“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Romans 7.15
When I go to pick up my daughter at the end of the day, I’m usually flustered from my usual routine which involves alternating between paralysis at all the things I could do on my to-do list and actually running around trying to do them all. Of course, after a long day of listening and sitting, she comes running out of the door and nearly knocks me over with her hug. She’s eager to play with me, and I’m in need of a strong cup of coffee or a nap. A couple of weeks ago, while we stood outside the school waiting for the bell to ring, I was telling a Japanese mother I know about whatever mostly unnecessary things I’d tried to get done that day. “What did you do?” I asked after I finished. This is something I try to do more often. Stop talking and ask questions. Listen. Find out how other people do things. Learn.
“Oh, I took yoga class, and then I took a nap before coming.”
“Wow, you’re so smart,” was all I could say.
She went on, “It’s a long day. After I get him to bed, I have to clean up, make lunch…but if I take a nap, I have energy.”
“Wow, you’re so good,” I said.
“It’s really very… simple,” she answered, trying to find the words.
And ever since that conversation, I’ve been trying to figure out why the simple things can seem so hard. Why is it there are so many websites and books dedicated to teaching people how to live simply? And why is it that half of those aren’t actually teaching simplicity, but are actually adding to the do-list of unnecessary things? A magazine that claims to be all about making life “really simple” explains how to take an old frame and line it with fabric for an instant vanity tray, or how to collect cute coasters and repurpose them as gift tags. A lot of the suggestions end with, “Voila!” But these mini projects don’t seem like they belong in a life of simplicity. To live simply doesn’t seem like it would require reading a slew of self-help books, any article that begins with a number- “99 Ways to Instantly Simplify,” or the use of the word “voila.” This kind of information can have quite an allure, but for me, they’re really just another means of avoidance- procrastinating doing the things that I already know are important. It’s always humorous to me when articles that begin with “New scientific study shows…” actually state the really obvious- like: people who exercise experience less stress, or people who create a spending budget tend to be more financially stable. These principals never really change, and most of us know them already. So why are they so hard to live by?
Simple things are hard because their pay-off isn’t as easily quantifiable or immediate as the extraneous “project” variety. I can invent projects to do around the house, and if I’m particularly productive, I can see the end result in one day. I can check it off my to-do list and feel accomplished. The “simple” things, though, feel more Sisyphean; I can exercise today, but I’ll have to do it again tomorrow- and the next day. It will never be checked off because it is so basic and so integral.
Simple things are hard because even though I say they are my priorities, my time management probably won’t reflect that. The “tyranny of the urgent” will often overcome my desire for the important. I need to buy a birthday gift for my daughter’s friend, file my taxes, get that permission slip in by Thursday. These are the time-sensitive things that each new season has its own share of. They’re the reason friends trying to get together say, “Let’s try after the holidays when things calm down,” or “Let’s try to get together during the summer in a few weeks!” as if there will ever come a time when all of those seasonal tasks don’t need tending to.
Simple things are hard because you have to start them. Writer Elizabeth Gilbert, in a recent post on her Facebook page, says, “beginnings are so difficult precisely BECAUSE they are simple- because they demand ‘a radical internal simplification.’ ” (she is quoting poet David Whyte here) There are no externally imposed deadlines, no New Years Day resolutions past January, and nothing to research or read up on. But if you’re like me, you’ll find things to research. I’m going to start a new exercise routine- then I must research and write down all of my options- I must visit four gyms in my area, and three yoga studios. Before I know it, weeks have passed- and I’m still not ready to begin.
The simple things are hard because we know they are “the” things. They are the most fundamental things, and as such, they force us to take a good, hard look at…ourselves. When you take away all of the things we use to distract ourselves – there we are. There we are on the yoga mat, feeling the breath enter our lungs- feeling our creatureliness. There we are lying down in the afternoon- surrendering all of the things we weren’t able to get done because if we don’t rest, we’ll be tired later on. And when we have exercised our physical bodies, and rested our minds, we’ll be left without the lack of exercise or sleep as excuses for our remaining human frailty- an imperfect body, a lack of patience. When we stand amongst other moms at pick-up, we’ll find ourselves ousted from the competition of who’s the busiest or the most tired. When we’ve finally sat down at the keyboard to incarnate one of those “brilliant” ideas, we might find it wasn’t as brilliant in the flesh as it was while floating in our minds.
But anyone who’s had any success at prioritizing the simple, basic things- knows the reward of looking oneself straight in the eye. It’s not the satisfaction of checking things off a to-do list. It’s the beauty of being alive. To do the simple things, you leave the projects at home and go for a twenty minute walk. On that walk, you see the sky- you actually see it. You hear the birds- they actually sing. You take 30 minutes out of your day to just sit. You may be agitated just sitting there like that so unnaturally. You will have nothing to show for it, nothing you can point to. You sit down to write because it is one of your simple things that makes you feel your humanness. Maybe no one will read it. Maybe you’ll only manage a few sentences in a whole morning. Don’t be deceived, I tell myself- the simple things aren’t actually that simple to do. But they are worth the effort and I will get better with practice.