with Rev. Clay Nelson
Read below or download the PDF.
Opening Words are excerpts from The Evolution of Simplicity” by David Brooks in the New York Times 3/11/15.
Clay Nelson © 2nd December 2018
Sometimes when I publish the title of a future sermon, I wish I’d spend more time thinking it through first and not when I’m trying to write it. This is definitely one of those occasions. The more I thought about simplicity, the more I realised living simply isn’t simple. It may not be possible or always that desirable.
I went blindly down this path because of my attachment to the song we just sang, Tis a gift to be simple. It was one of my mother’s favourites and I chose it for her funeral service. She thought of herself as simple, but that should have been a red flag. In truth, she was a very complex person. Like her, simplicity may be a gift but if viewed at face value we will not fully appreciate it until we unwrap it.
Henry David Thoreau was also a complex person with a complex life, but he is best known for his book Walden, a paean to simplicity. In it he describes the two years he spent living in a rustic cabin on Walden Pond. Kathryn Shultz was not impressed in her critique of Thoreau in a New Yorker article she entitled Pond Scum. She considered him “narcissistic,” “pinched and selfish,” “as parochial as he was egotistical,” and an execrable writer whose best-remembered work is “unnavigable” and “fundamentally adolescent.” Such talk about one of our heroes. She is obviously not a Unitarian.
Shultz goes on to say,
“Thoreau did not live as he described, and no ethical principle is emptier than one that does not apply to its author. The hypocrisy is not that Thoreau aspired to solitude and self-sufficiency but kept going home for cookies and company. That’s just the gap between aspiration and execution, plus the variability in our needs and moods from one moment to the next—eminently human experiences, which, had Thoreau engaged with them, would have made for a far more interesting and useful book. The hypocrisy is that Thoreau lived a complicated life but pretended to live a simple one. Worse, he preached at others to live as he did not, while berating them for their own compromises and complexities.”
“But really, did Thoreau claim to live a simple life? He aspired to simplify, to make good choices, but he never claimed that he led a simple life overall. His point that he had “other lives to live” after his Walden “experiment” aims in that direction. Thoreau was endlessly complex, and he knew it. He had a global awareness before it was fashionable to admit such. But he also knew that complexity must be balanced by the drive to simplify, to get at what’s meaningful in a world where we can be buried in drifts of information and yearning.”
I think his experiment revealed that there is something within us that resists simplicity. ‘Tis a gift we are tempted to re-gift. Maybe someone else can use it. Unitarian minister and blogger Gretchen Haley suggests that simplicity isn’t the problem but our resistance to it. Her mentors taught her not to resist the resistance. To do so only make us dig in our heels. Every minister eventually figures this out. To resist those in their congregation resisting a new vision or direction is counter-productive. Resistance is a time to listen and to try to understand.
“Don’t resist the resistance” can also be applied to individuals, particularly in spiritual practices. In meditation, for example – you might find yourself resisting the practice, the quiet, the breath work – whatever. Rather than resisting this resistance, the helpful practice is to explore the resistance itself. To remain curious about inner tensions or judgments. Then the resistance simply becomes a part of the experience, allowing you to more fully participate in the moment itself.
I think Thoreau’s Walden Pond experiment was consciously or unconsciously his way of exploring his resistance to simplicity.
In her book, Your Money or Your Life, Vicki Rubin tells the story of two novice Zen monks arguing about whose master was more evolved. One claimed that his teacher was so powerful that he could stand on one bank of a river and write his name in the sand on the other shore. “That’s nothing,” the second one said, “When my master is hungry he eats. And when he is tired, he sleeps.” And with that, the second one won the debate.
We laugh, but really – how many of us sleep whenever we are tired? Or eat when, and only when, we are truly hungry?
Something in us resists this simple logic – we read books about health and happiness, research and attempt many different formulas, but really, there is this simple formula that would probably go a long way – sleep when you’re tired, eat when you’re hungry.
But we resist, and go looking for a more complicated answer.
I am grateful to the Revd Haley for opening my eyes to another aspect of simplicity. It is not to everyone’s benefit. She refers to Liberation ethicist Miguel de la Torre who offers one possible explanation for our resistance. In his book, Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins, de la Torre questions the value that traditional religion has placed on simplicity, arguing that values of selflessness and humility were established by those with privilege.
As he says, “Those who formulated these [dominant] ethical precepts may have wrestled with the prideful sin of self-centeredness, [but] the marginalized have instead suffered from a lack of self-identity.” The traditional religious values of simplicity or selflessness have been used as tools of oppression for women, the poor, and people of colour.
Rather than lifting up continued simplicity or “bending and bowing,” de la Torre says a more liberating message would be to encourage a stronger self-hood, dignity, and self-worth.
And so perhaps our resistance comes from an acknowledgement that simplicity is not always a good thing. Definitely not a good thing for everyone, particularly not for those who have not chosen it, but rather have had it thrust upon them by way of poverty or racism, or other marginalizing forces. There is a big difference between “voluntary simplicity” and “involuntary poverty.”
