Simple Living: Location and Lifestyle

During the summer I spent time as an Eva Koch scholar at Woodbrooke – the Quaker study centre in Birmingham. I was researching the subject of Simplicity, which is a Quaker Testimony alongside Peace, Truth and Equality. This is the third in a series of six articles that I wrote based on my research and the one-to-one interviews I conducted. These articles have previously been published in the Friend magazine.


Exploring the influence of culture and lifestyle.

What is a ‘simple life’ and how and where can we lead one? An unexpectedly rich seam from the simplicity interviews I conducted came from asking how people’s cultural background and upbringing affected their approach to simplicity.

In the BBC Radio 4 series Great Lives, Ann Limb suggested that the seeds of the testimony of simplicity were sown in George Fox’s experience and enjoyment of the simple lifestyle of a shepherd. Jonathan Fryer said that Fox ‘loved being out on the moors with the sheep because it gave him days of solitude and reflection’. How do people’s lifestyles relate to simplicity today?

Travelling changes people

Firstly, I found that people who travelled came back changed. One Friend spent three years travelling following a redundancy. He described seeing other people live very simply, through poverty or circumstance, and that they often appeared happy and socially connected with others. It made him feel the truth of ‘less is more’, and when he returned he rented out his house, bought a boat to live on, and disposed of many of his possessions. The remote places he visited affected him: ‘When I left I would say I believed in God but I was always a bit sceptical, but through travelling, through being on my own… it made me feel very different about spirituality.’ His new appreciation of reflective time drew him to Quakers.

Experiencing other cultures

In his 1941 essay The Blessed Community, Thomas R Kelly talks about finding fellowship when experiencing ‘overwhelming seas of love of God’, and that ‘in the fellowship cultural and educational and national and racial differences are leveled.’ In one sense this is true, but we live in a world with huge inequality that has become increasingly visible. Participants who had lived and worked in other places often found that facing these inequalities changed them profoundly.

One person had worked with street children in Kolkata for Tear Fund. ‘When I turn on a tap, even now, I’m thankful it’s clear water that comes out of it not brown water,’ she told me. She feels more gratitude for what she has and now buys fairtrade goods. Another, who worked with VSO in Pakistan and the Punjab, said ‘it changed me fundamentally… I came back and I stripped so much back of my life because I’d seen such extreme poverty’.

‘Very few people can live a true simple life in western industrial societies’ say Cecile Andrews and Wanda Urbanska in Inspiring People to See That Less is More (State of the World 2010: Transforming Cultures from Consumerism to Sustainability), insisting that the simplicity movement needs to ‘move to a greater advocacy of public policy change’ and praising projects that protect existing sustainable lifestyles from the impact of consumerism.

A Friend who had lived in China and Japan said that living in other cultures ‘forms you as a person’. Another who had worked in Sri Lanka felt they benefitted from being time rich while we are time poor. We also have lessons to learn about sustainability. In Holiness in the Everyday, David Cadman says other cultures, including Aboriginal and Native American, have a ‘treasury of stories and myths’ that show how to live in harmony with the land, requiring qualities like co-operation, generosity, patience and sufficiency.

Quakers in some countries were less engaged with the testimony of simplicity. One Friend lived in Sweden and acknowledged that Scandinavian culture is naturally quite simple, but said that Swedish Quakers don’t talk about these things much. Another lived in Italy where the convinced Friends at his meeting are new to Quaker traditions and in a learning process about lifestyles and testimonies.

Living in community

Several Friends had experience of living in community as a way of leading simple, sustainable lives. These included Findhorn, L’Arche, WWOOF and Quaker communities. Relationships proved the most challenging element for one Friend who cited Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, saying that when living in community your worst enemy will be living with you. Another said living in a religious order, despite a simple physical lifestyle, was the opposite of simplicity intellectually.

Young adult Friends were notably more interested in community living. One lived in Nepal as a child and was affected by seeing extreme poverty. He remembered having simple toys like all the other children but ‘coming back (to the UK) and being bombarded… with everybody wanting more.’ He later lived in a L’Arche community and learnt ‘…the wellbeing of a community is dependent on its embracing of diversity… the person who’s most different from you, like this gentlemen who’s totally non-verbal, he was the one who I needed to be with because he could change me in a way that somebody who had a degree from Oxford couldn’t. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that we’re not somehow malnourished because we’re just all basically middle-class, white, highly educated people’.

Where we live: city versus country

Amidst nature was where many Friends felt closest to God/spirit, whether a city garden or the countryside, but a dichotomy emerged as to whether simplicity was easier in a rural setting or the town. One Friend said that simplicity is nurture and going back to the land as people, another that it is being more in tune with nature – the way people used to live. The past had a strongly evocative hold for people, who shared experiences of relatives who had simpler, more inventive, lifestyles when living through the war years. One Friend regretted the loss of the creative smallholder culture on the island where she lived – changes in land ownership and economics meant she could not afford land or that lifestyle.

‘When you live in a city you are much more likely to get swept into excess and living a more complicated life,’ said one Friend who previously lived on a boat. Several felt the limited choices offered by rural living reduced the temptation to buy, encouraging local barter systems and co-operation and freeing up time. Community was also important. Thoreau’s choice to live in a hut in the woods raised debate, one seeing it as a ‘selfish choice’, another as highlighting the possibilities for others.

Public transport and not needing a car was the main reason participants felt city living was simpler, along with access to cultural events and work. It is human nature for people to move towards cities for work/wealth said one Friend.

Being where we are

Rufus Jones, in Quakerism and the Simple Life published in 1906, says the simple life he advocates is as ‘good for city as for country, and possible for the millionaire or the city sweeper’. Ultimately simplicity is personal to individuals: ‘Not everybody is going to want a smallholding in the depths of Derbyshire’ said one Friend.

However, if we think that we can change our lives by moving to a place with a simpler culture we are mistaken, says Thomas R Kelly in The Simplification of Life. He tried living the ‘quiet life of the South Seas’ but: ‘I found that Americans carry into the tropics their same mad-cap, feverish life which we know on the mainland. Complexity of program cannot be blamed upon complexity of our environment… Nor will simplification of life follow simplification of environment.’

Wherever we live, Advices and Queries 41 reminds us that ‘a simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength’; something to be reached, says Rufus Jones, ‘not by a bound, but by steady obedience to the well known principles of the moral and spiritual life’.

This article first appeared in ‘the Friend’ on 14/10/2016

© Anne de Gruchy

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