ALMOST EVERY DAY I HAVE A CONVERSATION WITH another woman about simplifying our lives. You name it, and we’re filled to overflowing.
With kids, husbands, teachers, coaches, and friends, our lives are full. With soccer on Monday, dance on Tuesday, piano on Wednesday, karate on Thursday, and Brownies on Fridays, our schedules are full. With clothes for work, clothes for Saturdays, clothes for church, and clothes for whatever is “in” this season, our closets are full. With toys for the kids, hobbies for us, and sports equipment for our husbands, our homes are full. With backpacks, kids for carpool, bags of groceries, stuff to drop off at school, a bag of things to return to the store, and a meal for that friend who just had a baby, our cars are full.
As mothers, wives, friends, employees, daughters, sisters, aunts, volunteers, leaders, participants, Sunday school teachers, lunch moms, and whatever else—well, you get the picture.
Yes, we want full lives, but this is getting ridiculous.
“This complex, consuming life may be okay for everyone else, but not for us”—that’s what one mom said to me the other afternoon at preschool pickup. She and her husband had been talking about how to simplify their lives and scale down from the mass consumption surrounding them. She said it feels like they’ve been going along with everyone else, without giving it much thought—until one day it got to be too much.
Time for a change.
We’ve tried more and more of everything, only to find that life hasn’t gotten better, easier, or become quite what we hoped it would be. We rush from this to that; we long for the day when life won’t be quite so busy.
As Robert Benson writes, “We rush through the present toward some future that is supposed to be better but generally turns out only to be busier.”2
Ugh. Busier than this?
Instead of finding fulfillment, we feel overwhelmed and pressed for time. An empty day on the calendar is rare; when it does occur, it’s “such a treat,” as one woman recently said to me. “But instead of just relaxing and enjoying it, I typically use it to catch up on everything I’ve fallen behind on.” And so an empty day becomes overly full and the chance to rest is lost.
Is this the kind of abundant life Jesus really meant when He said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10)? Does a full life mean rushing madly from here to there, distracted by the thing we’ve forgotten to put on our todo list but we know is rattling around somewhere? I hope not.
I love The Message paraphrase of Jesus’ words in John 10:10: “More and better life than they ever dreamed of.” We have the more; we’re full to the top—but is all this crazy busyness what we dreamed of as little girls? Did our Barbies rush around their Dream Houses worried about getting Skipper to soccer practice on time, burning dinner for Ken, and wishing for life to slow down?
The question I always go back to is this: When does the better begin? Because I can dream some pretty amazing dreams. How about you?
A certain passage from Thoreau’s Walden resonates deeply with me:
Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.
Okay, fair enough. But the quiet space of Walden Pond can be difficult to locate in today’s busy world.
We’ve been brought up to believe that God is in the details. Yet the question remains: How do we simplify the details that make up our lives? And aren’t those details important?
We read Little House on the Prairie to our children and wonder, Could we have a life like that? Could my family ever live so simply and be so happy?
We’ve become accustomed to more; we imagine that we might be bored if we change too much. If we were to place the equivalent of only a shiny penny and a tin cup under the tree on Christmas morning, would our kids stage an uprising?
Perhaps, rather, they would find peace. And maybe we would discover a quality of life that’s missing from our busy schedules— a different kind of abundance.
And so we wonder if it’s time to cut back. We clean out a closet or two, but it doesn’t do the trick. We want to get back to the way things used to be, when life was simpler and centered around God and family…but just how do we do that living in today’s world? We can’t go back in time, and Walden’s not on my local map.
After spending four college years majoring in home economics, my mother says the thing she remembers most is this: Simplicity is the key to good design. Whether you’re designing an outfit, a room, a house, a meal, a party, an invitation, or even a life, simplicity is what makes it work.
I’ll be honest: Some of my desire for a simpler life came as a result of circumstance rather than choice. My husband took a new job and our family moved from Colorado to Southern California; we had no choice but to downsize.
Our house here is less than half the size of our old one. It seemed easier to decide that downsizing was something we were choosing to do. Just keep telling yourself that, Joanne, I would think as I added each new armload of stuff to the garage sale pile.
So we ruthlessly sorted through everything we owned. Then we threw a monster garage sale and sold off five rooms’ worth of furniture, toys, knick-knacks, baby toys, and clothes. Finally, we packed the rest in boxes and headed west.
