The Beauty of Simplicity

This is not my room, but I could be quite happy if it was

This is not my room, but I could be quite happy if it was

I love living simply. I have no car, no phone (I use Skype on my laptop) and no possessions of any value other than my laptop. I’ve learned that whatever you own that you cannot bear to part with, owns you. Every item you own is a hungry beast demanding some portion of your time, attention and psychic energy.

Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.
William Morris

I don’t want anything or any things to distract me from living the life I want to live. I don’t want one hour of one day to go by without learning something, deepening a relationship, doing satisfying work or just enjoying a good laugh.

That’s why I greatly appreciated this article in the March 1994 issue of Guideposts magazine that highlights the simple lifestyles of three extraordinary people.

by Elizabeth Sherrill

Forty days without chocolate…. When I was a high school student, this constituted my view of Lent. Why it was good to go without something for seven weeks I didn’t know; it was what my friends did, so I did too. But as time passed, I began encountering people who voluntarily gave something up, not merely as a Lenten custom, but because of what lay behind this tradition. One of those people was Margaret Henrichsen.

A Methodist minister, Margaret was a modern-day circuit rider who pastored seven widely scattered churches in rural Maine. John and I arrived at her home for an overnight visit to find that she’d put us in her own bedroom. We were touched by this hospitality, especially when we discovered that most of her clothes hangers were empty.

“Margaret,” I protested at breakfast the next day, “you didn’t need to move out your clothes for us!” “I didn’t,” she said. “Seven clothes hangers are all I use.”We stared across the coffeepot at the neatly clad woman with the merry eyes. That morning she was wearing a simple tailored dress in a flattering shade of blue that, I now recalled, she’d also worn the evening before. Actually, it wasn’t the same dress. “I ordered seven of these from the Sears catalog three years ago,” Margaret explained. Identical dresses to eliminate deciding what to wear. Up to that time she’d had the usual closetful of different outfits, the usual array of shoes and handbags and accessories. Most she’d given away.

Yes, there were needy families in her congregations who’d been glad to get the things. But that wasn’t the reason she’d divested herself of nine-tenths of her wardrobe.”Clothes were taking too much time, too much money, too much of me.” Margaret gave her infectious laugh. “With seven churches to look after, I need all the me I can find.” There was an uncluttered quality now to Margaret’s life, John and I agreed driving home, that gave it “focus,” we decided.

Then there was Dr. Samuel Weiss, the dentist my family went to when I was growing up. A dentist by day, that is. Dr. Weiss was also a cellist. As a young man he’d wanted to write music for this instrument, and the desire persisted as his dental practice grew.

Twice a year he took leave of his office to turn his attention to composing. He moved out of his big home into a detached garage on the property—a windowless structure with no running water, no carpeting on the concrete floor, not even a comfortable chair.

There he closeted himself for ten days with only his cello and a sheaf of music paper. He did not allow himself even the luxury of a hot plate, eating cold meals from cans. His wife was not permitted to pass on phone messages, his mail went unanswered. At the end of each self-imposed exile, Dr. Weiss reappeared… with a new cello sonata to show for his Spartan retreat.

Stripping down for the sake of achievement. I could understand it in terms of a specific goal. But what about the value of doing without as a lifestyle? That did not occur to me until John and I encountered a remarkable couple in England.

We had been invited to lunch at the home of British journalist and TV commentator Malcolm Muggeridge. We’d read about the Muggeridges’ mansion, but we drove twice through the small town of Robertsbridge without spotting any place grand enough. At last, getting directions from a postman on a bicycle, we stopped in front of a brick cottage. A ruddy-faced white-haired man straightened up from the garden he’d been weeding. “Just in time!” he cried. “Kitty’s heating up the soup!”

In the kitchen a handsome woman with graying hair tied in a bun was setting bowls on a bare wooden table. “Would you slice the bread?” she asked me as she took a platter of cheese from the refrigerator.This was their lunch every day of the week: vegetable soup, whole-wheat bread, cheese, yogurt. The two other meals were equally standard. “When I think of the time I used to spend fretting over meals!” she said. “Chasing down recipes, worrying what to serve guests!”

No guests could have had a better meal than the one we sat down to. Was it to save time that they’d simplified their menus? Time, yes. “And money.” When we looked surprised at this—Malcolm Muggeridge had been a best-selling author for decades—they mentioned some of the underfed areas of the world they’d seen firsthand, places where the money they’d saved could make a difference. A couple who could live luxuriously were living simply “so others can simply live.”

But like Margaret Henrichsen, the good they could do others was not the principal motive. Chiefly, they said, they’d cut back to recover a sense of joy in daily life.

It wasn’t just elaborate meals they’d eliminated. The Muggeridges had analyzed their entire lifestyle and begun a systematic paring down. They sold their large automobile for a small one that got 40 miles to the gallon and needed less upkeep. They moved from the mansion in another town to this cottage that Kitty could manage in a quarter the time.

What were some other nonessentials? Tobacco. Alcohol. Hairdos. Kitty let her hair grow and caught it back in the becoming bun I’d admired earlier. They both went over their wardrobes and concluded that by ignoring the caprices of fashion, they could keep neat, clean and warm with the clothes they already had.

The life that emerged was fuller by far in every way. The time and energy once gobbled up by the mechanics of living—the whole relentless daily slavery to things—had been largely eliminated. The result was more time in their busy lives for reading, prayer, each other. For savoring the passing minutes—for enjoying the rattle of rain on the roof, the glint of sunlight on a crockery bowl, the commonplace things that get lost in a life of uncontrolled accumulation. “We’re still looking,” they told us, “for things we can do without.”

The Muggeridges walked us out to our car with a parting gift of fresh-picked raspberries. A couple with all the time in the world for visitors, for picking berries, for living.

John and I are very far from achieving this simplicity in our own lives. But inspired by others’ examples, we’ve made a start—and we’ve chosen Lent for our annual lifestyle checkup. Each year we use these weeks to examine our house and our habits for the clutter that creeps in so fast. What have we bought in the past twelve months that we haven’t used? How have we balanced what we get with what we give?

Lent reminds us that doing without creates a space for something else. I think of Margaret’s merriment, Dr. Weiss’s creativity, the Muggeridges’ hospitality. Lent reminds us that giving up a pleasure makes room in our lives for joy.

Click here to view all the Guideposts stories on this blog.

Click here to see all my posts related to living simply.


Phil is the author of Through God’s Eyes: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Troubled World, a comprehensive guide to living a spiritual life. Who will benefit from reading it?

Anyone who is on a spiritual path, or wants to start one
Anyone who loves life, or wants to learn how to
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• What is the cornerstone of a spiritual life, and why?
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SiSe_fullcover_final.inddPhil is also the author of Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything, a collection of 45 inspiring, life-changing stories from prominent people he interviewed, including Joan Borysenko, Deepak Chopra, geneticist Dr. Francis Collins, acclaimed sportswriter Frank Deford, Dr. Larry Dossey, Wayne Dyer, Dan Millman, Caroline Myss, Dr. Christiane Northrup, Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, Dr. Bernie Siegel, James Van Praagh, singer Billy Vera, Doreen Virtue, Neale Donald Walsch, and bassist Victor Wooten.

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