I grew up with the ‘testimony of simplicity’ more than any of the others. The Quakers I grew up with were deeply influenced by the holiness movement and they saw Quakerism through the lens of Holiness theology. Simplicity is a rather important part of that theology, in that it is the act of putting aside those things that are worldly. Unfortunately, I experienced simplicity as mostly a set of rules. Fortunately they were not as harsh as the rules endured by my ancestors.
The simplicity of my youth was a mix of frugality and avoiding worldly influences. Living the simple life was partially about cutting costs, whether it was finding inexpensive solution, or discerning the difference between a need and a want, and it was partially about avoiding falling under the influence of popular culture.
Frugality and critical reflection about popular culture have served me well, but over time I have come to feel that these are not quite the same as simplicity. As I grew up, complexity introduced itself into my life. I have been surrounded by people who make various demands from me. I recognize that no matter how hard I try I cannot meet the demands of everyone. As Jesus tells me on the sermon on the mount, “No one can serve two masters.”
Over time simplicity has become the process of asking the question: “What is my priority?” After I have identified what comes first, I start planning life around meeting that goal. This goal has been at times education, or paying off debt, or an attempt at ministry, or building a relationship. Priorities are far from simple, because having an unbalanced life works against the priority, however it is easy to forget which is the priority, and which are means to that end.
This new realization has brought new life to the frugality of my youth. A lack of goals makes it difficult to accept frugality. Popular culture, at its worst, can be a weak attempt to relieve boredom. The focus of a clear goal makes it clear what I am sacrificing for, and does much to prevent boredom. Over time, simplicity has moved from rules to follow, which have very little relevance in my life to a way of life that makes it possible to move forward.
Unfortunately, this ideal does not always seem to work out very well. Sometimes life feels like every goal I work for was chosen by another person, and that there is no room beyond meeting the demands of others. At those times my priorities are placed on the back burner. Simplicity might be a good ideal, but without the agency to make one’s own choices, finding that one thing can feel like an unreachable luxury.