We still had too much stuff.
For the first month or two after moving to San Diego, I took at least one box a week to the Goodwill drop-off. (Goodbye, sweaters, winter coats, ski rack, and more toys and clothes!) Finally, after employing some creative storage solutions, the car fit in the garage.
The good news? Everything left is stuff we really like.
The bad news is that once we got settled and made some new friends, our lives were still too full for comfort. It was like the feeling you get after Thanksgiving dinner when you realize you shouldn’t have had that second helping of stuffing or the pecan and pumpkin pie. Everything is good; it’s just too much, and you’re left feeling too full to move comfortably.
And so I’ve found that living a simple life is more than just getting rid of stuff. Stuff is part of it, for sure. But it’s also about full calendars, schedules, commitments, activities, and to-do lists. Like Thanksgiving dinner, a lot of it is good—nice things, people we enjoy, and activities we really do want to do. But we’re too full—stuffed, in fact—and we feel a little sick knowing we just can’t handle all those things our lives are full of.
So what are we to do?
Consumed By an All-Consuming Life
In our defense, we’re conditioned to be consumers.
We’re trained to want more in order to be happy, starting with the commercials we see during Saturday morning cartoons. From Strawberry Shortcake dolls to Easy-Bake Ovens, we’re always just one purchase shy of complete and utter happiness.
As children, we watched those kids on commercials having the time of their lives with their new Slip ’n’ Slide. We thought we could buy that kind of happiness, too—for only $9.95! Life would be better; spelling tests would be easier; the schoolyard bully would leave us alone.
Things haven’t changed much. Substitute an Ab Lounger and a Magic Bullet for the doll and oven, and we’re still just one possession short of complete happiness. Life would be better; kitchen clean-up would be a snap; other people would like us more.
It hardly seems to matter if it’s something we need or even want. We must have it—because it’s there.
I love the episode of Veggie Tales when a discontented Madame Blueberry discovers Stuff Mart. The singing vegetables promise her, “All you need is lots more stuff!” Her unhappiness, they insist, stems from not having the right kinds of stuff. So she quite literally buys into the message. It’s only when her too-full house begins to topple beneath the weight of her purchases that she realizes there really is such a thing as too much stuff.
Even though we know in our heads that finding happiness in stuff isn’t possible, the message that “all you need is lots more stuff” prevails. The Madame Blueberries of this world just can’t compete with the world’s insistence that stuff is the way to go. So we fill up our lives with things we don’t really need or want until, like Madame Blueberry’s house, the weight of it becomes too much and it all comes crashing down.
My youngest daughter, Emma, recently came running into the kitchen, shouting, “Mom, you’ve got to come see this! We need this!”
I followed her to the television, expecting to see the latest Barbie or a tool that braids hair and adds beads all in one quick and easy step.
Nope. She was desperate for us to purchase a new food storage system. According to the infomercial, it uses one size lid for all the containers and stores compactly on the pantry shelf.
“We need this, Mom,” Emma insisted. “It spins.” (Not what I was expecting from my five-year-old, to say the least!)
Like most of us, I already have a pretty extensive collection of containers for leftovers. But children, it turns out, aren’t the only ones who have a hard time determining needs from wants.
I have to remind myself that I have everything I need— and more—on a regular basis. Most of us have more than enough. Some have so much, in fact, that if we are not embarrassed about what we have compared to what others do not, we ought to be.3
We have enough to eat, I have plenty of clothes to choose from each morning, and my car starts when I turn the key. On top of that, I have a wonderful family, a great husband, my kids go to a fantastic school, and I’m blessed with terrific friends.
Teaching Audrey and Emma to stop and remember all we have is an almost daily ritual as well. I’ve found that one of the most effective ways to teach myself (and my daughters) the difference between needs and wants is to be thankful. By thanking God for providing for us, we quickly see just how much He has given us that we don’t really need. The things I’m most thankful for didn’t come from the mall.
I’m thankful for…
my eyesight the way my kids wrap their arms and legs around me when I pick them up for a hug
vibrant colors in nature
the smell of rain
lazy Saturday mornings
the sound of the ocean
that first sip of coffee early in the morning when the rest of the house is still sleeping
The list goes on and on.
What are you thankful for?
