Someone recently told me that they didn’t see me as a “simplicity person” and I said that’s because the cult-like fervor toward simplicity confused me. Inside simplicity is complexity, and inside complexity is simplicity. It was a pretty interesting topic, so I thought I would share.
People think of the simple life as “going back to the land”. Buying a little farm, homesteading, raising up your own chickens, maybe a cow for milk, homeschooling your kids and “getting out of the rat race.”
Ask nearly anybody to explain the simple life, and they’ll tell you that’s it. “It’s because you’re getting away from all the societal influences that tell you you need things you don’t,” they’ll say.
Well, fair enough. You do realize how little most of the things that hold our attention matter, from Twitter scandals to motivational TED talks.
Speaking from Experience… Simplicity is a Misnomer
But getting back to the farming thing. Simplicity? Simplicity? Are you kidding me? You have no idea how living in an urban area where people specialize in various trades simplifies your life. Let’s look at food, just as an example.
In a city, you want something to eat? You go out to buy it. Whether it’s at the restaurant or the grocery store, you can get damn near anything you want at the drop of a hat. But if you live 90 minutes from the nearest grocery store (to say nothing of restaurants) you have to plan what you will eat for several weeks in advance. And you’re going to have to make sure your food will keep long enough for you to eat it (no bagged salads for you!)
If you have animals, like chickens and goats, you have to make sure that you have food for them. You will have to have the cash flow to pay for their food, until you can eat them. Raising your own food is frugal, to be sure, but it requires a substantial time and capital investment.
Did I Mention How Much Stuff This Requires?
The more you try to rely on your own skills, the more stuff you will have to acquire.
Most of this stuff is tools: you’ll need power tools and mechanic’s tools, gardening tools and canning tools and kitchen tools and tools for tending to animals, to bees, to fencing, or what ever else crops up. Simplicity? Well, just borrow from your neighbors. Well, sure, you can do that. If they have one, and they’re not using it. And you know there’s a social cost to that as well. You can’t always be a user, you have to pay it back. Maybe they’ll borrow something from you, or you’ll need to share some goodies with them. And don’t forget to budget at least an hour (and the gas) to go and pick up the tool, make small talk for a while, and then return it promptly. When you’re being self-reliant, time is especially precious.
Now, to be clear, I’m not against this semi-mythical “Simple Life”. If you want to “simplify,” however you define it, that’s great. I just want to point out that the way simplification is treated is, well, a simplification.
The way “simplification” is treated is, well, a simplification.
What people think of as the simple life, the good old days, is absurdly complex. Relationships, the protocol between neighbors, isn’t just a chore you can shrug away. That’s your safety net; everything that you aren’t able to do for yourself, those are the people who will make up the shortfall for you. And you for them. Because you can’t be fully self reliant, nobody can. There’s no simplicity to be had in that direction, unless it’s the simplicity of asceticism.
And specialism? An ultra-connected urban life, with all your needs met within two blocks of your apartment? Is that a sort of simplicity? Maybe, maybe not. For one thing, to specialize is to make you interchangeable, a simple mechanical component. Nobody likes to be interchangeable, and definitely no one is comfortable knowing their company thinks of them as interchangeable. Once you become a commodity, the price for you goes down, because commodities are a volume proposition.
And yet, there is a certain simplicity to it. You have one job, and you do it, when you’re told and how you’re told. Your paycheck appears in your bank account with reassuring regularity. You have no kitchen to speak of in your tiny little apartment, and it’s just as cheap to take advantage of the myriad of cuisines afforded to you in this vast anthill of humanity. You don’t own a car, and you don’t need to. You get all your laundry dry cleaned, because the alternative is a laundromat, and at least the dry-cleaner picks up and delivers. But you don’t know your neighbors and it’s hard to find the time to get together with friends. Which is odd, because, what do you have to do, really? You’ve outsourced everything.
Here’s The Part That Really Sucks
But, I suppose that the people who have the most to complain about live in the middle of those two poles. They live in a pseudo-small town (a subdivision or bedroom community) and commute several hours to ensure their kids grow up in a neighborhood with grass. (Rarely have I noticed kids actually playing in the grass. An Xbox is much more entertaining, and you don’t have to worry about them being kidnapped, right?)
They purchase both the cosmopolitanism of urban life (field trips and enrichment classes, food from Trader Joe’s) and the relationships of rural life (Scouts, sports, bake sales and community fundraising.) It’s the absolute worst of both worlds. No simplicity, all complexity. They try to do everything, and what they can’t do themselves, they purchase. Sound familiar?
And yet, the answer is between the poles as well: Not fully specialized, nor fully independent. Help and rely on others, but not at the expense of your own self-sufficiency.
Remove what does not add value, then replace it with more of what does enrich your life.
But even that simplicity, of weeding out what’s unnecessary, still involves a complexity of thought, and unraveling of societal customs and constraints. And, I have found, that the simpler your life gets, the more rich and complex your inner world becomes. Almost like not having to pay attention to all that meaningless stuff lets you pay better attention to your own thoughts and experiences.
Like yin and yang; inside one is the seed of it’s opposite.
How does complexity transition to simplicity in your life?