“In truth to will one thing, then, can only mean to will the Good, because every other object is not a unity; and the will that only wills that object, therefore, must become double-minded.” – Kierkegaard
James had some pretty strong words for the double-minded. Our problem today, as all generations probably, is that we want God plus (insert the thing that “if I just had it I’d be happy”). So we order our lives around striving for that “one last thing.” Of course this is a lie – there is always one more thing. When John D. Rockefeller was asked how much money he needed to be satisfied his reply was right on the mark: “Just a little bit more.” Moreover, the idea that we can actually achieve this elusive end makes us into slaves. We should be the most leisurely society in history with our technological achievements, yet we work 50-60 hour weeks. How is it that Grandma had no modern conveniences yet always had time for her kids?
Peter Kreeft has a book titled Making Choices. It is a basic intro to ethical decision making. His chapter on simplicity is worth the price of the whole book. In it he argues that we cannot have a simple heart with a complex life. And while we cannot attain perfect simplicity externally – in our physical lives – we can get closer. He says that a simple life helps one achieve simplicity of heart the same way that kneeling may help the soul achieve humility, or the lifting of hands help connect a worshiper to the Spirit. To attain simplicity of heart we need simplicity of lifestyle.There are benefits to a life of simplicity. It leads to virtue instead of the compromise that comes from complexity, for we can make easier choices when our ultimate goal is clear. It gives us freedom from entanglement that comes from attachments. Simplicity brings us more power because our energy is concentrated rather than diffused by complexity. Simplicity increases satisfaction, for we can appreciate our things without worry over, or expended energy on, their upkeep. My father-in-law once said that possessions were a burden. As new homeowner I can tell you this is true! Sometimes I wonder if I own a home or if my home owns me. Simplicity also builds character. We require time, silence, contemplation, and solitude to bring us depth rather than the superficiality that comes from the soul being spread too thin. Finally, simplicity increases faith:
A simple heart has simple faith: it takes God at His word.
A simple heart has simple hope: it believes God’s promises.
A simple heart has simple love: it obeys God’s commands.
To this end I will summarize some thoughts on acting according to a philosophy of simplicity (some are mine, some are Kreeft’s, some are Kierkegaard’s – I’ll let you figure out which is which). I will list some of the practical choices we face every day and how the philosophy of simplicity can help us make them.
“Every choice is a sacrifice.”
This was, for me, the most profound idea in Kreeft’s book. We tend to think of choices as additive, but they are vastly more subtractive – for whatever we choose to do negates all other choices. To do a thing is to not do a million other things. Everything we do will somehow subtract from our lives and our failure to think through those subtractions can cause a lot of stress as we wonder what became of our time. For example, my wife once complained to me that she would have liked to have more time for projects one day but that she had spent the whole day doing her laundry. What choice did she have? “Own less clothing,” I responded. By choosing to own more clothes she not only dedicated money, but time for cleaning them as well as space for storing them which made organization more tiresome. This, and more, was the result of that choice. I do not mean to imply that it was a bad choice – she is famous for her taste in clothes although she spends very little money on them. Rather it is to point out that her choice to add clothing has subtracted more from her life than she might have realized.
The philosophy of simplicity can help us make better choices – choices that increase our time and reward our efforts rather than sap our energy and lessen our effectiveness. Below are just a few examples.
Recharging vs. Charging Ahead
Our responsibilities must not become idols. The world did just fine without us for 10,000 years and it can do without us for a few minutes a day, hours a week, or days a month. We need recharging. To push on without energy is to lessen our quality. Studies have shown that people who work more than 8 hours per day actually achieve less due to lost quality. God can give us time if we are willing to first sacrifice our hold on it. Sometimes we just need to STOP. Many people report that when they are too busy for God they become even busier – God forgive us when we sacrifice time with our ultimate eternal goal to pursue the temporary.
“For pausing is not a sluggish repose. Pausing is also movement. It is the inward movement of the heart. To pause is to deepen oneself in inwardness. But merely going further is to go straight in the direction of superficiality. By that way one does not come to will only one thing. Only if at some time he decisively stopped going further and then again came to a pause, as he went further, only then could he will only one thing.”
Focusing vs. Multitasking
To be excellent requires that you do not spread out your time and talent too far. After some point the more we try to do the less we can get done well. This too is a sacrifice. Mountain climbers often list the single-mindedness of climbing as their reason for doing so – it is pure, unspoiled by competing goals. It allows concentration of energy and resources. In simplicity there is greater power, thus the simple life can achieve greater goals.
