Exploring the Quaker Testimony of Simplicity
This article is a very gentle exploration of some of the ethics and spirituality around the Quaker Testimony of Simplicity. Some of the material for the article has been drawn and developed from the ‘Virtues / Simplicity’ page of Wikiversity (https://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Virtues/Simplicity); from the abstract of a paper entitled ‘The Virtue of Simplicity’ (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10806-009-9187-0), published in The Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics; and from discussions with Friends (Quakers).
The Religious Society of Friends has existed for nearly 360 years without credal statements or articles of faith, and the modern Society attracts people holding widely disparate beliefs. No more than the Quaker Advices and Queries are directives to be obeyed, so the material presented here is intended only to stimulate thought and reflection. The challenge is to support every Friend in exploring and deepening their own spirituality. The Quaker Testimonies help us to achieve this.
Making sense of the word ‘simplicity’
Simplicity involves removing the extraneous to reveal the essence. It grasps the essence that organises what is apparently complex. Simplicity reveals an elegance that is often understood only after examining and comprehending great complexity.
Simplicity rejoices in the essence it reveals.
Simplicity does not spring from an incapacity to engage with the demands and complexities of life. Neither is simplicity merely simplistic. Simplistic ideas are false because they take invalid short-cuts that misrepresent the complexities, subtleties, and full scope of reality.
Simplicity is the direct alignment with reality. Simplicity reveals what is, directly, without pretence or exaggeration.
Simplicity is the opposite of false and its various manifestations including:
- Exaggeration, pretension, grandiloquence / bombast
- Employing empty rhetoric
- Masquerading, obfuscating
- Dissembling, intentionally misleading, falsehood
- Intentionally misunderstanding
- Being in denial
- Using prevarication as a device to stymie
Simplicity lies between excess and deficiency. Simplicity is opposed to excess, and its various manifestations including:
- Gaudiness, ostentatiousness
- Opulence, extravagance
Simplicity in one’s daily life is not about stoically committing to a life of poverty and asceticism, but instead to pursuing a life of purpose and authenticity.
Although the two are often equated, simplicity is not synonymous with the aesthetic of minimalism.
Simplicity is also the opposite of indirect, and its various manifestations including:
- Using obliqueness in order to evade
- Roundabout / circuitous
In choosing between two or more plausible theories, scientists generally favour the simpler one until evidence invalidates the theory. According to Occam’s razor, all other things being equal, the simplest theory is more likely to be of value. A similar concept of parsimony is used in philosophy of science: the simpler explanation of a phenomenon is more highly valued.
Much of the economically-developed world is currently organised along consumer capitalist lines, powerfully emphasising a strongly materialist outlook. Here are some questions that address the extent to which you are orientated towards materialism. As with any questionnaire, there may be a temptation to respond to the questions in such a way as to achieve a specific result. You are invited to take your time in responding to the questions in order to examine your preferences more deeply, perhaps getting to know yourself a little better.
To what extent do you tend to admire or dismiss a person because they own:
- an expensive home? (SWIA 1AA)
- an expensive car?
- expensive clothes? (“Careful. This suit cost more than your education.”)
To what extent do you believe that acquiring or failing to acquire at least a minimum of material possessions is a measure of:
- a person’s success in life?
- your own success in life?
How often do you dress:
- expensively (if you are able to)?
- flamboyantly? Ostentatiously?
- to be admired for your taste?
How much do you typically wear an item of clothing:
- once or twice, then I sell it?
- half a dozen times, then it goes to a charity shop?
- for a year or two, then it gets put in bag in the loft?
- until it drops to bits?
Which material objects that you own speak about how well you are doing in life?
Which material objects in your home
- remind you about your identity?
- tell visitors to your home about your identity?
- are intended to impress visitors to your home?
- do you feel ashamed about other people seeing?
What kinds of material objects in the home of another person do you tend to notice?
With which of the following statements do you agree / disagree?
- I have too much stuff and could do with paring things down a bit
- I don’t want any more stuff because I already have all the material possessions I require to enjoy my life
- I don’t really want more stuff but I’d rather own better-quality things (better house, better kitchen, better car, better clothes, better electronic equipment)
- It bothers me that I cannot afford everything I should like to have. I feel motivated to do something about it.
- Being poor upsets me. I barely have the basics. I should be happier if I could afford to buy more.
Make a list of all the items that would make your life better if you owned them. Rewrite the list as two columns. In the first column, list all the wild fantasy suggestions (Van Gogh original, Jaguar XJS, Cessna light aircraft, etc.), and in the second column, list all the more down-to-earth suggestions (a more reliable central heating system, a front porch, a polytunnel in the garden).
Do you think you could be as happy as you are now, or perhaps even happier, if you had fewer possessions?
