Just as true health and well-being is more than just the absence of disease, and just as true happiness is more than just the absence of afflictive psychological and emotional states, so true simplicity, in our lives and in our approach to living, is probably more than just the opposite of complexity.
As the old Shaker song says, “Tis the gift to be simple,” and we’ve certainly all met people who had the innate gift of simplicity – of appearing to be nothing other than exactly what they were, without unnecessary façade or pretense. People like this always seem, to me, to radiate a unique kind of inner, effortless beauty. And yet, for many of us – and I’m definitely thinking of myself here – simplicity, paradoxically, takes work.
As an example, think about learning to say “no” – to avoid overextending ourselves, overcommitting ourselves, and spreading ourselves so ridiculously thin across the surface of our lives that we have no time, substance, or energy left for depth of reflection, for introspection, or for any kind of true leisure (as opposed to that frantic kind of modern relaxation that Neil Postman referred to in the title of his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death”).
Balancing activity with repose seems like basic good sense – like it ought to be a fundamental biological and spiritual imperative, one through which we juxtapose our often-endless capacity for striving with a restorative capacity for stillness and for silence, or just for low-key time enjoying ourselves, whether alone or in the company of people we care about. But the hunger and the drive to do more, accomplish more, or to be all things to all people – in a way that can drain us and leave us empty and spent – can be awfully strong.
Even if we posit that simplicity is part of our original nature as human beings (and that, too, is a claim that could be argued with), reclaiming that simplicity might still take regular and prolonged practice. Who we really are, when all of the masks that we present to the world and to one another are stripped away, is both as close as our next breath and as far away as the Antipodes, both omnipresent and, oftentimes, practically unattainable.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how to simplify life without losing any sense of joie de vivre, to practice essentials in a way that reduces distraction and opens up the whole of experience to that kind of radiant lightness that characterizes those for whom simplicity and straightforwardness is second nature (or, perhaps, just primary nature).
I know it’s difficult for me, in part, because there seems to be so much that I don’t want to part with – so many doors as-yet unopened, so many paths as-yet untraveled, so many ideas to be considered and experiences to be savored, so many distant and not-so-distant lands to be explored, so many stories to be told and songs to be sung, so many possibilities filling the horizon and beckoning me ever outward, in so many different directions at once.
Does living life fully have to involve this kind of expansiveness of experience, or is the never-ending search outside oneself for satisfaction and joy – always and forever looking towards the horizon – only a trap that lures us away from the answers that were right here all along, waiting patiently to be realized?
Tis the gift to be simple, to be sure, but simple isn’t necessarily easy.