Complexity is the destructive, paramount trait of contemporary society – our daily lives are more complicated than ever with increasing detail, process, and requirements in economics, communications, career, family life, politics, and so on. The antidote is to cultivate a commitment to simplicity – the recognition that less is more.
Significantly fueling complexity is dysfunctional, consumerist thinking that equates a good life with having more things. This faulty mindset leads to constant accumulation of material goods as a means to happiness. Yes, comfort is part of a good life. The problem is not with the things themselves, but with the tendency to over-invest ourselves in things that can’t make us happy in any lasting sense.
Consumerism isn’t our only problem. The pace of life also has become an increasing concern. Complexity has quickened the pace of our lives. Our culture is inhumanely fast paced. Chronic over-commitment and perpetual rushing leaves many of us exhausted and stressed. We are carried along by the fast culture; we’ve all grown accustomed to rushing. Our bodies and minds have been trained to hurry through meals, conversations, tasks, even sleep. Fast life disrupts our habits, ruins the peace of our homes, erodes relationships, and kills the body and mind.
These, and other, trends have left our economy rigged for plutocracy – work has lost its dignity, wages are stagnant as corporate elite skim ever deeper from the gains of productivity. Wealth inequality, cultural bifurcation, and the loss of meaningful creative opportunity has frayed the social fabric and set the stage for upheaval and revolt.
In the midst of the growing instability we are enmeshed in material excess practiced at high speed and that comes at the price of our energy, our time, our environment, our money, and often our best efforts. This leaves precious little energy and time for friends, community involvement, reading, conversation, and other simple pleasures. And it’s the simple pleasures that often contribute most to a happy and meaningful life.
Resistance to meaningful reform is encountered from failing religious and political ideology invested in propping up doomed structures. Unfortunately, many insist on living in denial about our situation, leaving us emotionally, culturally, and spiritually unprepared for the necessary changes ahead.
Tragically, many of the proposed solutions to overcoming complexity and returning to a simpler way of being, actually increase complexity and add more things to do to our already overburdened days. We are awash in systems, planners, minute managers, and self help programs all offering to rid our lives of the chaos and insanity.
But spending 30 minutes every morning with your $75 multi-colored tabbed system planer tends to last a few weeks at best. And behind these systems isn’t really a commitment to simplicity, it’s a commitment to efficiency and productivity borrowed corporate gimmicks that seek to squeeze out the last ounce of productivity in every worker putting in their 55 hour week.
The notion that one has to buy something or take on new tasks in order to live more simply is contradictory at best. Sure, a new closet organizer or a pad to keep a simple to-do list is fine, but the newest $149 extension to the Franklin Covey Planner is likely not.
Distraction, a byproduct of complexity and rushing, tends to reinforce the cultural madness. Our weary, distracted minds are easy prey to the marketers vying for our attention and dollars. In our distraction, we lose sight and sense of the meaning of our lives, and all too often rush to fill the void with things and superficialities.
Again, there is nothing wrong with things, nice things, too. A comfortable home, a reliable car, well made clothing, and the means for creativity and entertainment are appropriate given the materiality of the human condition. But the human condition goes beyond the strictly material. Reading, conversation, a cup of tea, time to reflect alone, a walk in a park or in nearby woods – are simple, easy to engage pleasures, assuming we have the time.
Let us contemplate common situations where we can see the madness perhaps a bit more clearly. Let’s start with weddings.
In 2018, the average wedding was estimated to cost $28,000. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with nice things, lavish parties, and memorable events. We are not advocating limiting anyone’s freedom or choices here. But we’ve lost a significant sense of prudence, moderation, and temperance. When someone pays $3,000 for a dress worn once, it can be argued we may have priority issues. Of course, the dress will be passed on the daughters. Assuming they have children. And assuming the daughter wants the dress when the time comes. Is it necessary to arrive in a limousine? Is there anything wrong or undignified with a wedding party wearing a suit or already existing dress? Who hasn’t attended weddings where the focus is about the dress, the extravagance, the food – and not the joy and love of the couple and their gathered friends and family?
Let us consider automobiles. Currently (2021) an Acura RLX sedan has a starting list price of $54,900. That’s more than many families of four earn in a year. And that’s considered an affordable luxury car. Obviously, quality matters. But is it the remarkable quality of the Acura RLX that justifies the price or the class-signaling that comes from owning one?
Again, I’m not arguing we pass laws restricting people’s consumer choices. Prices are, afterall, relative to salaries and financial status. But perhaps we should attempt to reassert notions of conspicuous consumption within the culture once again. When we ask ourselves about the best moral use for $54,900 how often will the Acura RLX honestly be the answer?
Slow and Simple Living is the progressive answer to our culture gone mad. We must reject the dominant consumerist culture, find practical, innovative, and independent ways to earn a living, and disinvest ourselves from the ruinous values that fuel our current cultural insanity.
Self-discipline and a commitment to counter-cultural attitudes is pivotal – in the face of superfluous, 24-7 distractions, options, and activities we must learn to say “no” and accept that the motto of “having it all” is a myth. We must deliberately chose to slow down, let up on the accelerator, ease the pace, and let life unfold at a human pace. We must cease embracing the hyped material ethos of our age.
Simplicity must be a central aspect of our environmental concern as well. Western Industrialized nations appear to be approaching ecological overshoot. We have created a way of life that relies on an aggressive, unsustainable utilization of natural resources. We are depleting nature and in the process, poisoning our food chain and source of sustenance. How we treat nature is a direct reflection of how we view ourselves.
Sustainability is a hybrid of prudence, balance, and temperance – the ability to analysis systems in terms of their optimal functioning based on inputs, outputs, and influences. In practical terms, it is the ability to know the difference between needs and wants, to understand proper limits, and to delay short term gratification for long term benefits.