Simplicity: A Testimony?

For some time, I have been puzzled about the Friends Testimony on Simplicity. The use of the word "simplicity" as a testimony bothers me. When we use the words "peace" and "truth" to express our testimonies, the words do not seem to need explanations that limit their meanings. Truth and peace, by any definition, express elements of our faith. On the other hand, the word simplicity requires a lot of explanation and some restriction in meaning. There are a number of meanings for "simple" or "simplify" that have no relation to Friends’ beliefs and may, in fact, be contradictory to them.

The Friends Testimony on Simplicity seems to be a surrogate for other things, rather than a virtue unto itself. In particular, it seems to be a surrogate for the following:

  1. Humility
  2. Putting our priorities in order; that is, putting a higher priority on the spiritual practices we value—meditation and prayer, obedience to the Inner Light, obedience to God, etc.—than on personal wealth, material possessions, fame, beauty, or accomplishments.
  3. Being good stewards of our Earthly home, using its resources wisely and sparingly, not taking more than our share.

But if these are our goals, why don’t we make them our testimonies? The word simplicity can mean a lot of other things, as well. I submit that we should reconsider whether simplicity deserves the status of a testimony.

I believe that there are several ways in which we can, and often do, go astray in our desire for simplicity.

In a somewhat subtle misconception, Friends often interpret simplicity to mean living simple lives. We wish we weren’t so busy and under so much stress. But is either busyness or a stressful life a moral, ethical, or spiritual failing? We may long for this kind of simplicity merely because we are tired or burned out. But many people who are living in the Spirit are very busy and all of us undergo periods of stress in our lives.

I do not mean to deride people who are in distress due to an overload of demands and responsibilities in their lives. That can be a very real problem. For five years of my life, I was a single, custodial parent with three minor children. During that time I had a full-time career that required frequent travel. It is not a life I would wish on anyone.

Today, my children are self-supporting adults, I am remarried and retired. My life is very much simpler and less stressful now. But that change did not happen because I have become a better Quaker. It happened as the circumstances of my life changed.

We may think that if we could just simplify our lives, then we would be able to focus on the things that are really important—including our spiritual lives. When I first retired, I had the idea that, since I no longer had to spend such significant amounts of time working at a job, I would be better able to follow the leadings of the Spirit. What I have found is that hearing the still, small voice—much less heeding it—is no easier now. I have become active in my Yearly Meeting and have done some service for it. I have felt, to a certain extent, that I was meant to do this. But I was active in Friends when I was a single parent, too. I don’t feel that I am living a spirit-led life any more today than I was then. I fear that what is needed for me to go the next step is to really transform myself—to allow myself to change in ways unlike what I have been willing to do before.

Even when it comes to applying simplicity to material things, we see a large variation in the interpretation of the Testimony of Simplicity. One Friend may buy cheap furniture at flea markets, while another buys finely crafted furniture with simple lines, and a third has a house furnished with antiques that have been passed down in the family for generations. Each may cite Quaker simplicity as the reason.

We may have the highest intentions of practicing simplicity, of avoiding materialism and conspicuous consumption. We avoid spending money on things we don’t really need. That is turned into "being careful with our money," which translates to being tightfisted. But, in being tightfisted, we are actually placing a high priority on money, when our higher aim is to place a low priority on material things. Let us not judge ourselves or each other harshly on this issue. Most of us may not be able to help being tightfisted. Money evokes strong emotions. It represents much more than materialism. It also provides things like education for our children and security in our old age. But, if we cannot avoid tightfistedness, at least let us recognize it for what it is and not make a virtue of it.

Other problems that the Testimony of Simplicity bring to Friends are a propensity to be proud of our own simplicity and to judge each other by our ideals of simplicity. Historically, Friends have been eldered or perhaps even read out of meeting for too-worldly ways. That seldom happens today, but wouldn’t many Friends cluck if someone were to come to meeting driving a Hummer?

One story in my family illustrates both the odd ways Quakers sometimes interpret simplicity and the propensity to judge each other for them. My dear Quaker mother disapproved, and gossiped to me about it, when an older Quaker cousin who bought only black cars, in keeping with Quaker simplicity, arrived at a family gathering in a new black Lincoln, which he called "a sort of a Ford."

Another concern I have about simplicity is this: do we sometimes simplify our own lives at the expense of others? If I do not own a car, I may frequently need to ask for a ride from someone else. If a meeting does not own property, it depends on individuals or other organizations for meeting places. I don’t doubt that there are some Friends who are led by the Spirit to live materially very simple lives. But, as with many other leadings, they may need the support and encouragement of other Friends who respect but do not share their leading. Therefore, some simplicity is not for everyone.

