Can anything really be freely chosen if it is introduced to you at gunpoint?
Quakers have a series of Advices and Queries. They are phrased very gently, whilst pointing out in no uncertain terms that it is probably worth re-evaluating at least some of the fundamental principles by which you have chosen to live your life. If books could speak, they would be heaving a heavy sigh and murmuring “I’m not angry, just disappointed…”
Part of Advice number 41 says this:
Try to live simply. A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength. Do not be persuaded into buying what you do not need or cannot afford.
Weaving into my mind like bindweed – beautiful, clingy and impossible to get rid of – is this question: Is it actually possible to freely choose a simple lifestyle?
It is possible to live a simple lifestyle in order to reduce your personal impact on the environment. But if you are compelled by the driving terror of global catastrophe, is that really a free choice?
You can do it as a way of living within your means, on a limited budget. But when I think about that, I think about counting coppers out of a jar to buy bread, and borrowing from friends to be able to call the bank and find out why I had no access to any money at all. I am very lucky, and have only been that desperate once. It might have been living simply, but it was not even close to a choice.
You can stand as counter-cultural, deliberately rejecting what is seen as of most value to the modern British mindset; refusing to buy into societal norms, rejecting capitalism with acts of rebellion. But if you define yourself by what you don’t participate in, can that be either a free and personal choice, or a source of strength?
Maybe the real question is what am I thinking when I talk about a simple life? Whenever I think about it, I mostly think about how my life is the complete opposite of simplicity. I think about the chaos of everyday routine, pushing the whole family out of the door Every Single Day before any of us really wants to even be out of bed (except The Paleontologist, that is. It seems that being willing to get out of bed as early as possible is another of those things that skips a generation. It missed her father out by a country mile and landed straight on her. Unfortunately, she inherited the full measure from her Grandad, leaving none at all for her sister.) I think about balancing homework, cooking, phonics, play time and downtime in the witching hour between getting home from After-school Club and sitting down to eat. I think about the school holiday we have just had, balancing church commitments, family time, lesson planning and jobs that never get done in term time, leaving us all more tired at the end than we were at the beginning (and with the washing baskets just as full. How is that even a physical possibility?)
Given all this, I am clearly the perfect person to talk about freely choosing a simple life… I often say, when justifying being a family with two cars, that it is necessary for us to have two cars in order to meet all our obligations. What I actually mean is that we need two cars in order to live the life we have chosen. Could we both get to work without them? No, not with the public transport we have here. Could we move closer to the area we both work in? No, not when the Church chooses where we live. Could we form local connections to help pick up our children so that we can lift share more? Um, yes, but I may have already mentioned that I’d rather chew my own arm off than ask for favours I might not be able to repay. Could we change our work patterns to avoid the necessity of two cars? Yes; but only by one of us leaving a vocation we have both sacrificed a lot to pursue. And we just don’t want to do that.
Given the fact that so many people live lives balanced between chaos and breaking point, how can we picture what a simple lifestyle would even look like?
The need to be better – better than Them, better than ourselves last year, better than our wildest imaginings – drives many of us to never just be. We must always be doing something, because we must always prove, to ourselves and the world, that this is the best moment ever. It is drummed into us from the days of Paw Patrol onwards that that is what is required for a day to be worth living, or recording, or remembering. It is, of course, an entirely unachievable ambition, though the pursuit of it can lead to beautiful moments, as well as the inevitable meltdowns that come when, for instance, this year’s Easter Egg Hunt was not quite up to last year’s standard…
The only way that a simple lifestyle as an achievable desire makes sense to me is to think about what I want to be choosing, not what I would be avoiding. Choose community. Choose fun. Choose habits that lead to satisfaction with yourself and those around you. Choose to be happy with what you have and not compare it to other people’s Instagram lives. Choose local food and playing in the garden. Choose giving away things you still like to others who can’t afford them.* Choose to think in a whole new way, that looks at what is there to enjoy not what is not there to envy. Choose to learn from others’ acts of love and generosity, not sulk that their house is bigger (or cleaner…) than mine. That’s the simple lifestyle I am looking for. And it is only achievable through determined choices, day by day, year by year, one picture, one blog post, one memory at a time.
*For those of you who are my generation, and now can’t get a Scottish voice saying “I chose not to choose life. I chose something else” out of your heads, yes, it was deliberate #sorrynotsorry