Life is short. You have a finite number of days to live. How are you going to spend them? Are you going to live someone else’s life, go through someone else’s motions, or you are going to get clear about what matters most to you and get on with living that?
I have these blinding flashes of urgency often. I go to bed determined to get up the next day and live the simple life I crave. The first email or call so often sets me on a path to another day of more of the same scrambling to keep my head above water. Sound familiar?
It turns out that living simply is more complex than good intentions. The reality is that people and circumstances often get in the way of simplicity. It takes some planning, some hardnosed choices and a whole lot of discipline to live simply. You have to plan for a life with fewer plans. You have to prepare to be spontaneous. You have to put well being on your to do list.
There is a massively subtle distinction between straightforward and simple, and a similar difference between complicated and complex. If we can understand these distinctions, it can help us live the life we seek.
Life is rarely straightforward but it CAN be simple. I don’t know about you but I don’t even WANT life to be straightforward. For me it’s the complexities of life that make it interesting. I love that everyone is different and (most of the time) I enjoy the delicate interaction of all of this diversity. I love (most of the time) the paradoxes in my own personality, my own ever changing blend of extroversion and introversion. I love (most of the time) not knowing the future. It means it’s always open and full of possibilities. As Gilda Radner said,
I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.
I don’t want a straightforward life, but I do want a simple life. I believe I can have both. Simplicity for me is a mindset and a priority of choices. If I keep my values clear in my mind, I can deal with any complexity. The more I accept the complexities of life, and stop expecting them to be otherwise, and continually make choices that support my values, I can work toward a simple life.
The problem is that I tend to complicate things. Complexity I love. Complications I can do without.
Take for example this crazy scenario. While typing this article, I was straining to see my screen. I’m in the middle of a long transition to wearing glasses for reading. It’s long mainly because of stubbornness and denial. Changing the size of the font, contorting my neck and squinting to see the screen, I refused to reach out one arm’s length to grab my glasses and solve the problem.
Stubbornness and denial are just two of the many reasons we make things harder than they need to be. If only I would own the complexities of aging I would stop complicating my life with denial. In other words, things don’t have to be perfect to be perfectly simple. It’s all in how you look at life.
It’s like the old Buddhist saying, “When you realize how perfect everything is, you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky.”
Striving for simplicity? Stop trying. It’s like looking for your glasses. You can’t find them because you don’t have your glasses on. You can’t find peace of mind as if it’s outside of you. You are looking without the benefit of the very thing that will get you there. It’s as if the glasses are lost on the top of your head. Just tilt your head to the sky, take in the night sky, feel your place in the miracle of it all, let your head lower back to the reality in front of you and peace of mind will fall into place, like glasses falling gently back into position. Let simplicity unfold effortlessly in your life.
There’s a great story about the time master magician Harry Houdini was locked in a jail cell. He was shackled and handcuffed and left in the cell. He went to work, freeing himself from the shackles, then removing the handcuffs. Finally he set to work on the cell door lock. He had no luck. He tried everything but couldn’t pick the lock. Finally, in desperation, he gave up and leant back exhausted against the door. It swung open and he fell out. It had never been locked.
Peace of mind is much the same. We strive to find it when all we need to do it let go and stop complicating things.
Life is complex and this is part of the beautiful, perfect imperfection of life. But it can be simple. You still have to make complex decisions; about when to put a pet down, how to convince your kids to soar higher than the words of those around them that want to drag them down, how to rebuild trust after betrayal, and so many other daily decisions.
But when you stop complicating it with denial, stubbornness and unrealistic expectations, you can tune in to an innate wisdom that will know what to do, when and how. Tune in and listen. Stop the struggle.
As Einstein said, “”Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”