Another family story illustrates how a misplaced emphasis on "simplicity" could cause real harm to another person. My Quaker grandmother had a hired maid or cleaning woman for many years. During the depression, someone in her meeting asked her how she could continue to justify that extravagance, when times were so tight. Had my grandmother been swayed by this reasoning and fired the cleaning woman, it would have deprived the woman of a job at a time when any job was hard to come by.

These examples and stories illustrate the problems we can have, or cause, when we apply the Testimony of Simplicity with too little Light. But there is a way in which simplicity itself may actually be undesirable; this is in simplifying our thinking. The world is a very complicated place. Do we try to simplify our thinking by denying the complexities inherent in it?

Our minds are designed to simplify. For one thing, they are designed to recognize patterns. And when we use language, it is necessarily a simplification of our intent. These are ways for us to grasp a Creation that is too complex for us to comprehend. They help us make sense of the world around us. In this way, we cannot help but simplify the world in our thinking.

We need to recognize the complexity of the world and not attempt to make it simpler than it is. One reason for this is to be humble before God. I believe that attempts to deny the complexity of the world are attempts to deny the true Creation (not the simplified stories of Creation in the Bible). God created a world so complex that we humans cannot get our brains around it. Scientists keep trying to figure it out, but no matter how much they learn, most admit to discovering more questions than answers.

Consider just one aspect of the universe, namely the enormous variations in scale. Physicists can now detect the existence of quarks, which make up the former "elementary particles" such as protons, which make up atoms, which make up molecules, large numbers of which are required to make up a structural element, such as the nucleus, of a cell. It takes a lot of different parts to make up a complete cell that is so small it takes a microscope to see it. The number of cells it takes to make up a tiny living thing, such as a flea, is enormous. A human being is many orders of magnitude larger than a flea. To make a human being takes a number of cells so large that we cannot really comprehend it. One person could not count the cells in his body, one by one, in his lifetime. But, at the other end of the scale, humans are incredibly small. The Earth we live on is so much larger than we are that we do not perceive its curvature when we are standing on it. But the Earth is a modest-sized planet in a solar system that is a minor speck in a galaxy that is one of an untold number of galaxies in a universe that is so large that our largest telescopes cannot see to the edge of it—if it even has an edge.

To give an example that may be more pertinent, the number of people on earth is now several billion. One person, in a lifetime, can only meet—let alone get to know—a very small sample of those people. We rely on news broadcasts, books, and other media for all of our knowledge of the rest. The information we get in this way about people we have never met is, unavoidably, very much simplified. And, to add to the problem, each individual person is very complex.

By contrast, fictional characters and settings created by humans are very simple. Clever authors evoke a mental picture of a character in a couple of sentences. More extensive character development is reserved for the major characters in a book or movie. Critics sometimes praise an author for creating complex and nuanced characters. But the most complex character created by a human author is a simplified approximation of the complexity of any real person.

We should not simplify our thought in such a way that we fail to treat each real person as a whole, complex individual. Simplified thinking can lead to stereotyping and half-truths. Do you think that Friends don’t stereotype? How much do you think you know about a person just by knowing that he or she is one of the following?

  • An executive of a multinational corporation
  • A Jehovah’s Witness
  • A construction worker

If we say that simplicity is good, it begs the question of, "Good in comparison to what?" What is the opposite of simplicity? One can think of "greed," "wastefulness," "vanity," or other words that describe tendencies we would oppose by the Testimony of Simplicity. But the most generic opposite of "simplicity" is "complexity." And complexity is not necessarily bad; complexity just is.

We need to accept the complexity of the universe, the complexity of the Earth we live on, the complexity of human interaction, and the complexity of each individual human. We need to accept that the universe and life are so enormously complex that it is not possible to predict exactly how any situation in life will turn out. We may do our best and still not get the desired result. Many people, Friends included, do not want to admit this. We want to see a direct linkage between a simple cause and its effect. But it doesn’t work that way. There are almost always too many factors.

To cite a recent example: The current tragedy in Iraq is partially the result of some simple thinking, which went something like, "If we can just get rid of that horrible dictator, the people will be free and they will take over from there and govern themselves." No one could predict the exact results, but it was pretty predictable that they wouldn’t be that simple.

I believe that accepting the complexity of the world is intimately tied to accepting the guidance of the Spirit. If we accept the complexity of creation, then we realize that we cannot control the world. We cannot find our way by our own initiative alone. We are dependent on the guidance of a Higher Power, a Power that can comprehend everything in all its complexity, see the untold interactions of which we can know only a tiny portion, and guide us to play the parts in this complex universe that we are meant to play.