The Heart of Simplicity

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler

Several years ago, blogger Dave Bruno issued the "100 Thing Challenge." The idea was to whittle down your personal belongings (not shared things like dining room tables) to a hundred essential items as a way of breaking free from the trap of American consumerism. Bruno believed that many of us are "stuck in stuff." He was certain that people who gave up their stuff for awhile would never want to return to a life of endless consumerism. Inspired by Bruno's challenge, Tammy Strobel decided to radically simplify her own life. Now she and her husband, Logan Smith, a doctoral candidate in physiology, live on her $24,000 a year salary. Having sold their two cars, they live in a four-hundred-square-foot studio apartment in Portland, Oregon, and travel most places by bike.

Three years after the start of their downsizing project, they are no longer saddled with $30,000 in debt. At first Strobel's mother called her crazy. Now she realizes her daughter is crazy like a fox, since she and her son-in-law have enough money to travel and to contribute to an educational fund for nieces and nephews. Now that Strobel is a freelance writer and web designer rather than a project manager for an investment firm, she also has more time to spend outdoors or volunteering for causes she believes in.1

I have to confess that I am an unlikely candidate for the "100 Thing Challenge," nor do I cherish the idea of selling my car and living in a studio apartment. Those closest to me know that I am not a paragon of simplicity. But Tammy Strobel's example inspires me to envision how much more purposeful and enjoyable my life could become through greater simplicity.

For more than 350 years, the Quakers have been living a kind of spirituality that they call "plain living." Author Catherine Whitmire explains that plain living is "a matter of spiritual intent, or an aim of the heart." The early Quakers called this "staying close to the root." Whitmire explains:

Living simply means adopting a lifestyle that avoids the unnecessary accumulation of material items, or what Quakers have often referred to as 'cumber.'"2

The thrust of simplicity is positive, not negative. Living plainly means making more room in your life for God. Here's how a group of Quakers characterizes the kind of life they are aiming at:

Outwardly, simplicity is shunning superfluities of dress, speech, behavior, and possessions, which tend to obscure our vision of reality. Inwardly, simplicity is spiritual detachment from the things of the world as part of the effort to fulfill the first commandment: to love God with all of the heart and mind and strength.... Simplicity does not mean drabness or narrowness but is essentially positive, being the capacity for selectivity in one who holds attention on the goal. Thus simplicity is an appreciation of all that is helpful towards living as children of the living God.3

  1. Stephanie Rosenbloom, "But Will It Make You Happy?" The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/business/08consume.html (accessed November 9, 2020)
  2. Catherine Whitmire, Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin, 2001), p.15.
  3. From the notes of the North Carolina Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends in 1982, excerpted in Catherine Whitmire, Practicing Peace: A Devotional Walk through the Quaker Tradition (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin, 2007), p.96.

Originally published December 15, 2020.