Did you know that a number of over-the-counter children’s vitamins contain aspartame, an artificial sweetener that has been known to cause cancer in rats? As a mother of two young children I have to decide whether a) to give them the vitamins and hope for the best; b) to eschew vitamins and force more broccoli down their throats; c) to take out a home equity loan to pay for expensive and "safe" vitamins; or d) to run screaming out the door. This is just one of the thousands of decisions a parent of young children is faced with almost every day.
To say that my husband and I consider ourselves Quaker often seems a dichotomy of beliefs. In our 20s we were drawn to the nondidactic teachings of Quakerism that seemed very opposite to the religions in which we had grown up (he was Lutheran, and I, Catholic). I originally felt so attracted to the Quaker queries and testimonies, and often read them out loud to my husband, as a way to reaffirm that I felt motivated by the spirit of Quakerism. Social responsibility? I was a volunteer and did mission work in Costa Rica! Education? I’m a teacher! Peace? I love it!
The testimony that has always given me pause, however, is simplicity. Before we had children, my husband and I tried to tell ourselves that we lived simply: we had one car; my husband took the train to work to show concern for the environment; and our favorite, we were great at spending Sunday afternoons lying outside with books.
But now, as parents, the testimony of simplicity seems almost as untenable as holding mercury in your hands. How did life become so crazy? I actually catch my breath if I see my name next to "Simplicity" as the topic to be taught by me in our First-day school. What do I know about simplicity? My life is anything but.
Every day we are faced with so many decisions that life does not seem simple anymore. It is today’s U.S. culture and lifestyle that presents so many choices, all of which we can investigate and make a decision about or, decide not to even make the choice to begin with. Of course, to say that one will choose to live a simpler life is all well and good, but what does that mean? How can we ignore the great and many complicated decisions we are faced with every day?
It is with a heavy and confused head that I approach my day. I want to go to the grocery store to buy fruit. Fruit is healthy, right? Well, fruit can have salmonella on it, so it’s not enough to wash it with water, you have to use a fruit and vegetable washer. You want fish, that’s "brain food," right? That’s what my grandmother used to say. Well, it turns out certain fish has mercury in it—that’s bad. So you can only eat tuna once a month. And salmon? You have to buy the wild salmon, not the farm-raised. Oh yeah—and they don’t carry that at my grocery store, so I have to go to a specialty store for that.
I want my son to go to preschool. Well, luckily we live in an area that has a number of Quaker schools to choose from. Luckily, right? Well, each one offers a slightly different curriculum. Do I want Spanish lessons or guitar? Do I want to do lunch bunch? Which one has afternoons and which has mornings? It is enough to make me batty! And, of course, very tired and stressed.
And don’t even get me started on Christmas, birthdays, or holidays. My son wants a pirate/medieval knight birthday party. Of course, we’re "Quaker," so I have to try to explain to him why we won’t have swords at this birthday party of 15 children, 5 pizzas, 4 games, and a cake that I’m trying to keep "simple." And at Christmas, I just want to forget that I "have" to have presents for my cousins-in-law, roll myself up in a big blanket and tell everyone we’re now Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The idea of living a "simple" life in the 21st century, middle class, suburban United States seems ludicrous. In many ways, the steps away from simplicity have really improved our lives: we are better educated, and perhaps, more in touch with the world around us. I wonder though, how we can ever truly simplify and de-stress our lives so that it doesn’t seem as if we are taking steps backwards rather than just resting.