Principle 8: Nature vs. Artifice

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Stay close to who and what you really are.

 

Every tool invented by mankind is essentially an extension of man’s hand or mind.

  • A pneumatic hammer, which drives a nail into wood or masonry, is basically a claw hammer on steroids. The claw hammer itself is just a fancy rock. And a rock is what a primitive human used to bash things that he couldn’t bash with his hand.
  • A jet plane is a horse and wagon, crossed with a ship, only really fast. Any vehicle does exactly what the human body can do—travel distances over land or water—only faster, farther, and loaded with cargo.
  • A computer does exactly what the human mind can do: store and retrieve information, perform mathematical computations, and manipulate data, only more quickly, more accurately, and at greater volume. These days a computer also frequently takes the place of paper and pen, and can even replace a drawer full of art supplies.

So, simplicity means doing only what you can do with your bare hands, traveling only as far as your own feet will take you, and doing all mathematics and information management in your head.

Just kidding!!

Tools and technology improve our lot in life by protecting us from the elements, enabling us to procure and prepare better food, allowing us to prevent and treat diseases and injuries, and making it possible to do things beyond the tasks essential for sheer survival.[1]

Modern modes of travel are wonderful, allowing us to connect quickly with all points of the globe for purposes of commerce, education and cultural enrichment. On a more local level, technological transportation, such as automobiles and mass transit, increases a person’s employment options, allows greater autonomy and personal liberty, and makes available a wider range of goods and services. (Even a person who doesn’t own an automobile can get around by taxi, bus, or train.)

But too much reliance on tools and technology has negative effects on us:

  • Technological advances in high-speed transportation and communication have indeed shrunk the world and made it easier than ever to “connect” with other people. Nevertheless, modern men and women in technologically advanced countries typically report a prevalence of loneliness, psychological disorders, stress, and dissatisfaction with life.[2]
  • Despite advances in agriculture and the availability of more and more options for healthy food and more and more leisure time that could be used to stay active, modern men and women in technological societies are fat and unhealthy like never before in history.[3]
  • The stay-at-home mom may be one of the loneliest occupations in America. Where did everybody go?[4] They’re all at work, doing everything they can to earn enough money to pay for their numerous cars, their spacious homes, their cable or satellite TV subscription and the several flat screen plasma TVs to watch, their internet service providers, their handheld smart phones, tablet, laptop, and desktop computers, their ready-made, pre-packaged boxes, cans, bags, and jars of food.

The 8th and final principle of simplicity is about preserving at least some of the essentially human touches in our lives and keeping at least some things immediate and scaled to human proportions. Examples of this principle in action:

  • If the weather is nice and the distance is reasonable, walk.
  • Instead of listening to prerecorded music on an mp3 player, grab a guitar, some friends, and sit around a bonfire making music.
  • For entertainment, when was the last time you attended a live theatre production? Or got together with a bunch of people and played board games?
  • Do we really need to buy pre-packaged cheese and crackers? How hard is it to put a handful of crackers in one Ziploc bag, a few slices of cheese in another? Instead of buying chili powder for seasoning your taco meat, did you know that you can make your own from salt, pepper, cumin, paprika, and cayenne pepper?
  • Connect to living food by growing at least some of what you eat. Even an apartment dweller can enjoy fresh summer tomatoes from a container on the balcony or grown in a rented plot at the community center. If you have a sunny window you could grow fresh herbs year-round.[5]

A review of the previous Principles of Simplicity:

Principle 7: Collaboration

Principle 6: Vigilance

Principle 5: Empty Space

Principle 4: Freely Chosen Constraints

Principle 3: Pruning

Principle 2: Detachment

Principle 1: Needs versus Wants

 

[1] See Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture for much more on this last subject. Men and women who do nothing but work degrade their humanity and actually begin to lose their cultural refinement.

[2] http://thelonelyamerican.com/

[3] http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html

[4] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0734692/

[5] http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/smart-techniques-growing-herbs-indoors

 

 

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Principle 7: Collaboration

Balance prudent self-reliance with healthy, interdependent relationships.

Some time ago, I came across a book called The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century[1](written by two psychiatrists). A quote from the book:

“Being neighborly used to mean visiting people. Now being nice to your neighbor means not bothering them.”

