The Illusive Desire for Simplicity — Does It Take a Disaster to Get It?

Like many people today, I am caught up in the sudden jolt of natural disasters sweeping the planet. My heart is emotionally tender seeing landscapes denuded of vegetation, homes, businesses, farmland, animals and wildlife; tens of thousands of people made homeless and jobless; family members dead or missing. I am saddened for the loss of those cultural ways of life that enriched the day — schools, museums, libraries, gathering places, parks, art, music, festivals and events. I am haunted by images of massive debris piles of personal possessions that are now trash — photo albums, clothing, electronics, cars, appliances, tools, precious heirlooms, crafts, instruments, money, birth certificates, and the like.

For many survivors of a natural catastrophe, life is involuntarily reduced to simplicity and survival — simple shelter, enough food and water to get by for a day or two, an invaluable piece of clothing, a surviving family member or friend.

It has given me pause to look at my life from the perspective of what really matters. The question I am left with is this — In what ways do my desires fulfill my needs and yet allow me to live simply?

I have lived for decades by this ethic: not all desires are desirable. But in reflection, I must ask myself if I have in fact lived lightly on this earth — do my wants and desires outstrip my elemental needs? How much could I stand losing before I felt stripped of the joy of life itself?

The catastrophe of a combined earthquake, tsunami and radioactive fallout in Japan is horrific, if only because we realize Nature is indifferent to class or ranking in society, or to geographic location. The world’s third richest economy, and one of the most technologically advanced nations — indeed, supplying the world with a vast, endless array of desirable electronics and goods — has been humbled.

If each one of us does not give pause for reflection, then we have missed an incredible opportunity to assess the unbounded desires of our lifestyle. Our expectation to sustain the pursuit of The Good Life needs to be put into perspective. Even if we desire to live more simply, we need to be aware that to actually live more simply may be an illusive desire.

When is Enough Enough?

Within a day of the aftermath of Japan’s horrific disaster, my wife and I had a fight. It was over the petty issue of picking up after oneself, and putting something away. In a fit of rage, I threw a vase of flowers across the room. This act surprised me immensely. When she stormed out the door, I was left standing alone amongst both the debris and those many objects and icons dotting the landscape of our one-room cabin-like house. I began tidying up, and that is when I realized the core reason for my anger — deep sadness and disgust.

My disgust was for all the more-than-necessary things we own, and the fact that our space cannot successfully contain it all. It was for unbridled desires, even if they seemed relatively harmless in the larger scheme of things. It was for closets full of clothes, sheds full of boxes, underused equipment and unused furniture. It was for hundreds of forgotten CDs replaced by an iPod. It was for a refrigerator with shelves of leftovers and opened containers, and a pantry full of outdated canned goods. It was for a vast library abandoned on dusty bookshelves. And trinkets and icons bought from artisans, received as gifts, or acquired from travels.

My sadness was realizing that I somehow had failed in practicing what I proudly preach — Simple in means, rich in ends.

There are a few questions to ask oneself in this reflective analysis of striving to live within simple means:

  • What owns who?
  • What really matters?
  • How blind are we to built-in obsolescence?
  • When is enough enough?

Do we really need a catastrophic event in our life to begin asking the question of what owns who? Are we aware that every object we own is like an infant in diapers that will never, ever grow up? — we are obligated to be its servant, to dust it, assign it a place, protect it from harm, determine its worth and value in our daily life. Ironically, no item, class ranking, or amount of money can ever guarantee our protection nor the protection of our possessions.

What really matters in our life? In the Japan disaster, a 79 year old man left the safety of high ground and his family to go back to his house only to retrieve a photo album of his grandchildren — he was swept away in the onrushing tsunami. What is more precious than the miracle of life, and knowing that?! No object should ever vie for our soul.

How blind are we to the cleverness of technology, or to our incessant desire to escape boredom and the familiar? Our dependency upon technology and devices is hidden by the scheme of predetermined or built-in obsolescence. Things cost more to repair than to replace. Things are always “new and improved.” The competitive or lower price of things is always tempting. Similarly, we keep imagining ourselves in new clothing styles, a new car, a new home, a new job, or with a new mate. Our desire to relieve ourself from boredom with something or someone is always kept in flux via the media and the corporate model of growth and consumption.

When is enough really enough? Is it possible at all to live simply, if that is our desire? Or am I the biggest, foolish hypocrite alive to believe I can be happy living more within my means — more simply with reined desires? I don’t know the answer, but I am determined to search my soul.

What Does Simplicity Mean to You?

Most people think that living a simple life means sacrificing wants and needs. Sacrifice is so loaded. Its one thing to do it willingly, quite another to be on the receiving in, as in a disaster. In response to a recent article I wrote about Japan’s catastrophe, a reader said that she knew first hand such loss. She lost everything, including the mountain village she lived in, to a wildfire. She was left with nothing to show for her life but an undaunted spirit to try again, and this time to live within simple means and overt generosity in service to restoring culture within her community.

The question remains: Do you live a simple life or not? The answer lies within self-reflection. Next, ask yourself: What does simplicity mean to me — do I associate it with sacrificing wants, needs and desires? When you’re done with that, ask yourself the kicker question: How can I live more simply each day, as a way of life, and still feel enriched?

The ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao-tzu, wrote:

There is no calamity greater than lavish desires.
There is no greater guilt than discontentment.

And there is no greater disaster than greed.

Hopefully, none of us need a personal disaster to point us in the direction of simplicity. You cannot buy simplicity as if it were a commodity. It comes out of an overarching sense of compassion for this planet and all its inhabitants. Unbridled growth and “obsession with possession” is not compassion in action, but simply lavish desires and unreined greed.

Simplicity is a way of life, a conscientious knowing that not all desires are desirable, and life on Earth could never support that world view. Simplicity is not about sacrifice, but a will to understand the larger picture of the Web of Life that supports nature and humans. It is a will to perceive equality, cooperation, sharing, generosity, kindness, respect and reverence for life as cornerstones upon which to build a personal lifestyle that is worthwhile, yet considerate of the impermanence of everything.

In some small way, I hope I have helped you look at your way of life during this present planetary crisis. Perhaps, like me, you resonate with the dilemma of the illusive desire for simplicity. And, perhaps like me, there’s a few things you know you can do to get started living more simply. Right now, I know I have a shed and a few closets to tackle.

For more information on how to live a reverential life, please visit our website: One Sanctuary

About C. Forrest McDowell, PhD

I am blessed to be a co-steward for over 30 years of the beautiful 22-acre Cortesia Sanctuary outside Eugene, Oregon, with my partner, Tricia Clark-McDowell. My lifelong interests in wellness care, psychology, nature, music composition & performance, writing, and meditation fuel my celebration for life. My form of service is founded upon the elemental practice of kindness and reverence for life. Of course, to understand the value of deep respect for life, we also have to accept irreverence as part of human nature and to know that it can be very disruptive and destructive to peace, safety, beauty, joy and love.
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