The Complex World of Simple Living

Ironically, many of the things that people do for the sake of simplicity actually make life more complicated, at least in the short run.

There are blogs that rather glibly assert that the way to live simply is to move to the country, work from home, go car-free, grow all of your own food, and cook on a woodstove (never mind the irony of blogging about cooking on a woodstove).

If you don’t already have experience and knowledge about rural living, gardening, or stoking a fire, it’s going to take a lot of time, education, and physical work to do any of these things. It may well require a job/career change and will almost certainly require a major lifestyle change. Even if these turn out to the be right choice for everyone (something I doubt would be the case), there’s nothing simple about changing everything about the way you live.

Not only that, but if you decide to live your life in one of these “simple” ways, you’re going to be spending much of your time on the rudiments of living. If you’re someone who places high value on having intimate knowledge of the basics of living, like participating in food procurement from the soil to the table to the compost heap and back to the soil, then focusing your life around these activities might bring you fulfillment. However, if you’re a scientist who’s devoted her life to researching and finding a cure for cancer, spending hours and hours in the laboratory and reading scientific research and talking with colleagues all over the world about the latest discoveries, growing your own food or washing your dishes by hand or knitting your own socks might impinge upon the time you would otherwise spend doing what you truly value. In addition, if you spend a lot of time doing laboratory experiments at major medical facilities, working from home and/or living in a rural area might not work for you.

The key to voluntary simplicity isn’t living with less; it’s making space in your life for what matters most. If you dislike driving and you resent the expense of filling the gas tank and having the oil changed, perhaps you value something other than car ownership. Perhaps a car-light or car-free lifestyle is for you and it would be worthwhile to put forth the effort to research options that will bring you closer to that lifestyle (moving closer to work, working from home, biking or taking public transit, saving up tons of money so you can retire early and stop commuting, etc). But if you love working on your car, if seeing how everything works together gives you the sense

Dodge Charger photographed in Laval, Quebec, C...
Image via Wikipedia

of well-being that others get from meditation or long-distance running, then going car-free would not follow your values. Instead, you might get rid of pay television because you’d rather spend your evenings and weekends under the hood or at the car show than sitting in front of the television with your friends speculating about which talented amateur will make it to the next round of competition on American Idol, and you’d rather spend the money you’d otherwise spend on premium channels to buy the parts necessary to rebuild the transmission on your 1969 Dodge Charger.*

This is why I’m leery of sites, books, and magazines that make living simply sound like nothing more than making your life look like the one in the pictures. There is too much work and mess and soul-searching and rearranging involved in making the changes necessary to live life more in line with your core values to follow some arbitrary plan some random person came up with for their own voluntary simplicity challenge. What works in my life will only work in yours if we have the exact same values weighted the exact same way.

I plan to share my insights and thought processes and research on the off-chance this information might help you in your own life. But nothing I write should be misconstrued as a prescription for simple living.

Or for anything for that matter.

I have no answers. You will find no numbered lists or fourteen simple steps to a simple life here. Just one woman typing while she ponders what it is she really values in life and how to go about organizing her life around those values.

*I have only the most basic knowledge about car restoration and about popular television shows, so these statements might be totally inaccurate. Please take them for their meaning rather than the specifics.

4 Replies to “The Complex World of Simple Living”

  1. Simplicity has become complex. I find the ideas touted by those in that area intimidating. That’s my reaction, but I wonder how it is that you can make “Simplicity” intimidating?! I suppose it comes off as an ideal to strive toward. But, it’s often the voluntary part of it that is lost in forest of simple ideas.


  2. Oh, and yeah, I just NOW read the title of your post. Well, I guess at least we know we’re on the same page… Didn’t mean to reiterate what you just said!


  3. I love the irony of the “simplicity movement,” where it has become this huge capitalistic enterprise. Buy this, buy that, it will simplify your life!! Simplicity has become so complex….


    1. There’s a part in Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity (page 65 in the 1993 edition) where he and other people he interviewed in 1977 talk about how they don’t want voluntary simplicity to become a movement because they’re worried it “would be trivialized by the mass media and portrayed as only a fadish and superficial change in outward style of life.” [emphasis in the original]

      I’d be interested to talk to the folks he interviewed in 1977 and see what they think of what’s happened to simplicity in the intervening 34 years.


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