To what extent do you derive pleasure from the act of buying things, even If you don’t need them, or even have no use for them? How long after you get the item home /receive it by delivery does the pleasure last?
How important to you are life’s little luxuries? What are the luxuries in your life?
On a scale of 0 to 10, compared with other people you know, how much emphasis would you say you place on
- having possessions?
- having possessions that function effectively and efficiently?
- having possessions that you find aesthetically pleasing?
Voluntary material simplicity
It is open to question whether, beyond a certain limit, materialism is able to deliver greater personal well-being, subjective happiness, and human, societal and environmental flourishing. This shortcoming tends to be addressed by demanding and making incremental regulatory changes intended to mitigate the worst effects of consumer capitalism. Some people call instead for radical political reform. Alternatively, ‘voluntary material simplicity’ involves individuals taking personal responsibility for the impact of consumer capitalism on their lives and on the environment.
Voluntary material simplicity is a conscientious and restrained attitude towards material goods. It typically includes:
- greater awareness regarding personal consumption
- an intentional reduction in personal consumption
- greater deliberation regarding consumer decisions
- a more focused life in general (unfocused lives risk being more wasteful)
- a greater and more nuanced appreciation for material goods
- a greater and more nuanced appreciation for things other than material goods
Voluntary material simplicity involves conscious choice, and can therefore be distinguished from involuntary poverty, and from an inability to engage with the demands and complexities of life. There is more to voluntary material simplicity than a simplistic return to nature.
Voluntary material simplicity can contribute to:
- individual flourishing
- societal flourishing
- greater individual autonomy
- gaining knowledge and understanding about the world, about society and about oneself
- living more meaningfully
- preserving and protecting animals, plants, biodiversity, ecosystems and the general environment of the planet that is our home
Voluntary material simplicity is a virtue because it furthers human flourishing, both individual and social, and sustains nature’s ecological flourishing. Voluntary material simplicity overlaps with traditional virtues such as temperance and prudence, and sustains and enables traditional virtues such as justice and charity.
Quakers and simplicity
The earliest Friends believed that the Second Coming was imminent, and were fearful that they would be caught unprepared. Therefore, they devoted what remained of their lives to making themselves ready. Anything that detracted from this purpose was considered to be risking their immortal soul and failing to take the matter seriously. In purifying their lives, Friends saw the sin of vanity as an obvious and easy target, and so plain clothes and plain furnishings were adopted. Cut flowers were considered to be frivolous and ostentatious, and were consequently avoided. How different from today when many people consider cut flowers to be ‘natural’ and ‘pure’. Conspicuous consumption was considered to be spiritually misguided, as well as wasteful and extravagant. The Quaker Testimony of Simplicity helped Friends to prepare and protect their immortal soul.
Modern Quakers are less likely than their forebears to believe that the Second Coming is imminent, and fewer, although perhaps still many, believe that they have an immortal soul. How important is the Testimony of Simplicity to modern Quakers? Some Quakers are sufficiently exercised about environmental threat that they do try to lead a life involving a smaller carbon footprint, eating fewer food miles, Freecycling unwanted goods and buying second-hand clothes. Some Quakers are concerned about the assaults on emotional well-being by twenty-four hour rolling news, always-on social media, and the apparent deterioration in standards of public and political discourse. In response, they seek a quieter, contemplative, reflexive and simpler way of being. Perhaps a modern Quaker Testimony of Simplicity would propose a melding of voluntary material simplicity with purposeful spiritual endeavour.
A purposeful spiritual endeavour
There are many religions and religious sects that make use of focused spiritual discipline. All Muslims are encouraged to pray five times every day. Zen Buddhist monasteries structure time for the practice of meditation. The spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius form the cornerstone of Ignatian spirituality: a way of understanding and living one’s relationship with God in the world as practised by members of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). ‘Tertiaries’ (lay members of religious orders) follow some of the ‘rules’ of the religious order to which they are attached.
Quakers, being disparate, have no fixed ‘rule’. This does not mean, however, that individual Quakers do not adopt a spiritual discipline for themselves. Some Quakers choose to pray and / or meditate according to a pattern. Some study the Bible methodically. Some choose to meditate on passages in Quaker Faith and Practice. Many Quakers study the Quaker Advices and Queries, explore the immediate relevance of these, and do their best to live faithful lives. Many Quakers exercise the discipline of carrying into every encounter their awareness of ‘that of God in everyone’. The Quaker Testimonies, including the Testimony of Simplicity, form a part of this matrix of writing, personal reflection, and action in everyday life.
Simplicity in one’s daily life
Simplicity in living life can be surprisingly difficult to achieve. It may be necessary to progress towards some of the virtues listed elsewhere in order to progress towards a way of living that is outwardly simple and inwardly rich. The following list gives examples of the way one might practise the virtue of simplicity every day.
