“I have hardly any desires, but if I were born again, I would have none at all.” St. Francis De Sales
“It’s the heart that gives; the fingers just let go.” – proverb from the Ibo people in southeastern Nigeria
One day I was digging through our designated ‘junk drawer’ looking for a particular pen—tossing around the dozens of other pens, pencils, tape, ribbons, erasers, and all the other objects that find their home there. My frustration was growing. I went out to the garage, thinking I might have left it somewhere out there. Careful not to trip over the boxes, ladders, and bicycles, I made my way to my work bench, the surface cluttered with tools, small paint canisters, radio, and other assorted and unrelated objects.
I never found my pen.
Days later I am browsing the local bookstore, and come across a title that grabs me— “The life-changing magic of tidying up” by Marie Kondo. I thumb through the book and read;
“From the moment you start tidying, you will be compelled to reset your life. As a result, your life will start to change. Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination. The true goal should be to establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order.”
Sold. I purchase the book tactfully presented it to my wife as a potential joint venture, that together we might experience the magic the book promises. To my relief, she was agreeable to the idea.
For several weeks, my wife and I went through every item we owned, forming large piles of stuff by basic groups in the middle of the room. We would pick up each item in its turn, and ask ourselves “can I live without this” and “does this add to or distract from my life?” With those two questions as our guide, we tossed or donated a third of our possessions. And we are not finished!
Living simply was at one time the way everyone lived. It was typical to have just what you needed, and little more. It is still the way of life for the majority of earth’s inhabitants. Not so in the West, and particularly in America. Today in America, those rare individuals who make the free choice to live simply are considered radical.
We have all read about those individuals who have “unplugged” from society, or have left the corporate world for a life of service in a not-for -profit. It was a response to a heart dis-ease.
I recently saw the movie “Captain Fantastic” about such a family who lived deep in the forest of Washington State, carving out a life that was completely self-sustained. Circumstances required they interact with modern cities, and the family was suddenly set in juxtaposition with society and its culture of 2016. They were treated as freaks, as fanatics, and code breakers. The underlying question the film posed was ‘which way of life was better?’ While the movie did not promote an easy answer, the questions raised were a direct repudiation and challenge to our consumerist mentality.
Bringing simplicity into my life began with seeing it as a value in the face of the counter-messaging of the consumerism of the western and first world nations. My heart began to seek simplicity. I began to have a “yearning for less”, though I was not sure what that meant. I am not sure I know fully even today. It was a desire that rose up in my heart and emerged out to my external life—in the way I interact and experience the world. This same yearning keeps me pursuing simplicity of life as a spiritual value.
The effort to keep my life simple is hard. This Western culture I live in is in opposition to it. I can purchase with one click anything I want, and have it delivered to my door in two days, then pay for it whenever I feel like it. And, when I do reduce my stuff, I found I had accumulated more. (I swear someone is sneaking up into my attic when we are out—just to add more to it.)
There is a phrase that has hovered over me the last decade that has helped me to understand the concept of simplicity. “Wear this world as a loose garment.” To move through life “lightly” is at the heart of the spiritual concept of “Simplicity”.
Simplicity of life does not require I walk this earth without anything in my life. It does not call me to live like a desert hermit, renouncing an appreciation of the gifts of creation, or the warmth of relationships.
However, simplicity does resist the impulse I have to wrap the things of the world tightly around myself, unwilling to let the world, just as it is, ebb and flow. It asks that I allow events, people, and things to come and go without my need to control or resist
When I wrap material possessions around myself, I become afraid I will lose something I have, or not get something I think I need. When I wrap my need for approval tightly around myself , then when I am either praised or criticized, I will internalize it, so I become inflated with pride, or hurt with dejection.
Instead, exercising the discipline of simplicity allows me to receive everything with equanimity and move on through my day. The result is I am available to live with compassion and service towards others. I am not “wrapped up” in my little world of self-concern.
When we think about the simple life, free of the worry of how to acquire and keep stuff, most of us think of St. Francis of Assisi. Francis is often depicted as a garden statue with a bird on his shoulder and wolves at his feet. But a closer look at his life shows he demonstrates for us how to be liberated from the shackles of the things we either have or desire to possess. His secret was realizing that as a son of God, he was a true inheritor of all that God had created. Francis did not need a home with a view…as a son of God, he already owned the view. In his words, “Poverty is to have nothing, to wish for nothing, yet to possess all things truly in the spirit of freedom.”
In the affluent West, we measure ourselves and our intrinsic value by what we own, where we live, what schools we attend, how large our TV’s, cars, homes, bank accounts are. The classic phrase that has exposed this addiction was in the Movie “Wall Street” where Michael Douglas gleefully proclaimed “Greed is Good”.
Greed is not good. Greed is a sign that I have become spiritually sick. In classic spirituality, this is called covetousness, and it is a soul sickness that can only be extricated through the spiritual disciplines of detachment and renunciation. As Jesus warned,
Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions…This is how it will be for anyone who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich toward God.” Lk.12:15,20.
And, as Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) taught, “The cause of all suffering is the desire to possess. To end your suffering, stop wanting.”
Before you leave this blog thinking I am anti-wealth, I am not. My benevolent, generous, and kind God is not anti-wealth. I believe it is His delight to bless and give us the desires of our heart, provided our hearts are poised to serve others. There are scores of examples in the biblical text of wealth, from the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, the Kings, even some of the prophets were considered to be upper-middle class. And then there is Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, and Lazarus, whom Jesus loved – all who were well off in their time.
