The Challenge of Simplicity

As part of my Quaker Faith & Practice reading program, I have been looking at Chapter 23, which is about Social Responsibility. Amongst the many gems found here there are also many challenges – and there is nothing I find more challenging in my life that the Quaker Testimony about Simplicity.

I think Simplicity is a wonderful concept: Not owning more than you need; not using more than your fair share of the world’s resources; thinking about how your lifestyle impacts on others and on our lovely earth.

These things make total sense to me, yet this is perhaps the most demanding of the Quaker testimonies on a personal level – and for me this is especially true since I received some money after my uncle died and I have the cushion of some savings behind me.

Section 23.22 asks of us:

The main question for us who are comfortable is whether we use our positions of comparative power to arrogate to ourselves more than our reasonable share of the resources of the world. If so, we should try to redistribute what we can, to live in a more responsible way. For those who are poor, a different question arises: what is selfish materialism, and what is proper aspiration?

We cannot take more than our share of finite resources unless we have the power so to do. Poverty and powerlessness are bound up with each other. Poverty leads to powerlessness, and powerlessness leads to poverty.

Martin Wyatt, 1988

This is a huge challenge to me. All my life I have struggled to maintain work because of my mental health, and have had enough to get by and live well by the world’s standards, but not a lot to spare. Suddenly I am in a position where I have more than I need and it feels uncomfortable. But the piece above makes me realize that even when I had ‘little’, I had a lot. That, living in a wealthy western country, I have a power that is disproportionate, and I have a responsibility to act – both politically and on a personal level.

What does this mean to me? I have been asking myself. How should I act? Should I be selling up my three bedroom house, which is much bigger than I need, and buying a small bedsit somewhere and giving the money to some person or cause that needs it? How do I know where the money is needed or that it will be well used? But doing nothing is not an option. I feel paralyzed by uncertainty and doubt.

Then there is another layer to add. Take section 23.15:

Reduce and simplify your material needs to the point where you can easily satisfy them yourself, so that those who live for the Spirit and claim to live for it do not correspondingly increase the material burden weighing on other people, cutting them off from the possibility or even the desire to develop their spirit also…

Pierre Ceresole, 1937

Or section 23.16 iv)

We should seek for a way of living that will free us from the bondage of material things and mere conventions, that will raise no barrier between man and man, and will put no excessive burden of labour upon any by reason of our superfluous demands.

London Yearly Meeting (in response to the war of 1914-18)

It seems obvious to consider the inequalities in this world and the needs that people have materially, but these passages also address the way our lifestyles affect other people and our relationships with them, and also their ability to have a deep and fulfilling spiritual life. I find these concerns interesting, especially in the light of a recent survey that reported that the happiest and most fulfilled people appeared to be those living in very simple and materially poor conditions – yet rich in culture and love. Possessions do not always bring us happiness, but that does not abdicate us from our responsibilities to our fellow human beings and the earth.

There is no doubt that we are challenged to address the extreme inequalities in our world and also on our doorstep. I find that I am using the word ‘obscene’ increasingly frequently – that it is ‘obscene’ that we throw away food while others starve, or fund a £3.2million refurbishment of a local park while people sleep rough on the streets nearby. (Don’t write in! The park and community activities there are hugely beneficial – they would just be equally so with a quarter of the money…)

Looking closer to home I see that I also have a choice that balances money with time. I felt that my house was too big a place to shelter just one person, so decided to share my space with a house-sharer/lodger. This in turn has brought an extra income, and this in turn has allowed me to temporarily give up my paid employment to focus on caring for my dad and providing more input and support to the people around me. Not everybody has the luxury of time to give, but having money to invest in my home has given me this option. Is this a ‘cop out’ or an ‘opt in’? I can’t be sure.

So, the debate is ongoing for me. And, just like Quaker Faith & Practice, new insights will be forthcoming and there will be additions and updates along the way. I just hope that I am up to the challenge it presents.


Dying my hair the suitably named ‘Mystic Violet’ – violet shower, violet towels, violet fingers, too!


Playing scrabble with my lovely new man and actually winning!

© Anne de Gruchy

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