The Common Good
July-August 1996

Simpler Than Thou

by Brett Grainger | July-August 1996

Beyond the hype of voluntary simplicity.

The hot word on the street these days is that we have all been the unwitting victims of involuntary complexity. Sensing that no idea should circulate without a movement, and no movement without an industry, the market has stepped into the breech. Now, along with the Thomas Moore industry, the “I Believe in Angels” thing, and the “Everything-I-Know-I-Learned-in...” series, we have the Simplicity Industry. From workshops and study groups to newsletters, audiotapes, and a list of best-sellers, simplicity was never so complicated.

Like all movements, it has a mecca, Seattle, proud parent also to grunge (the Seattle sound) and Starbucks (the Seattle java). It also has its gurus. Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, authors of the best-selling Your Money or Your Life, are credited in large part with initiating the drive to simplify among disenchanted aging boomers. In three years, the book has hauled in more than $3.5 million and sold more than 350,000 copies. Both authors live in Seattle (surprise) on only $13,000 a year.

A major player in the cybersimplicity movement is the Simple Living Network, based in Trout Lake, Washington. It offers, among other on-line services, a complete mail-order catalog, presenting the shopper with such exotic treats as “Garden of Eatin’ Vegetarian Jerky” and “New Age Household Cleaner.” Visitors to their home page are confronted by a full-color ad for Ecco Bella Botanicals, in which Botticelli’s masterpiece The Birth of Venus is used to endorse a full line of body and facial care products. One can only assume that the nakedness of the famous goddess is being exalted as an ideal of voluntary simplicity, but I couldn’t help feeling that this emperor wasn’t exactly fully clothed, either.

At least part of the key to success seems to involve achieving financial independence. Dominguez, for example, worked on Wall Street amassing a small fortune and developing a savings plan that supports a reduced lifestyle. The hitch, of course, is that financial independence eludes the great majority of working- and middle-class families. Even so, it is true that much of the dependence experienced by rich and poor alike is cultivated by patterns of consumption that are unhealthy and unrealistic, and that are causing irreparable damage to our souls and to the earth.

PERHAPS IT WOULD be more helpful to speak about what voluntary simplicity is not. First off, simplicity is not merely thrift. Picking up $10 runners from Wal-Mart might be cheaper than buying Nikes, but they just as likely came from the same Third World sweatshop. Also, shopping at smaller, neighborhood grocery stores might cost more than supermarket chains, but with the former your money is more likely invested in local economies than in global ones. True simplicity engages moral thinking rather than avoiding it; thrifty shopping is not always ethical shopping.

Nor is simplicity merely a matter of consuming less. If this were the case, then Theodore Kaczynski would be the poster-boy of the simplicity movement, and we’d all be living in rural Montana. There is no doubt a strong intersection between renunciation and simplicity, but this should arise from an internal disposition that is manifested in a detachment from material possessions. External simplicity, according to a Christian definition, should not properly be considered an end in itself, but rather as a way of mirroring an internal reality that some have called “simplicity of heart.” We cultivate an inward detachment from the things of the world in an effort to obey the words of the first commandment— to love God. When this is achieved, the rest should follow.

Richard J. Foster very helpfully summarized “controlling principles” in an attempt to offer a 20th-century definition of external simplicity. They include: Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status; reject anything producing an addiction in you; develop a habit of giving things away; learn to enjoy things without owning them; develop a deeper appreciation for the creation; look with healthy skepticism at all “buy now, pay later” schemes; reject anything that breeds the oppression of others; obey Jesus’ injunction about plain, honest speech.

The last one at first glance seems odd in the mix, but it may actually illuminate a missing element in the current simplicity movement. Lying may well be one of the greatest complicators of our daily lives, but it is almost always overlooked as a potential source of stress. It makes good sense that we make the lives of ourselves and of those around us infinitely easier when we avoid the daily temptation to distort the truth.

Jesus, besides leading a mendicant lifestyle himself, spoke frequently of simplicity, perhaps most famously when he commended the lilies of the field. Sadly, the great majority of North American Christians have left it to non-Christians to live out this dimension of the call to “glorify God in our bodies.” But as we applaud those taking the difficult steps to renounce a lifestyle of high consumption, we should not neglect our duty to challenge the movement to look into deeper spiritual wells. This may be its surest hope of prevailing against the forces of fashion.

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