On Simplicity

One of the most influential yet largely unnoticed myths of our society is that we must seek out and experience as many pleasures in life as possible. Inversely, it manifests as the perturbed feeling that we are never really enjoying ourselves enough; a message helpfully transmitted to us in every Instagram post of an acquaintance off the coast of Croatia, of a friend taking us for a drive in their new car, or the advertisement informing us about the new commodities promising pleasures of increasing quantity and decreasing intervals.

We are called upon to enjoy, not to do so is seen as a failure. This is what feeds the painful feelings of inadequacy when we sit at home on a Friday or Saturday night. After a week of work, it is expected of us to engage in all sorts of wild and exciting pursuits in our leisure time. An inability or even worse, a disinterest in seeking out new experiences on the weekend is viewed with suspicion. Why wouldn’t you want to try a new cuisine? Why wouldn’t you want to travel to wild and exotic locations? Why wouldn’t you want to go to the party? One of the hallmarks of our society is not that you can experience new and exciting pleasures; it is that, to an extent, you must experience them.

A happy life, we are told, is where one has accumulated many unique and interesting experiences. It is best enjoyed with an expensive house (the more superfluous and grand the better), an excess of material goods (a TV in every room please) and a lot of money in the bank (hopefully more than you can ever spend). It is a life marked by excess.

Yet, with a large house comes a commensurably large mortgage; with a car comes repairs; with the pursuit of material wealth comes the discomfort with spending it; with the pursuit of status comes the anxiety of its pursuit and the paralysis of its enjoyment as you spend your time reinforcing your position; with excessive drinking comes the hangover; with a bounty of goods comes attachment. While pleasure will come with pain, this is not a call to stop enjoying life. Rather, it is to say that we have grand and sometimes extreme expectations of what we want from life, and in doing so, open ourselves up to disappointment and misery.

The simple life is looked upon with disdain and even confusion. Why wouldn’t you want to try every item in the buffet of life? The simple life is dangerous because its message strikes at the heart of our society: having more (experiences, memories, items, or money) is not the only way to be happy. Put otherwise, one can be happy without ceaselessly trying to have more.

When we think of beauty, we might think of the Tsar’s palace in St. Petersburg, a dazzling Victoria’s Secret runway show, or the view of the Yarra Valley from a hot-air balloon. But these are only the most obvious instances of beauty. Beauty can be found anywhere if one knows how to look. A solitary walk in the woods beneath the luminous glow of the full moon can be just as beautiful as enjoying the view of the Eifel Tower from your hotel suite. A simple handcrafted bowl can be just as inspiring as one made of fine china with golden finishes. A flower growing between two bricks can be as captivating as a theatre production. Beauty can be found in simplicity, all it requires is a minor correction in how one looks at things.

Viennese Domestic Garden, Erasmus Engert, 1828-1830.

Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer, 1665.

The artists have captured the astonishing beauty that can be found in the everyday. Engert’s lady sits in solitude, preferring to converse with a dead author than lively but perhaps rancorous associates. She devotes her time, not to steadfastly improving the productivity of her garden, but to knitting in the company of a few adoring sunflowers. Vermeer intentionally painted a plain woman rather than a queen. His work informs us that beauty is everywhere, and can be found in a place as unexpected as the face of a humble maid looking over her shoulder. Simplicity, too, can be a source of beauty.

The purchase of multiple homes, new phones every year, and trips to different and exotic locales each year indicate that we value having more. But, we do not need more. All we need is a ‘room of one’s own’. Henry David Thoreau left the city to pursue a life in the woods in a small log cabin; Nietzsche spent the summer months living in a small room in the Engadine Valley in Switzerland, and Wittgenstein lived in a small house on a hill in Skjolden, Norway, overlooking a fjord. These men turned away from lives of many and diverse pleasures and were able to find new pleasures, of an altogether different quality, in simplicity.

It is not that we must live simply; it is that we can live simply. These men demonstrate that one can live simply and be just as ambitious, happy and fulfilled. They likewise demonstrate that to live simply does not mean squalor and poverty, or to be without friends and joy. It would benefit us to remember that while our busy lives may offer us many pleasurable experiences, a simple life can offer just as many. If we can remember this, we need not feel so bad next time we decline an invitation to go out on a Friday night, and instead spend our time alone, enjoying the simple pleasure of a solitary walk while contemplating the moon.

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