All fall I’ve been working on a piece on simplicity. I’ve been trying to put in words the mysterious attraction I feel to something that I consider a practice. It seemed simple enough when I began this piece. I wanted to understand for myself why it is that I am not interested in accumulating material possessions or wealth. And what did I even mean by simplicity? I began to write, an exploration for myself through words.
I tried to be as honest as I could. But as I considered sharing this piece, I kept feeling like it needed a disclaimer, “I do not meant that this is what you should do.” I felt that sharing this piece in a community of people who are working with wealth might be construed as saying this is what is normative. I did not want that to happen because I do not think that.
I have deep respect for the variety of vocations that people experience when it comes to money. And I keep thinking about the Ignatian meditation on poverty and wealth that is designed to cultivate the freedom to be either rich or poor, depending on what best serves the greater glory of God. I am also aware that for many people the path of releasing assets is simply not possible or perhaps very difficult. Maybe I should not speak, I thought.
There was something else going on that made this piece somewhat complicated for me. My definition of simplicity kept changing. Initially, I thought that simplicity meant reducing how much stuff and money I had. But as I wrote, I started to see that simplicity, for me, has more to do with being willing to allow all dimensions of my life to serve my unique sense of call.
Simplicity, I am learning, is not an abstract goal or destination to arrive at, but a practice. I am still learning.
I share all this as an introduction – and as an invitation. What do you know about the complex practice of simplicity? What in it draws you – if anything? In what parts of your life do you attempt to practice it? And when has it brought you joy?
I am drawn to simplicity.
I don’t mean poverty. I don’t want to struggle to meet my basic needs.
I don’t mean austerity. I think there is a place in life for extravagance.
I mean simplicity. The kind of simplicity that is present at the monastery where the simple elegance of a single candle in front of an icon and sparsely furnished rooms create a space in which it is easy to connect with what really matters. The kind of simplicity that is clarity of focus so I know what is and what is not needed. The kind of simplicity that means having what I need in my home and not much more. For me, simplicity is an attraction – a magnetic north in my life.
When I finally felt free enough internally to begin to align my money with my sense of call, one of the first things I did was to give it away. I thought that is what simplicity meant. I gave away money that felt like more than enough, just like I give away clothing that I no longer need. I did not give everything away. I put some money in savings for my children. I kept about a year’s worth of our family’s expenses as reserves. I kept some money in retirement accounts. And I kept real estate property that I co-own with other members of my family. I gave away the money that I could and that I felt was more than enough.
Of course, I still have quite a lot. Simplicity, I have learned, is relative. When I compare my two-bedroom home to the larger homes of people I know, for instance, I feel like I do live simply. When I look at my friends who live in studios or in Haiti, I see how much I still have.
And yet, my early attempt to embody simplicity by reducing the amount of money I had, set my family and me on a particular path. That choice meant, for instance, needing to learn how to live on a budget. It meant making choices and not being able to do everything I might like. It meant, at times, being vulnerable and needing to ask for help. These were all experiences that I welcomed because I felt like they held some key to my development as a person and would help me to grow in my relationship with money.
Learning to live within a budget, for instance, has been a powerful practice. I had to learn to pay attention to what I spend. I also had to learn how to think about my budget. Initially, I included only the minimum of what I thought my family needed, thinking asceticism and simplicity were the same. But I inevitably overspent. Over time, I learned to value what brings my family joy (like concerts and time in nature) and opportunities that develop our gifts. Simplicity, I learned, is not about living on the “minimum” but being clear about vocation and being willing to receive what I need for that.
The process of having to make choices also helped me learn how to pay
attention to what really matters to me and what does not. One of the things I discovered is how much of what I find deeply satisfying is free. Sunsets (or sunrises), music, being quiet enough so I can hear the wind through the trees, and long walks with one of my sons, for instance, are at the top of my list.
Practicing simplicity, paradoxically, has also led to learning how to receive. Early on this path, I chose not to receive gifts because I felt that the discipline of simplicity required that I stay within the limits I had set. I learned another perspective in the midst of divorce when friends and family gave me money and other gifts that helped me move forward and heal. Receiving, I saw, can be a way of letting people express love for my family. It is an important dimension of participating in the flow of gift.
That discovery led to a very different relationship around receiving gifts from my parents. I learned how to talk openly with them about what is happening in our lives and invite their support. When it became clear that it would be best for my children to stay at the Catholic school where their father teaches, for instance, I asked my parents to help with the tuition. More recently, when it was clear that we needed to move to Redwood City
(where rents are very high) I asked my parents to help us make the move. Receiving
gifts from my family in this way has deepened our relationship and allows me to feel my
parents presence in our daily lives.
I have also learned that receiving money can be a way of building community. One of my sons, for instance, is a filmmaker. A few years ago, he wanted to purchase a video camera. We had not planned for this in our budget, so he reached out at the time of his birthday and shared his vision with friends, inviting support to help him manifest his dream. At first, I felt a bit embarrassed about asking for help in this way. I was raised (and currently live) in a culture of “rugged individualism” where being self-sufficient is the expectation. But thanks to my friendships with people who do not come from wealth, I learned that reaching out to friends to help us manifest dreams can be a wonderful way of building community. I have also come to see that this is much closer to the Christian vision of community’s caring for its members than rugged individualism. I am not sure I would have learned these ways of receiving if I had not welcomed the vulnerability that giving away money created in my life.
Sometimes people ask me if I wish I had kept the money I gave away. Yes, sometimes I do. I have a son who is a musician and sometimes I wish I had put more away for him so I could fund his musical development outright. Sometimes I wish I kept more money for road trips, which are a real joy in my family’s life. Sometimes it is hard for me to live in an affluent community where most of my friends’ lifestyles are so different from my own and where I am not able to participate in the socializing and extra-curricular school travel that takes place. Yes, there are times when I wish I had kept more.
But I don’t stay there. Mostly because I know that our family really does have what we need and more. And I can see how grateful and grounded my children are.
I don’t walk the path of simplicity perfectly. Come to my house. Open the closet doors. Look at my suitcase when I pack for a trip. Consider my to do list. Consider how much I still have compared to so many people on this earth.
Simplicity is a practice, one that I have chosen because in the moments when I stand in its grace what I feel is joy. That’s is how I know it is my call.