I think this anti-social attitude has infected much of the technologically advanced world, not just America. We leave people alone because we think that’s what they want, yet loneliness has become a hallmark complaint of modern men and women. We dare not show our faces on our neighbors’ front porches…

…yet we scrawl updates on the walls of their facebook pages, we tweet until our smart phones are hoarse, we forward emails to all our contacts. It’s paradoxical. We have an explosion of online social networks, endless opportunities to “connect,” but how many of us scroll through our computer screens, feverishly hitting the delete button, just looking for something—anything—from someone we actually know or that we actually want to spend time reading?[2]

It’s good lift up our eyes, away from our screens, and be really physically present to other human beings.

illustration from the front cover of O Come Ye Back to Ireland, painted by Christine Breen

Susan K. Rowland, in her book Make Room for God, discusses at length Sarah Lanier’s[3] comparison of “hot-climate” and “cold-climate” cultures:

“Hot-climate cultures are communal, group-oriented, inclusive and spontaneous. Cold-climate cultures are more individualistic, privacy-oriented and interested in structure and productivity.”

My parents grew up in England—which has elements of both hot- and cold-climate cultures—but cultures definitely collided when she encountered the true hot-climate culture of southern California in the 1960s. She and my dad had just moved to America with their infant daughter (me). After several months of dealing with the apparently certifiably insane population of La Mesa on the odd side of town, they moved into a new place. My mom, expecting the worst, battened down the hatches, unwilling to interact with more of these crazy Americans.

To no avail: one morning there was a knock on the sliding door of the kitchen. In walked her new neighbors with freshly baked goods and coffee. Long story short—these two or three families spent the next five years raising their small children together, and even though they now live across the continent from one another, they are friends to this day.

What does any of this have to do with simplicity?

Living and working in close proximity to other people, and building intentional community with them, simplifies things because you can pool resources of time and energy, tools and materials, emotional strength and physical skills.

“Many hands make light work.” (John Heywood, 1546)

Cocooning with just our nuclear family on the back deck while the front porch remains unused isolates and limits us. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel—you can ask your neighbor if you can borrow his wheel. And, even though we are sturdy, self-reliant Americans, we don’t have to do everything alone in this increasingly cold-climate culture:

  • The Amish and other “plain living” subcultures excel at the principle of collaboration, with their barn-raisings and other community activities.[4] [5]
  • Busy yuppies Niall Williams and Christine Breen experience the beauty of community and collaboration when they move from Manhattan to rural Ireland and work side-by-side with their neighbors on their farm.[6]
  • In The Way (2010, Directed by Emilio Estevez), a man grieves the death of his son, and also honors his son’s memory, by walking the historic “el camino de Santiago” (“the way of St. James) in France and Spain. On the journey he discovers the beauty of community and collaboration.

I’ll finish with a little anecdote from my own neighborhood. A friend who lives nearby was over at my house putting the finishing touches on some electrical work he had very kindly done for me.

As he was leaving, he said, “I think I’ll take my ladder home with me today, because I’ll need it for a project I have to do at my house.”

“Okay,” I said.

Then, after a moment’s thought, I said, “I think that ladder might be mine.”

“Hm,” he said, furrowing his brow. “Are you sure?”

We went to look at the ladder. It had been back and forth between his house and my house so often in recent months that neither of us could remember whose ladder it actually was!

He took it and used it for whatever it was he was working on, and I think it’s in my garage at the moment.

“Any culture emphasizing productivity cannot allow us to spend much time socializing.” (Susan K. Rowland Make Room for God)


[1] The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century by Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz (2009).

[2] Social Clear Cutting: Can Our Social Media Behaviors Destroy Our Social Environment?” This is a very good post by author Kristen Lamb. She writes passionately about the need to forge real connections with other people. Her target audience is other authors attempting to construct social platforms to promote their creative work, but her articles and books (We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer) still speak to anyone disillusioned by online social media and searching for rewarding interactions online.

[3] Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot- and Cold-Climate Cultures by Sarah Lanier (2000)

[4] Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish by Sue Bender (1989)

[6] O Come Ye Back to Ireland by Niall Williams and Christine Breen (1987)