This is part 2 in a series looking at what I've learned about some missing elements in the popular idea of "simplicity." Read part 1 here.
My Indonesian friend's shoulders drooped, her hand holding onto the tiny hand of her 5-year-old daughter. They walked home from another day of work--back to her small, simple house nestled among her extended family's houses.
She lived so simply, seeming to embrace that new American dream of the simple life. Walking everywhere. Meals made with ingredients bought from an outdoor market. Very little money spent on clothes. Not a single computer in the house. Evenings spent sitting on the front porch, talking with neighbors, children playing in the cramped spaces in the close neighborhood.
She saw me, her smile spreading open her entire face.
But I knew better. Knew the terror of abuse that was her life. Knew that her husband took all her money she earned and spent it on other women. Knew that she had bigger dreams than her simple life. Knew that the chances of those dreams ever coming true were sinking into poverty that drooped lower than her shoulders.
I also knew that the more I weaved my life with hers, the more complicated mine became. The closer I got to her mess, the messier mine was. No more care-free evenings on the front porch, laughing care-free at her oh-so-charming, but so dangerous husband's jokes. No time to finish that dinner-from-scratch meal as my friend walked into my kitchen with her bruises. No sense of feel-good that usually comes with giving, in the face of impossible odds that anything would ever change.
In many ways, though, the life I live in Indonesia follows much of the modern "simplicity" doctrine. Very little money spent for things other than grocery items. Most meals made from scratch. No cable or satellite TV. Simple life on a small island where my neighbors greet me in eternal summer.
But in other ways, we've chosen a life that is oh-so-complicated and messy. Having babies overseas. Trying to make a difference in a world of endless hurt. Complicated paperwork of passports and visas. Evenings filled with the nearby restaurant's karaoke machine, rumbling motorcycles passing by our house, smoke from burning trash filling our lungs.
And then there are the heart struggles--watching the battle all around me between materialism and poverty, between debt and saving, between selfishness and giving, between life and death. No easy answers. No simple philosophies.
But then I figured out that money and stuff aren’t the real issues. Hearts are.
Sometimes when I hear the word “simplicity” thrown around in American culture, I wonder if we, Americans, really believe in its current version. Do we think that having nothing brings us closer to God, or at least to true happiness? How much nothingness do we have to have? Have we become so busy riding our bikes to work, and baking our own bread, and throwing things away that we forget to hold onto the things that matter?
Do we turn away from complications of life that God uses to bless us in order to worship the austere god of simplicity? Do we spend too much energy on conserving energy, and are left in the dark about real needs? Do we understand that to truly live simply sometimes we have to let go of things that aren’t things?
As someone who likes stuff sometimes (like when it’s in my mom’s package), but doesn’t like stuff other times (when it’s smelly and strewn as trash all over the street), I have a message for you.
Stop the war on stuff. It isn’t the enemy.
Do we really want to live a simple life that ends with our own ability to merely stop buying ? Are we simplifying other things that never should go away? Do we put our significance in the Nothing? Or should there be a dependence that has nothing to do with our choice to conserve, but everything with our willingness to worship?
Having kids has become something that hardly fits in the American dream anymore, much less the average gas-efficient compact car.
Our American dream—even new modern simplified versions—often forgets about the nightmares of much of the world’s suffering.
We consider ourselves responsible world citizens if we consume less when maybe we should be giving more.
If you joined me on my errands, I could show you people who live simply and are miserable. They worry about their sick children’s medical bills. They wonder if their Muslim husbands will take second wives. They are afraid of evil spirits that they believe live in their tiny kitchens. They hold onto religion that worships self-denial and fasting and poverty, but will give them nothing in the end.
I could also show you people who have almost nothing and are happy. My husband spends his days with many of them. As a Mission Aviation Fellowship pilot, he flies Indonesian pastors to remote Borneo villages with few roads and dirt airstrips. He knows people who have no electricity, no 401(k)s and not a single pair of covered shoes.
But they are content, not because they have almost nothing, but because they serve God with everything. And they cling to promises of significance and hope and abundant life.
Let’s not be distracted either by acquiring things or throwing them away. Sometimes, it’s true, the stuff and the debt to get the stuff are prisons. But sometimes, they are just presents from mom, or gifts from our Father.
Picture at top: Village kids in the Borneo village of Mahak Baru, served by MAF. Second picture: Women from a Tarakan neighborhood. Last picture: A pastor's wife and relative and their kids from a small village interior.