Ruminations on the Simplicity of Simple Living

A storage unit with packed boxes

If I were to take a guess at the ranking order of the four JVC values, from that of greatest interest to that of least interest, which held esteem in my JV community  – considering, of course, all eight of us in our thoughts and in our practices – I believe the order would be as follows: social justice; spirituality; community; simple living. One of the things I liked best about my year as a JV, and about JVC’s emphasis on these four foundational tenets, was the way that these core values had different meanings, and held different levels of importance, for each of us; when we engaged, as a group, in thought or conversation around these themes, those variations intermingled, layering on top of one another, creating an often interesting, sometimes challenging, topography on which we forged our relationship as a community.

Last by a mile, in our esteem, was the value of simple living. Now, the JVC program is set up in such a way that simple living is somewhat necessitated; the monthly stipend and the community housing – which is high on shared spaces, low on personal spaces, and often quite far from the area of the country with which an individual is familiar – plus, lack of transportation and, possibly, lack of internet, require a certain level of forgoing. And most of our community members, for the most part, lived within these prescribed means. But, except for a poorly executed (dare I say, failed) Lenten challenge, simple living was not part of our agenda. Looking at our relationship with the other JVC values, it seems, perhaps, that we had been looking at simple living too, well, simply.

The tenet of simple living is so frequently synonymous with ‘less.’ Less material things – less money, less possessions. This is not to say, of course, that challenging oneself to live on less, and to live with less, is not a clarifying practice. But, it seems to me, the tenet of simple living lacked our esteem, because we all saw it the same way – as sacrificing something, usually a material object, in order to…practice our endurance? Grow in new, unexpected ways? To be less attached to material things? When I compare our individual relationships with the simple living theme, and our individual relationships with spirituality, the latter has such dynamism compared to the former’s static flatness.

The Active Engagement of Patience

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the definition of simple living, and its intersections with patience, and with expectation. These days, I find myself in a strange sort of transitional period; I am currently between jobs, looking for a position which will help me along my path to somewhat uncertainly shaped future goals. I have moved in, once again, with my parents (to whom I am extremely grateful), while most of my personal possessions lay in storage states away. I have been feeling overwhelmed by my desire to move on from this transitional place, which is in direct contrast to the slow process it is proving to be, and, thus, have been considering how to re-engage a tenet of simple living. Ruminating on the theme from this vantage point, I believe that simple living should not be associated only with the negation of things, but, also, with the active engagement of patience.

In this period of my life, I find myself suspended, stretched out between my present position and this future vision I have. The process towards that future is unfolding slowly, and many days I am overwhelmed by comparing my life in the present to a potential future version, which does not and may never exist. Engaging the idea of simple living, then, is about orienting myself towards my present, more than my future, to regain my balance. I don’t want to abandon these future visions, of course, because they help me determine how I want to grow. But I want to diminish the way in which they are dominating my life.

The first step has been a practice of patience. Patience has never been my forte; when I was five I had the training wheels removed from my bike, because I had decided that it was time. When I couldn’t ride on my first try, I threw my bike down and stormed away, frustrated. I did come back and was, by the end of the day, riding. But the process to my goal, whatever it is, is usually similar to that moment in my young life – a flurry of frustration at being unable to do things perfectly on the first go-round. Patience is defined as a capacity or willingness to endure (a definition I find to be quite beautiful). I think JV life teaches us much about the capacity to endure; by living on and with less, our capacity to endure through difficulty or discomfort grows.

But I am particularly interested in the willingness to endure. What does it mean to be willing to endure, and how do I foster that willingness in my own life? At this particular moment, I think, perhaps, the willingness to endure is the ability to sit suspended between the present and future, looking out at both, and relinquish control. It’s a willingness to sit with a sense of awaiting – and not the sense of hushed expectation that I’ve always associated with the season of advent, mind you, but something much more anxiety-ridden – without trying to rush through it. I don’t want to construe an exercise in patience as synonymous to an exercise in passivity. Relinquishing control means, I think, grasping less tightly to my vision of the future, and, deliberately leaving some things undetermined or unimagined. Things don’t have to be one specific way to be good – even if I am feeling adamant about the outcome I desire.

These are just thoughts – we’ll see what wisdom comes from putting the willingness to endure into practice. I’d like, however, to offer the consideration of simple living as something more than a practice of less. As of yet, I don’t know what shape this conception could take in my life, or in your life. But I feel as though my JV house, at least, was remiss in giving simple living it’s due, as a tenet; I believe it has a much wider conceptual scope and a much greater nuance of potential practices than I ever realized. And, therefore, offers us the potential of great enrichment.

Photo by Dave Winer on Flickr