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The Simple Life: Remembering what matters
On the sacredness of simplicity, why we forget what we value (or ought to value), and how to remind ourselves what matters.
“O sacred solitary empty morning, tranquil meditation – fruit of book-case and clock-tick, of note-book and arm-chair; golden and rewarding silence, influence of sun-dappled plane-trees, far-off noises of birds and horses, possession beyond price of a few cubic feet of air and an hour of leisure!”
Cyril Connolly’s ode to the luxuries of a simple life comes in the midst of a year spent in solitude as depicted in The Unquiet Grave. The book (written under the pseudonym of Palinurus) depicts a writer sifting through the contents of his overworked mind, seeking some kind of signal in the noise. His pen (to borrow from Keats) has gleaned his teeming brain, and we are left with the harvest of his mind: there is something sacred in “empty mornings” and the “golden and rewarding silence” in which he can contemplate the most meaningful things. All he needs to enjoy this peace and intellectual reward is simplicity itself.
In Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years, the narrator formulates an easy calculation for a happy life, which turns out to be a life of simplicity. As a young man, he moves into a place of his own, which he describes as “a small room. A garret. But it’s mine. A chair, a table, a bed”. He goes on, “The formula is simple and I wonder why I didn’t discover it earlier.” The formula is in essence a small space of his own and just enough money for rent, some bread and milk, and a little left over. This is such a revelation – the happiness and how relatively easy it is to come by – that he wants to be sure he never forgets it. “I’m going to write to Mama asking her to embroider a handkerchief with the motto I’ve discovered: LIFE IS SIMPLE!”
A hundred years before Connolly published The Unquiet Grave, Henry David Thoreau traded society for a cabin in a forest. He gave his reason for this in Walden, his account of his two years, two months, and two days in the woods (which Kathryn Schulz once memorably described as “the original cabin porn”). Thoreau writes that he “went to the woods because [he] wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life”. He came out of the experience with a motto much like that of Sebastian’s narrator: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.”
It seems that we’ve been seeking simplicity since Jesus told the rich man to give up his worldly wealth for the rewards of Heaven, and Epicurus taught that the happy life is a simple one. The urge toward simplicity is still evident today in the rise of minimalism and digital detoxes. I’ve lost count of the apps I’ve downloaded that promised to “un-distract” me, to remove unwanted clutter from my phone and my life. But, like the god criticised by Fulke Greville for creating us sick and commanding us to be well, such apps offer solutions to problems caused (or, at least, made far worse) by the technologies on which they run.
A growing number of us see clearly that these problems run deeper than any single technology can solve. The New York Times wrote about a community of teenagers who style themselves as “luddites”, turning away from constant noise and the accumulation of products, apps, followers, likes, and distractions. Instead, they meet outdoors to talk, practice woodcraft, paint with watercolours, read, and, most of all, to commune with each other directly and simply. No intermediate screens or technologies, just the old-fashioned mode of face-to-face, heart-to-heart conversation. They are reactionaries of the best kind, living the way people lived before a picture of the world on a screen took the place of the world itself.
If there is any hope of retaining a cultural appreciation of simplicity as a value, it lies with these groups rather than with individual efforts to restrict the proliferation of distraction. Not only do they reinforce each other’s commitment to a simple life, they do so regularly, meeting up every week to remind themselves of their values by putting them into practice – not unlike a religious observance. Shabbat, or the Sabbath, traditionally looks a lot like how these teenagers are living: no technology (or reduced use at least), sharing community, and rejecting the fastness and the fullness of the world in favour of a slow appreciation of those few things that fulfil the soul, instead of merely filling our time and space.
You might wonder why we need these weekly reminders of what we ought to value. Why, too, did Sebastian’s narrator want his motto embroidered on a handkerchief? Why did he need a reminder of that which he himself called simple? If simplicity is something we care for, surely our need for it will keep it at the front of our minds? This is the question those of us who seek tranquillity and an uncluttered mind ask ourselves in weary exasperation, over and over again, as we fail and fail again to keep things simple – why do I keep complicating things? We are like the exemplar reader Alberto Manguel, who once wrote:
“Ariadne transformed for Theseus the labyrinth into a clear-cut and simple path; my mind transforms the simple path into a labyrinth.”
We are creatures of comfort and creatures of habit, so we favour the greatest pleasure with the least amount of friction. That’s why anything that gives us a dopamine hit will hook us, especially if it’s an easy fix. It’s one of life’s unfortunate happenstances that a sure-fire rush of dopamine comes of eating large quantities of sugar, playing slot machines, and scrolling through social media (which, in both its manner and its results, is very much like a slot machine). Going to a hot gym and lifting weights heavy enough to make you produce straining sounds as if you are about to vacate your bowels doesn’t supply a great or immediate dose of dopamine. The rewards of that effort must be imagined by the present self to be enjoyed (presumably, hopefully) by the future self. All of this naturally leads us toward fast-replenishing, buzz-producing distractions and away from simplicity.
In physics, the second law of thermodynamics tells us that, in a closed system, things tend toward entropy, which is a fancy way of saying that without interventions, life becomes chaotic. Those of us who attempt to eat healthily are familiar with the pattern of beginning well, with fresh and wholesome foods, and over time slipping into less than healthy habits until you notice that, at some point, thick slabs of hot fudge chocolate cake have become a staple of your diet. At that point, you bring some order to the chaos, reaffirm your commitment to healthy eating, and begin again.
This is also why Shabbat is so important to the Jewish world and Sabbath is key for the Christians – our values so easily get lost in the mess of daily life. We need that built-in reminder to turn our attention away from the noise of the world and toward the signal from above. And this is why Sebastian’s narrator needs the embroidered handkerchief, and why engineers keep the acronymic motto of KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid. Writing this essay was a way of reminding myself that the truly joyful life is a simple one. Perhaps reading it can serve as a reminder to you. Live simply to simply live.
• The Unquiet Grave, Palinurus [Cyril Connolly] (1944)
• For Two Thousand Years, Mihail Sebastian (1934)
• Walden, Henry David Thoreau (1854)
• “‘Luddite’ Teens Don’t Want Your Likes”, Alex Vadukul in The New York Times (2022)