Along with wanting to consume more and more, we live in an “instant” society that has shortened our attention spans and encouraged distraction. From instant mashed potatoes to instant coffee, we want what we want, and we want it now. We’re so conditioned to believe that now is better that we settle for mediocre rather than wait. Let’s face it—instant mashed potatoes and instant coffee don’t come close to the real thing.
The bottom line is this: We’ve lost our sense of anticipation, and our lives are poorer for it.
Stop and think about that for a minute.
With credit, we no longer have to save up for a big purchase. As a result, whatever it is we “couldn’t live without” loses its appeal almost as soon as we get it home.
With fast food, we no longer have to wait for dinner to simmer on the stove, smelling good smells while our stomachs growl and our mouths water.
When we do have to wait—at a traffic light, in line, on hold—we are instantly impatient. “Come on,” we mutter under our breaths. (So that’s where our kids get it from!)
Because we lack anticipation, we’re missing something. We’ve forgotten that anticipation is half the fun.
The sixteenth-century French writer François Rabelais once said, “For he who can wait, everything comes in time.” What are we missing by refusing to wait?
I’m reminded of a line from a song we sing at church: “Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord.” Waiting is a big part of walking with God, and something we chafe against. Telling my children to wait for something is nearly always met with “Awwww!” Waiting is hard.
Unlike our society, which tells us we shouldn’t have to wait for anything, the psalms are filled with instruction to wait. We “wait in expectation” for God to answer our prayers (Psalm 5:3; 130:6). We “wait in hope” for the Lord (Psalm 33:20). We “wait patiently” for God to hear us and to act on our behalf (Psalm 37:7, 40:1). We “wait for the Lord and keep his way” while we wait (Psalm 37:34). We “wait,” plain and simple, for Him to answer us (Psalm 38:15). We “wait for [His] salvation” (Psalm 119:166).
Indeed, we find instruction to wait throughout Scripture. We wait for deliverance (Proverbs 20:22). We receive blessing when we wait for God (Isaiah 30:18). We’re told, “It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (Lamentations 3:26). Hosea tells us to “wait for your God always” (12:6).
In the New Testament, we’re still required to wait, but now we wait “eagerly” and in hope with all of creation for the return of our Savior. Paul says, “But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Romans 8:25).
Patience always reminds me of singing along as a child to The Music Machine, a children’s musical that taught about the fruits of the Spirit. For some reason the song about patience is the one I remember best—maybe because it’s the most difficult lesson to learn. Poor Herbert the snail is always in a hurry and has to learn patience by slowing down. Certainly it’s the song we sang most often. (My mother still sings it to me over the phone, using an agonizingly slow, droning snail-like voice, when I get in too much of a hurry.) Here are the lyrics:
Have patience, have patience.
Don’t be in such a hurry.
When you get impatient,
you only start to worry.
that God is patient too.
And think of all the times when others have to wait for you!
—Herbert the Snail, The Music Machine
I think another reason we don’t wait much is because we get distracted so easily. If we have to wait too long, we lose interest and move on to something more immediate. We forgo the food we really want at the mall food court because the line is too long. Commercials take too long, so we even watch two television programs at once. If it’s an unavoidable task, we find something else to do simultaneously (applying mascara at the traffic light, anyone?).
And the worst of it is that we reward such behavior by calling it multitasking.
Multitasking, I’ve decided, is not all it’s cracked up to be. When I try to “multitask,” I find myself putting laundry in the pantry, milk in the closet, and forgetting why I walked down the hall to the bedroom. Do you do the same, or is it just me? (Please tell me you do the same!)
So I’ve decided to stop. I am not going to do six things at once anymore. And while I’m on a roll, I am also going to slow down. I’m going to stop rushing and begin taking my time.
I recently read an article about “the slow movement.” Author Carl Honoré had this to say about slowing down:
Our culture puts a premium on speed, deifying this notion that faster is better, that you must fill every single moment with activity. There’s a powerful taboo that makes “slow” a dirty word. In this hyped-up world, we need to keep an eye on our personal speedometers— it’s very easy to do things fast just because everything else around you is going fast, without even considering whether or not it makes sense.4
I’m going to spend more time thinking about whether speeding through an activity makes sense.
When Audrey sits down to do her homework in a hurry, I hear myself repeating words my own mother said to me: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.”
