No matter how much so many of us have done to lead a simpler life, we haven’t done very well, it seems. Our efforts have been too contrived, too outside-in, and thus contained in themselves the problems of complexity. I don’t think one can try to live simply any more that one can try to be spontaneous or try to be oneself.
Take me, for example. I have been a long-time admirer of the active Thoreau, and have emulated him in many of my “simplify-my-life” efforts. (The passive Thoreau is not so easy to follow.) I have lived in a log cabin by the river, in a tree house in the woods, in a thatched chickee in Florida, in an inner city flophouse in Detroit, in a VW van all over hell, in the back seat of my car in Appalachia; I have become (and un-become) a vegetarian, a fruitarian, a berry-arian; have divorced my way out of a tangled marriage; have fasted up to ten days at a time; have shit in a hole in the ground for six months running. I have signed off from society in every way possible (and then signed back on when the inconvenience could no longer be borne); I have striven for non-possessive relationships with friends, children, and lovers (and died a thousand jealous deaths in the privacy of my heart); I have forced myself to sit still and meditate without much notion of what that word meant or what meditation was supposed to achieve, only that it reputedly lay down that mysterious path in the direction of the simpler life.
But when all is said and done, the problem is precisely that—the simpler life can’t be had by saying and doing. It can’t be “had” at all. It is a matter of being, and everything that we say and do in the name of simplicity will only further complicate our lives, at least on the inside where the substance is. A simpler life, like heaven (we are told), cannot be attained through efforts, because a simpler life is simply the fruit of a more innocent life, and really nothing more or less. It seems the more we say or do in the name of innocence or simplicity, the less innocent and more subtly complex we inevitably become. Life’s quite crazy that way: whatever we strive for recedes in proportion to our efforts to attain it, until one day we stop trying and it all catches us up from behind.