A Disciplined Spiritual Life Month 1

Simplicity for Living Well

In this series, Ken Chitwood explores classic spiritual disciplines, taking up a new practice each month and sharing his experiences with the Thred community. Read more here. 

About to head out the door, I resisted the temptation to pop another book in my backpack. You know, just in case my bus was delayed, or I had a longer-than-expected wait at the barber shop. Maybe I could sneak in a few pages about Maya religious rituals or Richard Foster’s words on prayer. 

As a full-time nerd, books are a bit of a professional hazard. Literally. Whenever I leave the house, I stuff my rucksack with one or two (or more) books, weighing my shoulders down and plaguing myself with a tiresome cocktail of shoulder, neck, and back pain. 

So when it came to practicing simplicity, I took up author Valerie E. Hess’ challenge to consider each item in my backpack and ask myself how necessary it is to schlep it around. The goal was to carry one less thing in my backpack, each day of the month. 

By the end of 30 days, I came across more than random USB sticks and ginger chews in the bottom of my bag. I discovered a healthier relationship with stuff, less burden on body and soul, and a greater capacity to make myself — and my things — available to others. 

Just One. Less. Thing. 

It seems pretty simple, right? 

Just one less thing in my backpack, each day, for thirty days. On day one, I had plenty of options. I could jettison a few face masks from the stockpile I acquired in the front pocket during pandemic heights. Or, I could reduce my backup pen count from 25 to 15 (baby steps, after all). And, do I really need both my iPad and laptop or can I get by with just one today? Maybe I could even leave a book or two behind. Maybe. 

Each day, as I endeavored to take one thing, then another, and another out of my backpack, I found the practice was less about the things themselves, but my relationship to the stuff I’d accumulated. 

You see, for about a decade now, one of my life axioms has been to only own verbs. That is, I didn’t want to collect a garage full of nouns — things that just filled up space — but to have possessions that are used, engaged, and enjoyed. 

I thought this was a pretty good minimalist maxim to live by. And generally, I stuck to it (it could go both ways for the pens). 

But, there were actually two problems with my logic and lifestyle. 

First, I could still amass a whole bunch of stuff this way. Second, the issue was not the things themselves, but the sense of control I felt they gave me. I had face masks for every possible moment I might need them in the confusing chaos of coronavirus-related restrictions, pens and notebooks to scribble ideas down for the next story, and a book to keep me busy so that I wouldn’t feel I wasted time waiting for the bus. 

Along the way, I started to believe that the more things I had to deal with potential life scenarios, the more security or stability I had as well. But it was a lie. A mirage. A trick I was playing on myself. 

In the end, my arsenal of “useful things” just made life more complex and caused me more pack-mule-induced pain. 

The secret of living well 

The practice of simplicity pushed back on my desire to be prepared for everything and anything, to feel in control of the world’s chaos. 

Maybe you’re in the same boat — or bag. 

Perhaps your schedule, home, and capacity for life are bogged down by clutter. Or, like me, you’ve bought into the lie that if you just had enough things — or the right combination of things — you’d be set to weather whatever storms or situations life throws at you. 

That’s where the invitation and challenge of a discipline like simplicity comes in. 

It calls us out of a cycle where, to echo Australian educator Harry Wendt, we use money we don’t have, to buy things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t even actually like. 

That’s because at its heart, simplicity is not primarily concerned with money, possessions, or what you put in your backpack. Instead, it’s about traveling light through this world. It’s about letting go of our reliance on things to save us. It’s about looking up long enough to realize our interdependence with others and experience our dependence on the Divine. It’s about reconnecting with what really matters. 

There’s no denying that things matter. The scalpal that aids in surgery, the pan that cooks your morning eggs. But we don’t want to lose sight of the importance of the people around us — and how we can use our things to serve, love, and honor them — in our relentless pursuit of stuff. 

Simplicity’s challenge to us is to desire less, less, and less in a world of more, more, and more. It is, in the words of author Julia Roller, the “secret of living well, whatever our means.” 

Inward Reality, Outward Lifestyle 

But, as Quaker theologian Richard Foster wrote, “Simplicity is an inward reality that results in an outward lifestyle.” 

In other words, we are called to meditate on our money, possessions, gadgets, and gifts and realize that these things — as first-class, good, and useful as they might be — are, eventually, passing away. It is to learn to hold these things lightly and steward them well. It is to realize, that with our many riches comes a calling (see 1 Tim 6:17-19) to use them to God’s glory by benefiting our neighbor. 

You don’t need these things. God doesn’t need these things. But other people do. 

Maybe you can begin, like me, by taking one thing out of your bag, briefcase, purse, or fanny pack. Leave that thing behind for a day. See how it feels. 

Maybe, you can press pause on your persistent online purchasing. Cancel a subscription service. Go through your possessions and consider passing them on to someone else. 

Remember, people will get good use out of the things you pass on. 

However you choose to practice simplicity, the discipline is not meant to strip you of your stuff. Instead, it’s intended to decrease your self-indulgence and reliance on things. In turn, you are promised an increased reliance on, and compassion toward, others. 

So let the books, pens, and false sense of preparation go. Free yourself from the burden you’ve accumulated. 

Relinquish the junk and receive the gift of furnishing others’ needs. 

A Closing Prayer 

“Father, I want to know thee, but my cowardly heart fears to give up its toys.” A.W. Tozer prayer in The Pursuit of God

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