Simplicity and Convenience

For quite some time now I have had only an intuitive grasp of the difference between simplicity and convenience. The difference seems enormous to me. I think that the notion is best captured by Martin Heidegger when he writes about what it means for humans to dwell:

Mortals dwell in that they receive the sky as sky. They leave to the sun and the moon their journey, to the stars their courses, to the seasons their blessing and their inclemency; they do not turn night into day nor day into a harassed unrest.

The life of simplicity is summed up beautifully in these few short words on dwelling. It involves an acceptance of, and respect for, the powers of the universe that we inhabit. It recognizes that there is much that is beyond our control. The turn of the seasons, as well as the turn of day into night, and the stars in their courses—all happen as beautifully synchronized events. When our lives are somehow congruent with these basic natural rhythms, we live in an attitude of acceptance, and simplicity becomes our way of life.

It is when we make the decision that we could arrange things better that we begin making machines of convenience. We make machines to control the climate, to lengthen the hours in a day, to speak farther than our voice will carry. And, in the creation of this maze of convenient, labor-saving devices, we fail to see the lessons that the rhythms of nature impart. The soft glow of twilight is instantly extinguished at the flick of an electric light switch as we hurry to extend our day into night and continue the "harassed unrest."

Perhaps we have forgotten how to dwell. I have a sundial in my garden. It is accurate to within a couple of hours. I don’t think it can be adjusted for daylight savings time. I like it being there. It reminds me that there used to be a time when the measurement of time wasn’t so critical, when people lit candles at twilight and actually conversed.

I am left with the question of how much more simple my life would be without all the conveniences. My dishwasher broke down a while ago; after about two days I realized I no longer had the detestable job of emptying the dishwasher. After two months, I realized my water bill was about $10 less.

Since signing up for my e-mail address at work, my students and I have had the convenience of communicating without having to meet face to face. The articles I put on reserve in the library are to be scanned onto the Web. The outcome, of course, is of increased convenience. The students no longer have to suffer the inconvenience of actually going to the library. Conversation can now be abbreviated to passing bits of information back and forth in the silent world of computers.

We are becoming adept at learning how to be alone with our machines. It is, indeed, convenient—but extremely complicated. Everything will work out well, I suppose, unless the power goes out.

Judith Stiers

Judith Stiers, a member of Flagstaff (Ariz.) Meeting, teaches Philosophy and Humanities at Coconino Community College in Flagstaff, Ariz., and Humanities at Northern Arizona University.