‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple

Sarah Richards
June 5, 2016

‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple

“Tis a gift to be simple” that old, familiar, and still popular Shaker song seems to have a great lesson for us in the fast-paced hi-tech world. But because of my UU upbringing and anthropology training, I’ve always had a problem with “simple” as a gift in terms of understanding—there’s always complexity, ambiguity, context to be taken into consideration of any so-called “simple truth.” On the one hand, on the other hand…I have as many “other hands” as the Hindu god Shiva. My go to response to many requests for opinion is “it depends.” I do not believe that there are simple answers to important life questions, including the question of what it means to be a people of simplicity. But along with complexity, understanding requires clarity—and that’s where I see a gift, a virtue in simplicity – as the opposite of confusion, not complexity. So to be clear, I think it’s worth examining what we Unitarian Universalists might think about and do with the gift of material and spiritual simplicity.

UU minister Marilyn Sewell observes that the 20th century American dream of middle class prosperity is “defunct.[i]” That cultural story, based on themes of “competition and gain”—get a good job, work hard, consume a lot—we hear it and tell it from the time we can walk to the time we take our last breath. And right now in Southern Illinois, we see it for the damaging deception it is, we feel the anxiety building as its falseness is revealed daily. Sewell writes:

This is not a dream worthy of our lives. The emptiness of it is becoming apparent as young people struggle to find meaning in a society in which their parents serve an economic system that no longer serves them, a system no longer grounded in communal and spiritual values. There is no bailing out a system that is not grounded in relationship, that is bereft of moral principle. We have to build from the bottom up, on new ground and new premises.[ii]

This argument reminds me a lot of the 2007 video, “The Story of Stuff[iii]”—how many of you have seen it? It looks at the modern impacts of the post-WWII plan to ramp up the US economy based on consumption. The destruction of natural resources worldwide, and resultant destruction of agrarian economies, massive rural to urban migration, pollution of air, water, and land around the globe and resultant climate change; these are the products of consumption-based material economy planned in the early 1950’s. A retail analyst of the time explained:

Our enormously productive economy…demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption…we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.[iv]

I won’t recite all of the disturbing statistics about each stage (extraction, production, consumption and disposal) of the economic process involved in the story of stuff—I do recommend you watch the 20 minute video though. Just 2 stats: Americans consume twice as much as we did 60 years ago, and each of us makes an average of 4.5 pounds of trash every day. Those facts alone are a great motivator for simplifying, reducing consumption, increasing recycling and re-use. But it’s hard to break out of the system, of rejecting the cultural story, spiritual and ego satisfaction that sustains this unsustainable way of living. Leisure time has decreased over these six decades, and so has—not coincidentally, self-reported happiness. The Story of Stuff reports that the two major activities we Americans indulge in, in our ever-shrinking “free time” are watching TV (with all of the ads) and shopping[v]. Even if you’re watching TV and shopping with your nearest and dearest, it’s easy to see how quality and quantity of personal relationships suffer.

So as a people of simplicity, we might ask ourselves what are our core, or essential values? Marilyn Sewell invites us to

take a look at the values that run the country’s economy—and our lives. We would have to use words such as profit, production, efficiency, consumption, and creation of capital. There is nothing wrong with these words, but they are not ends in themselves They should exist to serve larger values, human values. They should serve the common good, human health and well-being, to ensure the care and sustainability of our earth.[vi]

As a people of simplicity, we might look for clarity of purpose. Sewell states:

Those of us alive in these times have a clear and evident mission. We have a compelling moral purpose that can direct our lives and our energies: We are about saving the world. So what is our part? The place to begin is at home—that is, with ourselves. Notice what is life-denying and resist it.[vii]

In both Sewell’s essay and The Story of Stuff video, people and communities acting on a mission of material and spiritual sustainability are described. And many of us already have adopted practices that cut waste – eating local food, ridesharing, repairing instead of throwing out and buying new. Since last spring, I’ve been following CUF member Candy Davis’ Facebook posts that show her practice of another simplifying approach. I interviewed her this week to learn her backstory, and she gave me permission to share it with you.

Seven or eight years ago, having both gone through the arduous and emotionally draining process of cleaning out their deceased parents’ homes, Candy and her husband John did start out with a clear mission to simplify – to identify the essentials and get rid of everything else in their house so that their own kids wouldn’t have to go through that. They took a couple of stabs at cleaning a closet or drawer, but they came away dissatisfied, and even overwhelmed because stuff would accumulate again. Then around Mardi Gras last year, Candy saw a Facebook post, suggesting that instead of the usual giving up something for Lent, get rid of stuff: 40 bags in 40 days. This idea gave Candy and John a discipline, a defined method to fulfill their mission. According to Candy, it was a simple practice of spending just one hour per day de-cluttering. This time, she got on a roll and kept it up, eventually surpassing the 40 days and going all the way to 98! She took before and after photos, which served as both inspiration, and, when she posted them to Facebook, accountability. At first only amused by Candy’s daily practice, after a few weeks, John was inspired to clean out a crammed-full storage shed they’d long given up on.

