What the Pandemic Is Teaching Me, Part 2
Simplicity is never a matter of circumstances; simplicity is always a matter of focus.
--- Ann Voskamp
In Richard Foster's book Celebration of Discipline, if there was any other chapter besides the one on solitude that was going to make me want to run the other way, it was the chapter on simplicity.
A lot of Foster's chapter on simplicity focuses on consumer culture and materialism. All of us have seen examples of both the worst and best of humanity during the pandemic as aspects of these things have been magnified in the face of crisis. There has been unfathomable hoarding, and there has been unimaginable generosity.
Foster posits the problem is lack of a "Divine center" - an inward focus around which to orient our lives. In other words, if God is not behind my sense of security, then I'm looking to something else for my security. He writes, "We are trapped in a maze of attachments. One moment we make decisions on the basis of sound reason, and the next moment out of fear of what others will think of us."
In this time of uncertainty, my concern hasn't been so much about what others will think of me, but whether I can get the things I want while so many other people want the same things. I have been surprised at my inner response: disbelief, indignation, and an ugly sense of entitlement when I can't find something simple in the store or online that, previously, had been overabundant. Foster's statement, "...it only takes a little drought or a small accident to show us once again how dependent we are for everything," feels especially relevant.
Reading about the discipline of simplicity has me stepping back, thinking about just what I truly need as opposed to what I want. And it has me thinking about where God fits into all of this.
Foster suggests that the key is ever and always seeking God's kingdom first, which is characterized in part by freedom from anxiety, which in turn is characterized by three inner attitudes:
"...what we have, we receive as a gift..."
"...what we have is to be cared for by God..."
"...what we have is available to others..."
During this pandemic, something is definitely at work in me around my relationship with things. Thinking about things as gifts, and as being available to others, are concepts I can relate to, but I have a long way to go in my trust that God is taking care of what I have. Coming to a place where I can fully embrace all of the inner attitudes Foster outlines would represent a major shift for me and could shine some light on a path to an outward life of simplicity as well.
Foster offers a number of suggestions for ways to approach the practice of simplicity. Three of the these outward responses caught my attention: developing a deeper appreciation of creation, rejecting anything that produces an addiction, and shunning anything that distracts me from first seeking God's kingdom.
Appreciating creation has not been a problem. Until I am able to go back to work, I am trying to get outdoors as often as I can to soak in God's beautiful, fresh, greening spring. For me, this has been more than an exercise in simplicity - it has been the way I've experienced God's peace and calm in the midst of a difficult time.
The other two are tougher to face, though.
First, I can see I have a strong inclination to indulge myself. I am not addicted to toilet paper, but toilet paper became the unlikely focal point of a realization that I am a very wasteful person. While I don't think I've ever hoarded anything in particular, there have been lots of times in my life that I've used much more than I needed and bought much more than I could consume. I want to work on changing these behaviors.
Second, I get overwhelmed by my clutter. Before the pandemic, it was easy to ignore, because I didn't spend that much time at home. Being with it day after day, though, it screams for my attention! It brought to mind something I heard long ago:
A pastor, wanting all of us in the audience to be thinking about what it meant to live our lives in darkness, posed a simple question: Would you invite someone into your home right now? Everyone laughed, but for me, it was a painfully relatable example – something that was a distraction from what was important and a hindrance to being open and living fully in the light.
Picking a room and cleaning it is a simple enough task, so it may sound like an odd sort of approach to a spiritual practice. But it is exactly this kind of everyday, ordinary thing that offers an opportunity for me to rest into the Divine center and receive one of God's great gifts: his abundant grace to do something I struggle to do on my own.
What does simplicity mean to you? Has the pandemic changed anything about the way you think about simplicity? You're welcome to comment here, or e-mail me some of your insights!