of prayer. Although it has many outworkings—including working in a garden or a kitchen or sweeping floors—it is not an environment of competing attentions, expectations, and energies. There is one aim, one master.
Of course, we can look at a monastery and quickly say, “But that’s not real life!” The monks are so removed from the rest of the world that their experience cannot possibly be instructive for us who are living with both feet on the ground.
No? Why can’t we achieve this freedom? Why can’t we enjoy the simplicity of single-mindedness? To have one overlord, one guiding force in life, rather than the myriad masters that have become so commonplace?
I’m moving into a season of life where this notion of simplicity seems attainable. Granted, my life situation is yet very different from the experience of many (no, I’m not a monk), but I am beginning to taste this notion of simplicity, this freedom in life.
That’s not to say that days aren’t hard. There are struggles, burdens, really unfortunate circumstances, work to be done, and errands to be checked off.
And yet, in the midst of those varying experiences, there is freedom, simplicity. There is the opportunity to engage each one appropriately, to invest the energy to respond well—because there aren’t a hundred other masters clamoring for my attention and obedience.
Children live a simple life—likely because they only tend to pay attention to one master: themselves. But as they grow to obey their parents, life becomes complicated if they try to hold on to that first master in the same way, because competition will ensue; complexity arises when the master of Mom and the master of Me do not agree. But if a child can rightly let go of their self-centeredness, life’s simplicity can remain.
Adults usually have the challenge of undoing an entire life of appending one master after another onto to the list of who must be obeyed. The family, the church, the checkbook, the self—at some point, they clash, wrestling within us for our obedience. In that moment, simplicity is done…and we wish for our simple childhood once again.