The Courage to Live Simply

There was a time in our lives when we craved complexity. We wanted the novelty of new experiences, the excitement of busy destinations, and the charm of well-meaning but unnecessarily convoluted people.

We once believed the recipe to happiness consisted in combining as many flavours and textures as possible. Perhaps we are more boring now; perhaps our palette has become more refined.

The pursuit of simplicity overlaps significantly with something I cherish very dearly: the cultivation of space. If silence is audible space, and room is visual space, then simplicity would be akin to psychological space, removing the clutter and allowing what remains to shine with singular brightness.

When Virginia Woolf demanded a room of her own, and Wittgenstein embraced the ‘quiet seriousness’ of his cabin in Norway, and Neitzsche moved to Sils-Maria, each of them were enacting, in their own way, a fundamental principle of the simple life: one’s cup must first be empty in order to be filled. They sought out the fertility of simplicity – spatial, audible, and psychological.

Following in this tradition, in his landmark essay The End of Solitude, literary critic William Deresiewicz explores the role of loneliness in contemporary life while mourning the lost capacity to sit with ourselves. He asks, ‘losing solitude, what have [we] lost?’

First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the centre of spiritual life — of wisdom, of conduct. Thoreau called it fishing “in the Walden Pond of [our] own natures,” “bait[ing our] hooks with darkness.”

By pursuing solitude, Woolf, Wittgenstein, and Neitzsche nurtured simplicity, allowing themselves to come into contact with Thoreau’s Darkness and Jung’s Shadow, listening to that small, silent voice that can only be heard when things are quiet; experiencing what Marilynne Robinson described as ‘the encounter with a second self in the silence of mental solitude’.

Wittgenstein’s cabin, Skjolden

The simple life is not identical with the boring life. If the accumulation of experience was equivalent to being interesting, then the elderly would fascinate us and we would find young children terribly boring; but this is not necessarily so. We have all met people who believe trips to Europe, fancy dinners, and expensive clothes can act as a substitute for character. We have had incomprehensibly boring conversations about someone’s latest overseas adventure and rather interesting ones about dreams. Ultimately, it is not the breadth of experience, but rather the depth of one’s personality which determines whether or not we find them interesting. 

In a remark which works as well with ‘solitude’ as it does with ‘simplicity’, Deresiewicz writes, ‘solitude isn’t easy, and isn’t for everyone’, especially in the face of such overwhelming pressure to do the opposite.

Still, one is powerless to reverse the drift of the culture. One can only save oneself — and whatever else happens, one can still always do that. But it takes a willingness to be unpopular.

And it takes courage to live simply. To say no to invitations out. To relinquish old interests in favour of new ones. To see fewer possessions as a sign of agility rather than poverty. In choosing to live simply, we increasingly say ‘no’ in order to focus more on that to which we say ‘yes’.

One day the time will come when we describe our perfect evening as one spent eating a bowl of rice before settling down for some tea, dark chocolate, and a book before going to sleep at 9pm; finding no need to justify this evening with colourful or overly complicated language, instead describing it in the only way which seems right, by simply saying: because it’s nice.

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