The song, ‘Tis a gift to be simple’ closes its’ final refrain with, “Only by turning, turning do we turn ‘round right”. In this song, to be ‘turned round right’ is the gift of living simply. From here, one may consider that our Testimony of Simplicity is about returning – returning to Truth.
This year’s Epistle from Britain Yearly Meeting suggested that British Friends are embracing a fundamental truth: that we live on a finite planet where the only way to survive, much less thrive during a changing climate is to transform our relationships to one another and the earth – from production to consumption to governance. Truth: that this work is about justice, love, and reconciliation.
George Fox warned to ‘keep your testimony against the world’s vast fashions’ and to be ‘plain.’ Sometimes ‘green’ feels like a fashion, more talk than action. But it is much more than that.
Curious to explore the connections between sustainability and simplicity, a small group of Quakers gathered in Brighton Friends Meeting house to discuss the relationship between our testimony to simplicity and sustainability. We had a simple meal where Friends brought food they felt qualified as ‘simple’. We started the dinner discussing our reflection process for this: in our experience, what made a particular dish ‘simple’? For most of us, ‘sustainability’ was an automatic: we wanted food that was organic, local and fresh. We wanted things that were easy, too: I decided against a soup that required a lot of preparation time. ‘Simple’, we found, meant something we made ourselves – and something that had meaning to us. I (an American) brought cornbread and a fresh tomato-and-avocado salad. (The avocados were not local.) It was food that reminded me of my childhood which, for some reason, I associate with the Testimony – perhaps because ‘truth’, ‘simplicity,’ ‘depth of self’ and ‘history’ somehow go together – though, really, my family rarely ate cornbread. There was some delicious dahl, an excellent mushroom risotto, homemade chutney, yams with rice, local cheese, local apples and grapes. And extra rosemary. In short, it was a delicious, nutritious meal - if a bit on the stodgey side.
In our discussion, we found that the difference between ‘easy’ and simple’ was particularly important – and challenging. Today’s fashion has it that ‘simple’ equates ‘easy’ – easy food, easy relationships, easy work. Easy come – and easy go. But does that provide the nourishment and the groundedness that the Testimony of Simplicity calls us towards? No. We found that a ‘simple life’ is one of ‘good order’ – which means putting that which is most profound at the centre.
What does that mean for our relationship with food? If we know that are going to come home tired and hungry at the end of the day, then we need to make a big vat of stew on the weekend to last us through the week so we don’t rely upon packaged foods. If we want to have ‘right relations’ of ‘good order’ with the market-economy, then can we grow as much food as we can ourselves, shop at our local butcher and farmers market (which necessitates planning our week appropriately) and not at Tescos, and investing in higher quality, ethically reared-and-butchered meats (if we eat meat)? This wasn’t always easy – but those of us who lived that way assured the others that it is substantially more enjoyable - and delicious.
We talked about simplicity in terms of life’s every day, ‘simple joys’ – the pleasure of enjoying a bowl full of grapes, rather than a particularly fancy chocolate cake, was like the pleasure of watching the evening sun enliven colorful leaves. Such simple pleasures in a world where ‘entertainment’ so often seems to be about going to the cinema or the opera, felt, to some, like an act of radical protest. Perhaps joy – real joy – is deeply radical whenever it comes from the root of our Source.
And what is sustainability if not getting to the Root? To sustain – to make last – requires a clear sense of the essence of what it is we are trying to make last. In reverse, getting to the ‘root’, to the ‘essence’ of our material and spiritual world opens up the necessity of ‘sustainability’. For how can we experience joy when we are aware of the pain that our actions (such as burning carbon) does to the planet, to other people and to future generations? What is sustainability, if not a joy shared by all, not just those who can afford it? “Sustainability’ has a rather negative reputation. Awash in the nightmares of floods, droughts, disease and sinking islands despair is easy to come by for anyone reading scientific reports on the changing climate. While we need to face this despair, it is particularly important to come out the other side.
We vented on overeating, over-consuming and the vast quantities of waste that the UK and the US puts out. In our personal lives we have learned what foods do and do not work for our body and find that doing so is ultimately about alignment with that of god in the world as well as that of god in ourselves. God may be in all things, but in our inner selves, that of god does not necessarily align with processed white sugar. We felt that simplicity was about alignment. Self-discovery, as a process of uncovering alignment, becomes tantamount to the practice of simplicity.
A word that had particular resonance with the group was ‘essence’. It stemmed from a yearning to refrain from the host of actions that can so easily lead to scattered thoughts, diluted meaning and the reduction into mediocre lives.
I find Simplicity the hardest testimony. Considering sustainability and simplicity, I feel I come up far short of what is necessary. Sure - I shop at farmers markets (when I can afford it), refrain from driving, share housing, turn off lights, recycle and compost, air-dry my laundry and spend as much work-time as I can on the issues that I’m passionate about – climate change. But my mind and actions are hardly in ‘good order’. If I consider ‘sustainability’ about ‘simplicity’ which is about turning towards ‘rightness’ and ‘good order’, informed by truth – the truths of what my actions do and do not cost me and others, and that there is a Light that infinitely accepts and infinitely transforms, it brings a level of depth and meaning to sustainability far beyond changing lightbulbs. It makes me think of the real purpose and impact of our lives. And for anything that deep, I need to be in continual conversation with others about this. Sustainability is impossible for any individual to realize alone. Living joyful low-carbon lives requires a significant level of collective support and collective action – ie, community. And, as always, the testimonies lead each into the other: simplicity leads to integrity leading to community ….
It seems there was some agreement about the need for this to be a collective process: we all want to meet again. To share food and to take the discussion of this testimony deeper. We felt that while we only scratched the surface what we found was almost surprisingly nurturing. Our meal was filled with talk and powerful quotations, but it was also seasoned well with occasional, spontaneous moments of silence. And in those moments, I knew we were traversing much further than the limits of our physical selves. Perhaps, here, is the irony: that in turning towards the truth of the limits to growth, we are also turning towards the truth of the limitless depth of fellowship that we can discover through collectively delving deeper into ourselves in the world.