God is not anti- wealth. He is, however, anti-selfishness and greed. It is not material possessions that bind me; it is my desire for them. ” For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” ( I Tim.6:10)
The spiritual life is a life of subtraction, not addition. What is added to my life is by God’s grace, by God’s direct kindness and generosity, and what good there is in my life is as a response to what I am willing to let go of.
What is it I need to “subtract” in my life today? What thing, what expectation, what activity, what deep, secret desire keeps me wrapped up, unable to move through life in freedom and in service to others? Answering these questions is the continuing work of simplicity as a spiritual discipline.
Desire to possess becomes like the attachments on a climbing wall, or the foot & hand holds on a rock face. They are the places where fear, worry, resentments, anger, or any other negative emotions can attach and cling to our soul. In contrast, a flat, smooth rock face lacks the required attachment points. As I let go of my attachments to material things, to status, to reputation, to expectations of others, and to prejudices, stereotypes, and judgementalism, my soul becomes that smooth flat rock, with nowhere for these emotions to latch onto my soul. I have become liberated. I am free.
Free to do what? Free to serve others. Free from self-preservation and self-concern to freedom for self-giving.
St. John of the Cross was a 15th-century Spanish mystic and considered one of the greatest poets in the Spanish language. He wrote this profound analogy of the power of our attachments to hold us back from our best life;
“The soul that is attached to anything however much good there may be in it, will not arrive at the liberty of divine union. For whether it be a strong wire rope or a slender and delicate thread that holds the bird, it matters not, if it really holds it fast; for, until the cord be broken the bird cannot fly.”
In order to free myself from attachments, I must first recognize to what I have become attached, and how it is holding me back. What wire, what rope, what slender thread is keeping me tied to this place, unable to take flight into the wonderful possibilities which is God’s will for me.
So, back to my junk drawer—over time, imperceptibly, my soul can become that junk drawer, so full of everything I pick up as I travel through my day, random stuff tucked away just in case I may need it, and when it comes time to draw on some truly needed resource, I cannot readily access it—there is all this other stuff covering it up.
If I need hope, I can’t find it. If I need trust, it’s buried under other stuff. If I need gratitude, it is tangled up in all the other things packed up along the way.
Sociologists have been saying for years now that western civilization has become an addictive society—defining addiction as the disease of “MORE”— more desires for goods and services, more desire for ease and comfort, more leisure, more food, more sex, more medication, and a desire for immediate access to everything.
An addictive life is a life of attachments. Attachments not only to material goods (things) but also to people, (our expectations/demands of them) and to life principles (ways of looking at life and the values we place on it.) In addiction recovery parlance, we would call these “Old Idea’s- concepts that I have picked up along the way, concepts that I have embraced as my own, yet they are concepts that are blocking me from a useful and happy life. Concepts like some people or groups will always be a certain way, because of one common trait or another (race, religion, gender, nationality income or educational level, etc.). I am to varying degrees restless, irritable, discontented, unfilled, and unhappy to the extent I hold on to these old ideas.
In 12 step recovery process, there is a time for the recovering addict to do make a list of those attachments to people, to things, or to irrational principles and ideas that have created the very uneasiness that the addictive behavior seeks to remedy.
As I have worked with individuals going through this recovery process, sometimes they stall out at this stage, either unwilling or unsure of what to let go of in their life that is fueling their particular addiction.
It is as this point I will often suggest they clean and organize a space in their home; a closet, the attic, the garage, or even something simple as their junk drawer. Inevitably something connects in their soul, and they see that this process of discarding and renouncing physical items is transferable to their emotional and spiritual life.
And it is often at this point he realizes what the founder of AA Bill Wilson said, “God is either everything, or he is nothing. What is our choice to be?”
What lies underneath my need for material things, for people to meet my expectations, and for my need to fabricate an illusionary order to everything (those sometimes hidden irrational principles I assent to), is my inability to surrender to the love of God. Like a small child tying his shoes, I cry out “I can do this all by myself.” The result is obvious in my life, but also in the world around me. Clashing, crashing, violence against one another is all around. This yearning for “More” to feed the emptiness of our lives leads only to suffering.
Here is what I know. The answer to my restlessness and to my insatiable desire for more of this and that is simple, but not easy. It is trust, reliance, on a loving God who is more than willing to provide everything I need and will ever need at each moment. Only then can my heart let go of my insatiable need for things, for approval, or to have answers for everything.
There is a certain irony in being freed from our various attachments. With the junk drawer of our soul cleaned out, and only a few necessary tools stored in it, we are freed to be servants. Servants of God, and servants of our neighbor.
Here is a “Simplicity Health check” I use:
- What have I thought about in the last 24 hrs.? Have I thought mostly about myself?
- If I were on a deserted Island, maybe never to be rescued, what must I have? What five things would I want with me?
- What do I spend money on?
- How have I spent my time this past week? Have I spent time serving others?
- What do I yearn for; more money, more things, more prestige and respect, or more love, more of God?
After my review, I will pray with King David, who could have anything he wanted;
“Who have I in heaven but you, and there is nothing on earth I desire besides you. My heart faints, and my flesh fails, but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever.”
May we all yearn for less, and in so doing experience true liberty and freedom.