Silence of Solitude vs. Noise and Crowds
Without silence simplicity is impossible, and the world is very noisy. Silence is awkward because it is then that we reflect. Solitude focuses on the soul, which produces depth and character if that is allowable. But many are not comfortable alone with their thoughts, for it is here there that we cannot escape them. The deep thinker is happy swallowed up in thought – the shallow person cannot stand to be reminded that they have nothing worthy of it. This is why has TV has replaced books and conversation, and why sound bites have replaced considered argument. While the goal of the world is to always be skimming the surface of a thousand things, simplicity requires time to sink into the depths.
“For at dancing and festive occasions worldly judgment holds that the more musicians, the better. But when we are thinking of divine things, the deeper the stillness the better. When the wanderer comes away from the much-traveled noisy highway into places of quiet, then it seems to him (for stillness is impressive) as if he must examine himself, as if he must speak out what lies hidden in the depths of his soul.” – Kierkegaard
Moderation vs. Extravagance
There are two ways to balance a budget: spend less or make more. Why do we always seem to go after the second? Jesus spoke more about money than heaven and hell. The most parables He gave were about the love of money which is also the root of much evil. It is obvious that Jesus was right. It has been shown that the rich are not more happy than the poor, and more marriages break up over money than sexual sin. People pursue money for either possessions or security, but possessions create burdens of their own. What we own must be secured – which inflicts upon us fear of loss, more complication, more time, more money, etc. The security we seek does not come from money or possessions, in fact these things may rob us of what security we do have because the more we have the more we have to lose. It is not pious to be either poor or wealthy – but in either case we can be unattached and therefore untrapped – trusters, not worriers. Jesus says not to worry about our possessions (Mt. 6:24-34). Do we risk more by trusting the designer of the universe or by trusting our wealth and hoping that He is wrong?
Quality vs. Quantity
Don’t buy expensive, don’t buy cheap. By expensive I mean that in relation to what a thing can be purchased for do not opt for the most expensive, by cheap I mean just the opposite. In college I thought I’d save money by riding a bike to school. I bought a cheapo and ended up spending more time, money, and energy on its upkeep than a good bike would have cost. Most products have a fairly gentle price-to-quality ratio up to a certain point when the price suddenly skyrockets – try to stay just below or just above that point.
Less quantity is usually more quality – when has mass production ever equaled better product? Owning less has many benefits as well. We take better care of what we have when we have less of it. When we own less things we can afford better quality and more useful things. When we own less we appreciate it more (consider the joy of a child playing with one out of a hundred toys vs. the one playing with the only toy he has). Having less also reduces inefficiency and wasted time in upkeep and loss. The more we own the more upkeep is required and the less time we have to enjoy what we have. We are also more responsible with what we own when it is not just a confused jumble of items.
Clutter causes stress because chaos confuses the mind. Be organized with what you own – you should have more space than you need for storage. Having more space means less complexity (so long as you don’t fill it up!). Get rid of everything that is not either: necessary, specifically useful, or at least pleasurable. In this last category strive for an excellent selection, not a large collection.
In the end a philosophy of simplicity will really work itself out naturally. Remember that every choice is a sacrifice. As we get better at recognizing the sacrifices being made we will be better at making the better choice.
“Father in Heaven! What is a man without You! What is all that he knows, vast accumulation though it be, but a chipped fragment if he does not know You! What is all his striving, could it even encompass the world, but a half-finished work if he does not know You: You the One, who is one thing and who is all! May You give to the intellect, wisdom to comprehend that one thing; to the heart, sincerity to receive this understanding; to the will, purity that wills only one thing. In prosperity may You grant perseverance to will one thing; amid distractions, collectedness to will one thing; in suffering, patience to will one thing. Oh, You Who give both the beginning and the completion, may You early, at the dawn of day, give to the young man the resolution to will one thing. As the day wanes, may You give to the old man a renewed remembrance of his first resolution, that the first may be like the last, the last like the first, in possession of a life that has willed only one thing. And although the separation of sin lies in between. Each day, and day after day . . .in this time of repentance may You give us the courage once again to will one thing. . . . bind up anew that which sin has separated, that in our grief we might atone for lost time, that in our anxiety we might bring to completion that which lies before us. . . . Give us victory in the day of need so that what neither our burning wish nor our determined resolution may attain to, may it be granted unto us in the sorrowing of repentance: to will only one thing.” – Kierkegaard