- Identify what matters to you most, decide your priorities, then focus on living your priorities to the full.
- Try to be assiduous in removing distraction from your life. Distraction can be of value when one is beset by negative emotions. However, distraction prevents one from addressing, engaging in and completing the task at hand, and one’s priorities.
- Align your worldview to correspond with the real world as it truly is, and not pretend that it is (or ought to be) how you’d like it to be. Try to adopt as global a perspective as you are able.
- Recognise and transcend dogma. Identify instead your own values and principles.
- Recognising and speaking the truth can be simple (although not always easy), whereas lies and cover-ups always involve complication.
- Acceptance is simple (although often far from easy), denial is complicated. Accept and embrace what is.
- Think about something until it becomes clear to you. Do not baulk at being required to think deeply.
- Obfuscating is dishonest. Speak as clearly, succinctly, directly, candidly, and straightforwardly as you are able.
- State the obvious, but don’t pretend that it is more than it is. Add to the obvious what is meaningful.
- Making excuses for yourself complicates, whereas doing what you say you will do is simple.
- Avoid over-administering. Remove unnecessary bureaucracy. Simplify necessary bureaucracy, focusing on adding value.
- If you own a car, try to walk more and drive less.
- Shed what is superfluous and feels burdensome.
- As far as possible, want only what you have. Avoid lusting after newer, shinier, bigger or more powerful.
- If you are able, fix it yourself rather than calling the plumber, gardener, or handyman.
- Declutter your accommodation, including cupboards, wardrobes, loft, garage and office.
- Dress and groom simply. Avoid showy jewellery, elaborate makeup or hairstyling, conspicuous tattoos / body piercings, and pretentious fashions.
- Eat food (don’t worship it), not too much, mostly from plants.
- When you listen to music, actively listen to the music.
- Value silence and sanctuary. Create silence in your life and take time to enjoy it. Learn to quiet your mind.
- Resolve destructive emotions.
- Identify, address and overcome addictions.
- Exploring who you truly are, with all your complexities, will reveal to yourself deeper layers of your self.
- Embrace your self (who you truly are), not your ego (a construct).
- How willing are you to accept as though your own, values and principles given to you by people and organisations? Are you able to think of occasions when you have rejected values and principles that had been or were being foisted on you? How easy is it for you to stand apart from the values and principles of the community in which you were raised or currently live?
- Are you able to think of an example of when you have dishonestly covered something up. If you were found out, how did you feel? How could you have handled the situation differently? Would it have been simpler had you been open from the first?
- How willing are you to think about a complex or difficult issue sufficiently deeply that the issue becomes clear to you? Give some examples that illustrate this point.
- How ready are you to excuse yourself when the going gets tough? Or when a more attractive alternative presents itself? Suggest examples when you have resisted making excuses.
- How often do you do things with the intention of strengthening your sense of agency and autonomy? Give some examples. Has this process ever ‘back-fired’ on you?
- To what negative emotions are you prone? What strategies do you use to cope with them? Have you ever sought help to address them? If so, what happened?
- Do you drink tea or coffee? Have you ever tried giving up all caffeine (including de-caff) for a month? If so, what happened to you? Have you any other addictions? If so, what are you doing about them?
- Decide how you can improve your life by removing a physical thing you are holding onto and could manage without. Make the change. Notice if this helps move you toward simplicity.
- Decide how you can improve your life by removing a habit or behaviour you are holding onto and could do without. Make the change. Notice if this helps move you toward simplicity.
- Decide how you can improve your life by removing a preoccupation you are holding onto and could manage without. Make the change. Notice if this helps move you toward simplicity.
- For the next month, avoid excusing your behaviour. (This is not the same as offering a full and sincere apology.) For example, if it is your habit is to arrive late at a weekly meeting, to smile awkwardly, and then to make up some flimsy excuse (“Traffic!”), instead try saying nothing and decide how you actually feel about arriving late. Then make the change to arriving on time. Notice if this helps move you toward simplicity.
- Examine your beliefs, speech and habits to identify any that are pretentious, ostentatious, false, extraneous, cumbersome, obsolete, or merely clutter. List everything from which you would now like to ‘move on’. In each case, decide how you intend to make the changes.
- Examine your clothing, jewellery, furnishings, and other possessions to identify any that are pretentious, ostentatious, false, extraneous, cumbersome, obsolete, or merely clutter. List everything you would like to ‘move on’. Decide how best to part with each item (eBay, Gumtree, Freecycle, charity shop, a friend, recycling centre).
- How comfortable are you with extended periods of silence? Do you find yourself increasingly enthusiastic to break the silence? In what respects is silence when you are on your own different from when you sit in silence with other people?