During a sermon on gratitude yesterday, our intern minister referred to a book about America before the Europeans arrived. The central point of the book is revealing the ways that the culture of Native Americans was more “developed” and “evolved” than most of us might suppose.
As a former social studies teacher the idea was not new to me, but it gave me pause as it clearly demonstrated this idea that we have, at least in the places where I experience the cultural cloud, that being evolved and developed is evidenced by complexity and complication. We are evolved when we live in dense centers of population and develop cultural events and places to hold them, when we do more stuff, when we have more stuff. It’s an interesting premise, an assumption. It’s an assumption I’m not sure I agree with.
It got me to wondering if we make this assumption on an individual level as well. Do we complicate things out of some kind of sense that THIS is what being grown, sophisticated, fulfilled, evolved is all about? I can’t speak for anybody else (as much as I’d like to), but for me the answer is an unqualified yes.
I have often complicated my life because I felt that was the responsible, the practical, the adult thing to do. I have lingered over problems and lived in the pause for months, nay years, at a time because answering a difficult question with the simplicity of what I wanted was unacceptable. I have added things to my life because my culture tells me they are the right things to want, to seek, to add, and to plan for me and for my family. I have chosen complexity as evolution. I am sitting here seeing that so clearly and yet seeing it doesn’t necessarily make clear an alternate path.
This is the part of this tale of complexity and cultural absorption where another writer would encourage you to embrace simplicity: to downsize, to purge all of the trappings of commercial existence. I’m pretty sure I’ve bought books about doing just that – yes the irony is everywhere.
I am not that writer. I can appreciate simplicity but frankly am not that low maintenance (and that’s an admission that has been a long time coming). I greatly enjoy creature comforts. I also really love to have enough room to be by myself despite having a full house. And then, there are the books.
My life is also tied to the lives of at least three other people who have little interest in tiny houses and washing dishes by hand.
So perhaps it’s a cheat, but in challenging this artificial complexity, I want to recommend not a zealous pursuit of simplicity, but the more ambiguous but tremendously revealing practice of discernment.
For those of us who live or have lived with ministers, discernment is a regular part of common speech, but it doesn’t necessarily get a lot of play elsewhere, which is interesting in and of itself. Merriam-Webster tells us that discernment is: “the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure.”
In the ministerial context, discernment usually refers to sorting out one’s call to ministry: “What is God calling me to do in this moment, in this career, in this life?” In other contexts, discernment really just refers to engaging in a careful examination of the stuff that may not be visible on the surface when you have a choice to make. Discernment is usually seen as a process, one that involves a pause and some serious reflection.
And so I return to this idea of complexity and simplicity in our lives and which path is better for us. We reach complexity through addition: the addition of stuff, the addition of needs and wants, the addition of ideas about who we are and should be, the addition of obligations, the addition of activities, the addition of relationships and connections. We reach simplicity through subtraction of the same list.
It seems to me that we cannot simply say that either complexity or simplicity are inherently virtuous/better/more evolved, but that it is proceeding through our lives with discernment that allows us to be more healthy, better developed, both more human and divine as we navigate the terrain before us.
How do we exercise that discernment? The temptation is to gather data, but I want to suggest an alternate path, one that digs into the obscure bits that don’t usually get featured in our pro-con way of making choices.
When we want to add to our lives: be still for a moment and see how the body feels with the idea of this addition. Does it feel light, expansive, warm, excited? Does it feel heavy, tied down, drained, exhausted? The body can help you to discern how you feel about things that you may not feel good about saying out loud (even to yourself).
When we want to subtract: be still for a moment and see how the body feels with the idea of this subtraction. Does it feel more free? Does breathing become deeper and more satisfying? Does the body contract and shrink? The body can tell you when it’s time to let go of something and when something should be maintained.
Discernment can be tricky. You mind has a library of books full of stories between you and the answers to the questions you ask, the choices you long to make. What if the body can light up that darkness with some clarity? What if the way that you actually feel can make the obscure tangible?
As we enter into this season of gratitude and gathering, take a moment to check in with that body and see what she has to say about all of this. Where does your complexity fill your cup? When does simplicity feed your soul? What choices are actually so much simpler than your brain wants them to be?
Ask your body. She knows.