Sometimes I wonder, In how many areas of my life am I doing well? It’s a tough question—and one I’d rather not dwell on, because too often my answer is “Not many.”
Are we taking the time to do things right the first time? Or are we rushing through life, haphazardly slapping together projects and telling ourselves we’ll fix them later?
If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.
If we’re not doing something well, it begs the question, Is it worth doing in the first place? If not, then why are we doing it in the first place?
Even more important, how will our children learn to do things well if we’re not leading by example?
If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. I can’t say it without a smile. Even while I know it to be true, I don’t like hearing it any more as an adult than I did as a child. My mother recently confessed that she feels the same: “I hated hearing Mother say it to me!”
Audrey is learning to write in cursive. She’s thrilled about it—it’s such a big kid thing to do. But she hurries through her worksheets and gets upset when I go back and erase strings of lowercase Es and Ls that flail on the page, drunkenly looping too far above or below the line.
“It’s faster in the long run,” I tell her, “to take the time to do it right the first time.” She sighs and picks up her pencil and sighs again. I give her a squeeze and plant a kiss on top of her head because I know just how she feels.
If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Just because it’s true doesn’t make it fun to hear.
Of course, even though I know it’s better to do it right the first time, I don’t always follow my own advice. And so I rip out a knitting project, delete an entire page of writing, or refold all the laundry in my armoire.
Why are some things so hard to learn?
Audrey brought home a memory verse last year and we all learned it: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). It’s easy for me to quote back at her when it’s time to sit (“Sit still, Audrey!”) and do the homework (“Audrey, it’s time to do math—not reading”) that’s due tomorrow (“You can ride your bike after you’re finished”).
But it’s not so easy for me to put into practice as I clean up the kitchen, talk on the phone, fold laundry, watch Martha Stewart, and eat a snack—going from one thing to the next without finishing what I was doing. (And I wonder why it feels like I never get anything done!)
There are days when I get lots of tasks half done, but that leaves me feeling dissatisfied and frustrated. Half done is still undone.
And so I take a deep breath, picture my mother’s beautiful face, and tell myself to slow down and do one thing at a time.
And to do it well.
Choosing less is a daily challenge in Southern California. Everyone here has lots and lots of stuff. From fancy cars to million-dollar houses to huge diamonds, more is definitely the way to go. It’s easy to feel like we need a bigger house, newer cars, and more bling just because everyone else does.
We all experience the same challenge, whether we’re surrounded by movie stars and mansions or cows and cornfields.
The truth is, we live in a culture that values supersizing everything, from French fries to SUVs.
I find myself gravitating to extremes. On the one hand it’s tempting to turn my back on culture and go overboard—to get rid of everything and start from scratch. I dream of leaving the land of excess and moving to small-town America, where I imagine life to be so much simpler. Or, as one friend recently suggested, moving to a deserted island, building a hut, and living on bananas and coconuts, à la Survivor.
On the other hand, it’s easy to romanticize the past and give in to the crazy excess, convinced that it was just easier to live a simple life fifty or one hundred years ago. There weren’t rows of restaurants only minutes away, so families ate together every night. There wasn’t a mall down the road filled with so many fashionable clothes to bring home and stuff into my already overly full closet. Since I can’t go back, I might as well give in to the inevitable excess. Why fight a losing battle?
And so I struggle with myself—wanting to “Simplify, simplify,” as Thoreau said, and at the same time wondering how to go back from here. Is it even possible? And in my heart of hearts, I have to admit that—at times—I even like the excess. I like having lots of stuff and I like having lots to do. Sometimes empty quiet can be a little scary.
How could we ever simplify something like Christmas after so many years of crazy excess? I take comfort in the thought that even St. Francis, who wrote so compellingly about simplicity, conceded, “We don’t need to plunge into abject poverty when we hear the call to simplify our lives.”5 Moderation is key in everything—even simplicity.
“How?” is the question I hear more than any other as I talk to other women about the overwhelming complexities of our lives. Even more, I want to understand the why behind simplicity’s call.
For me, simplicity is not just about how to cook a month’s worth of meals in one day or how to speed clean the whole house in thirty minutes. While those things are great and help manage my life and household, what I’m really longing for is a better quality of life—one that values quality over quantity.
I want a life focused more on my family than my to-do list, one that is more concerned with creating memories than being perfect, more excited about life together than activities that pull us apart. I want a life filled with more meaning and less stuff, and I’m finding that simplicity is a means to finding a better quality of life.