What happened to all the stuff? Much of it was sold at yard sales—their own, and having motivated friends to clean out their own houses, joint yard sales, too. Yard sales and second hand stores are centers of re-use, better for the environment than even recycling. After the major “clearance” period was over, Candy and her friends had a “house crawl,” touring each other’s homes and showing the newly de-cluttered spaces in an evening, culminating with a potluck—of course. So strengthened relationships can be a bonus! Candy reports that her living room seems “half again as big” because of all the stuff cleaned out, and that keeping everything clean and organized is much faster with many fewer obstacles to vacuuming and mopping, fewer dishes to put away, and it’s much easier to find things. Although she says it’s still a work in progress, keeping to the adage “only have what you need” is her goal to live by.

All of this cleaning is great on a material level, but why does Candy refer to this process as a “spiritual journey?” How did it make her feel? She says simply, “I’m happier with being in my home. It’s much more restful. Before, I was not aware of the level of stuff subtly stressing me out.” So creating material, physical spaciousness creates mental spaciousness, too. This is an aspect of the problem not addressed in “The Story of Stuff” – it’s not only the work and shop consumption cycle, it’s also storing and living with all the stuff that saps us mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually. “Our cup o’er flows with good” when our cupboards and closets do not overflow with goods.

Having a clear mission, and a doable, regular practice to fulfill it seem to be two important components of simplifying our daily lives. As Marilyn Sewell points out, that is where we Unitarian Universalists can start to resist what is “life-denying” in consumer culture, and begin to reimagine and co-create a sustainable American dream. But the big corporations, the government, the media who persist in feeding the soul-killing, world-destroying consumer economy are not the only obstacles to this cultural shift. Sewell reminds us to look in the mirror.

[Unitarian Universalists] are seekers who want to live out of that truth, not some kind of made-up world that might be more comfortable to live in for the moment…..However, let us be wary of the usual distractions and follies of our movement. It’s grown-up time now. We no longer prioritize petty quarrels about how “religious” our language should be, conflicts between the humanists and the more spiritually inclined, or squabbles about who is in charge. The mission of the church [and this Fellowship] is not to meet our needs; the mission of the church [and this Fellowship] is to heal our world. It is to give ourselves to something larger than ourselves. Ironically, when we give of ourselves in this way, we find that our deepest needs are met.[viii]

So, what shall we do/what are we doing as the Carbondale Unitarian Fellowship here, in this corner of Southern Illinois, to reimagine the story of our lives, our social relationships, our material relationships (aka the economy)? One small way is to keep sharing our core values and how we act on them, in order to inspire and hold ourselves accountable. We’ve started a Facebook conversation about this, using the hash tag CUFsimplicity—all are very welcome to participate! Sewell writes,

From…folks like you and me, who populate Unitarian Universalist churches—the new story, the new cultural narrative, will emerge. I cannot know the exact words you will choose or how you will put them together for your story, but some of those words might be love, service, kindness, joy, presence, peace, integrity, stewardship, and covenant. These are religious concepts, and this is the beloved community that we are building.[ix]

Guess what, friends—we’ve already started to write this story: look at our new covenant created over the course of this year, and which the congregation voted to accept last Sunday.

I invite you to read it with me:

We are the Carbondale Unitarian Fellowship

With compassion we honor our whole selves, each other and our beloved community.

With intention, we choose to walk together in fellowship.

We seek truth and growth together, nurturing each other’s spirit and sense of reverence.

We respect all individuals and strive to create a world where all are treated with love and dignity.

We believe all people have strengths and wisdom, and are able to contribute to our faith community.

We give action to our faith through service and the pursuit of justice in the wider world. Every act of service, lovingly performed, matters.

We value diversity in its many forms and welcome with open minds and hearts, all those who come among us.

So may we be.


[i] Sewell, Marilyn. 2010. “Reimagining the American Dream” in A People So Bold: Theology and Ministry for Unitarian Universalists. John G. Millspaugh, ed. Boston: Skinner House Books, p. 77.
[iii] The Story of Stuff 2007. http://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-stuff/ accessed 6/2/16.
[iv] The Story of Stuff annotated script, p. 10. http://storyofstuff.org/wp-content/uploads/movies/scripts/Story%20of%20Stuff.pdf accessed 6/2/16.
[v] Ibid, p. 12.
[vi] Sewell, p. 78.
[vii] Sewell, p. 79.
[viii] Sewell, p. 80.
[ix] Sewell, p. 79.