In 1961, Kurt Vonnegut wrote a short story about the future called Harrison Bergeron. In it, Vonnegut pictured a future where everyone was forced to be perfectly equal so that no one was below (or above) anyone else. In order to equalize those who were of high intelligence, they had to wear earpieces. Every ten seconds or so, distracting sounds were blasted into the ears, so that no one could actually have time to focus and think about topics deeply or meaningfully. In a lot of ways, Vonnegut described us, today. We live in the most distracting, overwhelming society which has ever lived. Every minute of your life, you swim through a river of sensation—radio waves, Wifi, television, phone calls, texts, ads on buses that drive past, blogs and tweets and vines…every day you are bombarded with a million signals vying for your attention, forming a near-impenetrable and always-present noise around you.
Our society thrives on distraction through complexity. We are, in many ways, enslaved by it. Some people have clinical anxiety problems, but most of us deal with panic and worry and anxiety for other reasons. If you were to make a list of your anxieties, what would you find? I would bet that most of your anxieties have to do with one of three things: (1) getting some new thing or experience that others have; (2) maintaining the things that you have already gotten; or (3) keeping what we have gotten for ourselves.
Seriously, think it through. If you make a list of your anxieties from the past week, it is usually one of these things. Maybe it was stress about how to get your family to all of the sports your kids are signed up for; maybe it is a hassle because the new pool you’ve always wanted to build is causing problems; maybe it is the need to work a second job to pay for a lifestyle you really can’t afford; maybe it is obsessing about how to make your vacation Instagram-worthy instead of just enjoying it. We are fish, swimming in a sea of complexity.
I’m not saying that we all go join monasteries; however, for most of Christian history, serious Christians were known for their extreme simplicity in life. That is no longer the case today—much to our detriment. We spend money we do not have, to buy things we do not need, to impress people we do not like. Instead, the idea of Christian simplicity (to paraphrase Kierkegaard) is this: purity is to will one thing—and only one thing.
In the fantastic Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster suggests several principles to help reach Christian simplicity; I will include 7 that really apply in our time below:
1. Buy things for usefulness, not status. Don’t buy things for their status or fanciness—why spend triple for a Bentley when a Camry will do? Why buy a Camry if a bicycle will do? Buy new clothing because your old ones wore out or do not fit, not to keep up with the latest fashion trends. Living simple means less debt, less waste, and more freedom.
2. Reject anything that addicts you. If you cannot do without something, then get rid of it: imagine how much simpler and freer life will be if you break that addiction from Facebook or caffeine or whatever dominates your day.
3. Become a habitual giver. Give things away. CONSTANTLY. Every month, take boxes of still-working things out of your house to Goodwill or Salvation Army. Every paycheck, give a sizeable amount to charities—if that sounds like us asking for cash, then by all means give it all to a charity. But give it somewhere. De-accumulating leads to freedom of the soul.
4. Keep your schedule clear. Don’t overpack your schedule (parents we are really bad about this with our kids!) It leaves no room. Embrace the principle—long taught in Christianity—called holy leisure. It is only through purposefully protecting your schedule from constant busy-ness that you are capable of hearing from God.
5. Gain a deeper appreciation for nature. Garden. Take a short walk each day. Sit on your porch with a beverage every night. Purposefully take some time without distraction, without electronics, to simply hear the birds and marvel at the beauty of God’s creation.
6. Be wary of debt. “Buy now, pay later” sounds great in theory, but here’s the thing—that massive soulless corporation isn’t offering you that because it’s a good deal for you, they are offering it because it is a good deal for them. If you can’t afford something you ought not be buying it.