Saying “no” to some of the excess means being able to say “yes” to others—and having the energy to pursue those things that have more and lasting value.
I want a rich, full life, one filled with love, joy, family, friends, memories, laughter—don’t you? The stories I love to hear my mother tell are filled with relationships, sights, sounds, smells, morals, lessons learned, and fun. I just can’t imagine looking back on my life someday and telling my grandchildren stories about shopping at the mall, or the day I got everything checked off my to-do list.
I think our culture has determined that abundance has to be material stuff, and we have bought into it. We’ve chased after quantity instead of quality, never stopping to see that an abundance of nothing is still nothing.
The abundant life Jesus talked about has to be in keeping with His character. He Himself had nothing—“no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). The things He emphasized as having the greatest value were loving God and loving others. When put to the test about the most important part of the law, Jesus responded, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37–39)
Any life He wants us to have abundantly must involve these things, if we desire to stay true to who He is. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I was reading through my journal the other day and came across this entry:
2/29/04. I was lying in bed thinking about an abundant life—something Jesus said He came to give us: life, and that we may have life abundantly. That’s what I want—that’s the crux of it. I want my marriage with T. to be abundant—filled to overflowing with love. I want to parent that way—to have abundant love, joy, patience, time, fun with and for A. & E.
Does abundant/overflowing mean full to the brim with not enough room for more? Or does it mean filled with open space and time for everything? I hope it’s the latter. I don’t want my life to be hectic and pressed, but rather filled with joy and the things that make it worth living.
I want God to be abundant in my life, too—for His love, presence, and grace not only to be sufficient but to overflow from my life and into the lives of others.
I have lots of stuff and it’s not doing the trick. I want God’s kind of abundance—an abundance of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Setting the Angel Free
I’m fascinated by sculpture. When I worked in Paris for a summer, one of my favorite things to do was wander around the Musée Rodin and then buy lunch at the small café nestled into a corner of the sculpture garden. Located in a stately townhome, the museum is filled with large and small statues chiseled from marble and cast in bronze. I especially loved the series of sculptures by Auguste Rodin and his students of a foot—just a foot, but so incredibly detailed it took my breath away.
But my favorite pieces by far were those that seemed only partially finished: huge pieces of silvery white marble, raw and rough on one side, sitting on a table in a room with light streaming in the open windows. From the rough side they looked like they were set down just as they arrived from the quarry and never touched again. But when I walked around to the other side, I was always amazed to see a figure emerging from the stone—a trapped person slowly being freed, just waiting for the sculptor to come back and remove the rest of the stone that was holding him captive.
I can’t comprehend how one goes about making a sculpture like this. Michelangelo once said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” It sounds so simple: You just hold the chisel like this, give it a little tap like so, and voilà! An angel.
The problem is that if you hit the chisel too hard, you have a one-winged angel, and no amount of Gorilla glue is going to make it right again. It’s not like you can erase your mistake—paint over it or add a little more clay—and have no one be the wiser.
I think that in some ways, understanding the “how” of simplicity is a lot like freeing the angel from the marble. Our lives are like chunks of marble: often unwieldy, and weighted down by all the stuff we’ve acquired, commitments we’ve made, and complexities forced upon us that come from living in a world that never stops.
But the quality of life we search for is in there somewhere, and so we start with the obvious things—getting rid of sharp edges, corners, and conspicuous flaws. We begin to consciously choose less, and in so doing we pare away more of the excess. We learn to say no and begin focusing on those things that bring joy, not stress. As we examine our lives, we focus on what is most important; soon, we begin to see the shape of it in our mind’s eye.
As the angel begins to emerge, we work more slowly and carefully, chiseling away those things that rob us of abundant life—until we set free the beautiful angel trapped inside.
I don’t have this all figured out, wrapped up neatly in pretty paper and tied with a ribbon. But I’m committed to this idea of simplicity, to finding a better quality of life than the excess the world offers. I want my children to grow up cherishing their memories from childhood, knowing that our life together as a family is centered upon Christ and each other.
The more I journey down this path, the more I’m reminded again of God’s way of turning things upside down. The last will be first. The rich will be poor. The least will be the greatest. I’m finding that the more I cut out, the more I simplify my focus, the greater the abundance becomes.