The Gifts of the Simple Life

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler

One countercultural group, the Shakers, have largely died out. In addition to a tradition of excellence in furniture craftsmanship, they left us with the classic song, "Simple Gifts," written by Elder Joseph in 1848. This familiar lyric captures our longing for the peace of simplicity:

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight.
Till by turning, turning we come round right.

If the Shakers are right that simplicity is a gift that can help us to come round right, how can we embrace the simple life without completely withdrawing from the world around us? A while back, a graduate student name Christina Wall made it into the national media because of a master's project in which she challenged herself to live for thirty days with only the technology available to someone in her socioeconomic range living in 1950. For her, that meant no TV, no microwave, no fast food, no ATM, no credit card, no voicemail, no computer, no email, no cell phone, no dryer, no dishwasher. It also meant plenty of time for practicing piano, reading books, playing board games, and reconnecting with friends. It also meant money in her pocket. She said,

It's not that I was a "big spender" prior to the project. I would just fall into what I call the Target Trap, i.e., go into Target for some toothpaste, walk out of Target $150 later with some greeting cards, a small vase, some socks, trail mix, and that latest and greatest book I'd been meaning to read ... oops, I forgot to buy the toothpaste!1

Holding cash in her hands, she said, made her much more mindful of how she was spending it.

During her project, Wall altered her eating habits and began looking for recipes developed prior to 1950. Though she couldn't bring herself to eat Chicken French Toast with Peas, a recipe she unearthed in an old issue of Ladies Home Journal, she did manage to eat more simply and to drink what she characterized as "liquid heaven," milk out of a glass bottle supplied by a local dairy.

After the experiment had ended, Wall made choices about what she would bring back into her life and what she would leave out. The credit card came back but the ATM stayed out. The cell phone was relegated to the glove box for emergencies. Doing dishes by hand got the thumbs up because she found it helpful to do a little manual labor once in a while. Television got limited to about one hour every other day. Playing piano, reading more books, and reconnecting with friends all stayed in.

Perhaps an experiment like Christina Wall's isn't practical for you, but it may inspire you to develop one of your own. Doing without television or cell phones for a well, for instance, might suggest ways to simplify your life. Looking more closely at the kind of gifts you give at Christmas, for instance, might help you resist the kind of gadget crazes that make life expensive, fractured, and more frantic. Mind you, I'm offering this advice as a parent who needs to hear it herself. As always, the important consideration is one's priorities. If you want more of God's peace, you have to become intentional about finding it.

Though many of us admire groups like the Amish and the Shakers, we can't imagine embracing even half of their austerities for the sake of a simpler life. But one thing we can do is decide to match our values to our lifestyle. That will help us resist the tendency to let worldly desires determine our course. Instead of piling up debt to get what we want, we can learn to wait until we have enough money in the bank. While we wait, we can learn to ask God whether the things we want are even things he wants for us.

 

  1. Christina Wall, "Day 6--Results--Credit Card/ATM," March 12, 2007, posted on http://retrochicky.blogspot.com/2007/03/day-6-results-credit-cardatm.html (accessed November 9, 2020).

Originally published December 01, 2020.