I’ve struggled with the concept of Simplicity as a Quaker Testimony. I’ve argued with my best friend on the topic. I see what she calls simplicity as bareness, nakedness, ugliness. For decades, she has lived with tiles in her bathroom that are mauve plastic, many of them missing, to reveal the scarred plaster beneath. She has lived with an oven that had one temperature –500 degrees– and propped the door at various angles to compensate. She has lived with decal-ed plywood cupboards in shades of sulphur and black that were hideous in the 1970s. Her approach to simplicity is that functionality is the most important consideration — and all these things are functional, if just barely in some cases.
I’ve felt a need for more. I wish to adhere to the words of the famous William Morris, “If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
But keeping to that “golden rule” is so difficult in our consumerist culture. In our society, Meaning is so heavily invested in things, it’s hard to extricate oneself. And, at age 56, with aging parents who have begun to offload the stuff they’ve accumulated onto me, it’s harder and harder to sort out: what is useful? What is meaningful? What is beautiful?
What the consumer culture never alludes to is that owning things is almost like owning a pet. The “pet rock” springs to mind — what a perfect analogy for the responsibility that possessions impose on us. A thing might have a function, say a lamp. It gives light, but how did I come to own it? Was it given to me by someone who cares (or doesn’t care) about my taste? Did I invest time in buying it? Time also must be spent because it must be dusted and adjusted, turned on and off, assigned a place, maintained by replacing bulbs and perhaps (at some point) replacing the cord or deciding on a new shade. It must be paid for with the electricity bought to power it. If it malfunctions, it must be fixed or junked, donated or sold. Deals must be made concerning it, whether with the trash hauler or with a thrift shop. It may be buried in a landfill at my behest. What then? Will it be decaying into soil? Or will it just stay buried there for a century or two, this thing I once owned?
What if it is a thing that ONCE held meaning? Does the meaning in the thing ever “expire?” As I look at things which my parents have given me that were mine as a child, I ask myself, “Is ownership forever? Do I have to make decisions about every item I ever owned, from birth onward?” And does the meaning the item once held, does that ever expire?
I look around my house and I perceive that every article and thing my eye encounters has a story. In fact, I often choose possessions based on the story behind them, or I tell myself the story of the thing’s acquisition AS I ACQUIRE IT, to make sure I can tell it later.
I begin to see the demands that ownership places on us and I begin to understand some of what my friend, a dozen years older, has tried to communicate.