The Simple Life—Is It Boring?

There are sure to be some people who worry that kicking our celebrities from their gilded thrones, shunning the search for self-actualization through materialism, re-sacralizing our world and endeavoring to live a simple life would be like consigning oneself to a rocking chair on the porch, with all the “challenge” and “excitement” that might entail. I don’t expect to be able to draw a picture here of the kind of alternative I’m proposing—I’ve done it much more comprehensively in my books—but I can say with certainty that a life balanced between the body and the spirit, if I can put it like that, with Nature fully respected once again, will provide infinitely more opportunities for exploring our humanness, expanding our idea of what freedom really means, and fulfilling ourselves far more than we otherwise could in our contemporary hamster wheel of fame and fortune.

           These no doubt seem like extravagant claims. I don’t make them lightly. As I said in an earlier post, eight years of rational training (at university) have left me much less susceptible to wishful thinking or drawing scenarios that might have no basis in fact. I realize that people do that and I vowed years ago that I wasn’t going to be one of them. Whether you believe me or not depends on more than I can say in a blog post, so I’m just going to offer a few thoughts on the subject and don’t expect to prove them here.

           Why did I suggest “a simple life” in my description of the good life? I don’t recall talking much about that in this weblog but it’s an integral part of nearly all my work. To my way of thinking, living the simple life is the best way to hear, in Victor Hugo’s words, “the quiet voices of the soul.” Hopefully this can help us maintain the balance we so desperately need but which we seem to lack so much.

           There are a number of objections that can be raised to a life of more simplicity, and I’d like to discuss a few of them here because the value of my writing depends on whether or not it can meet them. The first has already been put forth in the title of this blog entry: would such a life be boring? I tried to show in my fictional community in Montana (in Three Days at Albemarle) that it definitely need not be. In that urbanized town of three thousand, there’s endless and varied activity, challenge, art, music, sport, opportunity for sexual experience, and so much engagement with different facets of the natural world that one would have to be virtually autistic not to find stimulation there.

           To me, a simpler and more spiritual life doesn’t necessarily mean sitting all day in the lotus position navel-gazing. We’re a restless and industrious people and that just wouldn’t do for the vast majority of us. We need activity. A simple life isn’t boring if the activities chosen contain enough (and the right kind of) stimulation. And the spiritual side of it doesn’t mean puritanical, either, as I show quite clearly in a number of my books. Intimacy and physical pleasure are part of the good life; they just have to be integrated properly. So I think we can scrap the boring epithet right now.

           Another objection to this alternative I’m proposing might be that it would wreck the economy. Let’s say just for the moment that we stop acquiring so much “stuff” and regard Nature as sacred once again—by doing this alone, within a decade or less we’d probably be living in caves, right? Shooting deer and growing maize like the Huichol Indians just to eke out a bare subsistence? Well, for one thing, the Huichol are happy, but that’s not the point. We’re not them, and we could probably never be satisfied living like that. Most of us, anyway. We’re surrounded by a world of gadgets and conveniences and can’t live without them, it seems. And we appear to be indelibly programmed to lay a hand on every natural thing and somehow make it our own. So if we pull the rug out from under all this, won’t everything fall apart?

           The short answer is yes. (Feel free to wipe your brow, as I see you’re beginning to sweat.) But the more considered one is no. The kind of changes I write about will necessarily take time. Rome wasn’t dismantled and rebuilt in a day, as the saying goes. And we need people from every field to be involved at every step, as I’ve said several times before. I’m not going to make these changes alone, yet neither is an American Caesar. Nation-building is a group activity, and a meticulous one at that (though mistakes will be made, just as in Revolutionary times). It’s not just snap your fingers and voila! The economy would crash, for sure. So it’s step by step, never removing or moderating one thing unless there’s something well considered there to replace it.

           A final objection (there are bound to be more) might be that a simple, hopefully more spiritual life would be impossible to live—maybe it could for the few, but not for the many. Why? Because the age we’re a part of is so complex and its momentum is too strong to ever stop or even slow it. Those who try will find themselves outsiders. Thus the life we’re talking about has no chance of succeeding. I alluded to this already in an earlier blog entry.

           It’s true, if you look at history, that each new age brought increased material gains, but it’s also true that these gains were accompanied at each step of the way by a corresponding loss of centeredness and sense of place. Anthropological literature is filled with examples, but I have only to look around to see it in action in our own changing era. “The homeless mind,” says the title of one book about it. “The lonely crowd” is another. The age of anomie. Let’s not kid ourselves about this intangible consequence of modernity.

           Okay, so if we’re living in a time of material prosperity and spiritual want, have we more or less accepted that this is our lot in life? I ask this because most of us seem to be dancing to the tune and so few actually sit it out for fear of being left behind. If so, my books may have no place in this America, other than as quaint relics of an individual who loved his country but had nothing the least bit useful to contribute to it.

            I’ve wondered on occasion if this might not be the case, and that it may take a cataclysm such as one of the massive volcanic eruptions at Yellowstone that obliterated much of America long ago to halt this “march of progress.” I’ve also thought that the survivors of such an event might be more appreciative than we are today of any clues as to how they might find themselves again and start afresh. Not to create a new America, but a renewed one. We’ve already got the building blocks—our founding fathers (and the women who worked side by side with them) provided those. All we need is to have another look at them, and make better choices about how we might use them. Yet I have no wish for such a cataclysm. It would be fraught with dangers, and there’s no guarantee that survivalists with guns won’t gain control and try to create a new society along their own stunted lines.

           Yet I’m certain that the simple life—or the first step toward it—is within our grasp, within our own times. I’ve described it in my work. We have a country of seemingly unlimited intelligence and ingenuity; we’ve got energy; we’ve got a sense of the potential of our own freedom and we’ve got hope for the future. All we lack are good ideas and will. I’ve tried to help with the ideas part—as have others—and supplying the will is up to all of us.

           It seems I’ve expanded my topic a bit. It started as: would a simple life be boring? I’ve added two more considerations: would a simple life ruin the economy, and would it be impossible to achieve? Let me be brief. No, no, and no. That is, not necessarily. It all depends on how it’s done.

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