Why simplify?

My thinking about reducing excess and living purposefully in each moment stems from a line of thinkers I trace back through figures like Aldo Leopold, Diogenes the Cynic, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Michel Foucault, and John Cassian. a bunch of dead white dudes who used the simplicity game to help them think more clearly and live better lives.

But renunciation has gotten a bad rap, and I believe this is because we live in an era of extreme contrast: excess and poverty, ability and oppression, all unlike anything in our species’ evolutionary history. I get the feeling that my culture’s terror at the thought of downsizing results from looking over the edge of the tower and seeing how far we could fall. Hardly anyone used to piping clean water directly into their home will love the idea of drinking contaminated water they walked miles to procure, and most of them will cling desperately to whatever currently prevents their fall. It makes no difference that this is not what simplifying means; fear at the idea of loss in my culture stems from our inability to differentiate appropriate technology from ruin.

It’s my thinking that, far from being on the road to ruin, simplification affirms the best things about life. That’s why paying attention to how I live and trying to live better brings me so much joy.

Obviously, removing excess from my life means giving things up. But thinking about it this way gets things confused. That’s why I talk about living simply, living well, or living intentionally; these are affirmative acts, not negating ones. And every time we do something, we don’t do all sorts of other things, since we can only do one or two things at a time.

Think about it this way: When you take out the trash, are you “giving up” your trash? Or are you getting rid of it? Simplicity is like taking out the trash: consciously deciding what parts of life are worth your time and energy is freeing, not restrictive.   

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