Haley bolsters her argument by referring to an article by John Yemma in the Christian Science Monitor “People in subsistence cultures rarely see simplicity as desirable. They hunger for more food; cleaner water; better schools; greater access to electricity, health care, transportation. Won’t affluence and choice just make their lives more complicated? Yes, please….”
He goes on to remind us that Thoreau, a model of simplicity, relied on an underlying complexity – “he could always stroll into town for a warm meal from Mom and a chat with his pals.”
Whereas we often lift up the saying, “live simply so others may simply live,” Yemma points out that individual simplicity sometimes depends upon a whole network of other people’s willingness to provide a great deal of responsibility and complexity so we can.
Now, I’d call all of this stuff I’ve been talking about so far – mostly intellectual resistance. But there’s something less analytical, more intuitive, that is an even bigger source of my resistance to simplicity. It’s the resistance that shows up when I try to put into practice – in real life – some new habits of simplicity.
It’s the resistance that acknowledges this isn’t easy. For one thing, complexity, busy-ness, acquisition of stuff and ideas – these things come by way of effort. And we like “efforting”. It is self-rewarding.
We work hard, we feel good. We work hard, we feel our worth. But simplifying requires we live into that principle we say we affirm – our inherent worth – that has nothing to do with how much stuff we have, how much work or to-dos we get done, how much we know, how much we help or care for others, or even how many hours of volunteering we put in.
Simplicity requires a deep trust of our inherent worth, worth that is there regardless of any of these things.
And secondly, there is a certain habit to having and doing a lot. It is hard to change habit. Changing these sorts of habits can mean upending years of ways of being, changing the energy in you, and in the way you interact with your friends, family, co-workers……
Simplifying requires new habits, difficult habits – like…saying no. And meaning it. Saying no – even to things that might be fun – to do or to have – even to people who you might love and cherish.
It means acknowledging your limits, and knowing that the only way to say YES to your most important YES of life is to say NO to nearly everything else.
Paulo Coelho, a Brazillian author that is ranked second of two hundred most influential contemporary authors, made this point brilliantly in his most popular novel, The Alchemist.
He tells of a young lad sent by his father to a wise man to discover the secret of happiness. The wise man lived in a magnificent, faraway castle complete with sweet music, beautiful artwork, delicious food, and sprawling gardens. It was a wonder of the world.
After a long journey to the castle and waiting for hours to speak to the sage, the boy finally gained an audience. The wise man listened to the boy’s explanation for his visit, then answered, “I do not have time to reveal the secret of happiness to you.” Instead, he handed the boy a teaspoon with two tiny drops of oil in it, and instructed him to wander around the castle for two hours without spilling the oil.
The lad did as instructed, carefully climbing the high stairwells and creeping down the long hallways of the palace, his eyes always fixed on the teaspoon. When he returned to the wise man, he was asked, “Did you see my Persian tapestries, my extravagant gardens, my parchments in the library?” Embarrassed, the boy replied that he had not. He had been focused solely on the drops of oil in the spoon.
With this confession the boy was sent back to tour the castle, and this time he focused all his attention on the beauty that surrounded him. He returned to the wise man with excitement, thrilled at all he had seen. The wise man then asked, “And where are the two drops of oil I gave you?”
The boy realized that he had spilt them along the way. The wise man then revealed his “secret” to happiness: “Happiness lies in looking at all the wonders of the world and never forgetting the two drops of oil in the spoon.”
This parabolic story calls for a much needed balance: Joy is the product of being in tune with the world around us, while caring for the few precious things we have been given to carry on our journey. We cannot ignore the realities of our surroundings, and we cannot ignore our personal responsibilities.
But the real brains of Coelho’s story is that the wise man gave the boy only two drops to carry in his spoon; not a quart of oil, not a five-litre bucket full, and certainly not a heavy, back-breaking tank of the stuff. It was only a couple of drops, revealing that happiness is maintained by keeping our personal load as light as possible.
Do you want to be happy? Lighten your load and simplify your life. The most deeply spiritual thing that some of us could do is have a garage sale. Purge our calendars. Resign from a few of our many activities. Our unhappiness isn’t related to a poor prayer life, the lack of reading the holy writ, or going to church too little.
We are carrying too much baggage. We are trying to manage too much stuff. We have too many possessions, too many obligations, and too many batons juggling in the air. This is an unqualified recipe for misery. Because all of these weights and concerns of life — most of which we have assumed (they haven’t been put upon us by anyone else) — are choking out any real chance at being happy, as we simply cannot carry our self-loaded burdens or lift our heads to see the beauty around us.
None of us can live our lives, worship the divine, enjoy our world, or take care of those who have been given to us to love (these are the few, priceless drops in the spoon by the way), if we are constantly looking at our own shoelaces, burdened with ourselves and our many concerns.
Thus, when we simplify, we are doing much more than getting rid of physical possessions or conserving our precious time. We are sharpening our emotional focus; we are making spiritual space. We are choosing to be happy. Happiness, after all, is an intentional choice, and it is the wisest choice of all.