“‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple”
Rev. Fred L Hammond
20 March 2011 ©
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa
Back in the 1990’s as I began organizing a non-profit agency serving people with HIV/AIDS, I distinctly remember having a conversation with my staff of the time wondering how in the world we ever managed without Fax machines. Now those FAX machines used thermal paper so we had to make a photo copy of them or else the paper would brown over a short period of time making the information unreadable. This led to the question how did we ever manage without copiers. When word processing became standard, the conversation became how we ever managed without computers. Then it was cell phones, the internet, emails, text messages, facebook, twitter, all methods to assist us in communication. And now that we have Kindles and Nooks, how did we manage without having a complete library at our fingertips. All of these technologies were to make our lives easier, so we thought. And it isn’t just in communications that these advances have occurred; it is in other fields as well…
My grand uncle Luther worked the farm, where he and my grandmother were born, in the same way that my great, great, great grandfather worked it with horse drawn plows and with tools that he blacksmithed himself. There is a film in the village’s museum of my great grandmother hand churning butter, she also hand churned ice cream. The farm did not have electricity until my grandfather wired the house in 1948. And then it was only a light bulb here and there. My great grandmother’s first purchase after getting electricity was an electric butter churner. There was an outhouse placed just so over the running brook until the health department came and told them it had to be moved away from the brook. And there was a well with a hand pump that came up into the kitchen. My uncle lived this way until his death in the mid 1980’s.
How differently they lived from us today. My family is only slightly atypical to have had family members still living as if the year was 1840 instead of 1986, the year my grand uncle died. Everyone in this room is only two or three or four generations away from having family who lived in this simpler fashion.
We hear from many sectors of society of nostalgia for simpler times. There is a desire for a time when life was not so complex, not so demanding. We expect emails to be answered immediately if not sooner. We expect our computers to be as responsive to our direction as our muscles are to our brain’s commands, anything slower than that result in frustrating expletives coming from our lips.
The push for our children is for them to have a fully developed resume of athletic, music and the arts, civic volunteerism, and academic achievements just to be considered for a college application. Their schedules are just as hectic as and even more so than their parents. The pressure to perform is fierce. We have so many demands on our time that it seems that even breathing is an intrusion. Oh for a simpler time!
So just how do we achieve a simpler time. Well clearly, it is not by reverting back to how my grand uncle Luther lived with no indoor plumbing or electricity. Some may choose that but that is not what I am suggesting.
I am suggesting however, an examination of what fills our cups? There is story about this. It goes something like this: “A philosophy professor stood before his class with some items on the table in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly he picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with rocks, about 2 inches in diameter.
“He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.
“So the professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles, of course, rolled into the open areas between the rocks.
“He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was.
“The professor picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else.
“He then asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded with a unanimous ‘Yes.’
“‘Now,’ said the professor, ‘I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The rocks are the important things – your family, your partner, your health, your children – things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full.
“The pebbles are the other things that matter – like your job, your house, your car.
“The sand is everything else. The small stuff.’
“‘If you put the sand into the jar first,’ he continued ‘there is no room for the pebbles or the rocks. The same goes for your life.
“If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take your partner out dancing. There will always be time to go to work, clean the house, give a dinner party and fix the disposal.
“Take care of the rocks first – the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand .’”
I want to suggest that the jar is still not full. There is another thing that can be placed in the jar and that is water. The water can be considered to symbolize faith and the values we hold dear in our lives. But if all we have is faith in our life then it can lead to fundamentalism, it can lead to dogmatism, it can lead to easily being swayed by the tossing waves of fanaticism. Unitarian Universalists are just as prone to this as anyone so while some might think I am only referring to fanatical groups such as the Westboro Baptists, I am not. I am also referring to us.
If faith, water, is placed in our jars first, then we place the sand in the jar, which is all that stuff, the sand will cause the faith to spill out and leave the jar. Our families, our children, our relationships will suffer horribly under all the busy-ness of our lives. Our families, our children will suffer also if our jars are filled with water first because they will threaten the faith we have and cause it to spill over.
For example, if faith is first in my jar and filled to the brim and that faith tells me that homosexuality is wrong, then when one of my rocks in my life such as a child or a sibling comes out as gay, there is no room for them in my jar without sacrificing some of my faith. And since I have placed my faith first in my jar the child or sibling is cast aside because it is more important than anything or anyone else in our life. But if I have placed my child or sibling first in my jar and then add faith, faith surrounds them in love and I find myself enriched by their presence in new and miraculous ways.
When we place our rocks in the jar first and then the pebbles and then the sand and then the water something else happens. The water is able to interact with all of these and make the jar of our life conducive to growing life. The values we treasure enable our lives to support the lush green plants of our life as well. Our lives are no longer a desert of dry rocks, pebbles, and sand instead our lives become able to sustain life. They become able to weather the storms that certainly will cross our paths and seek to blow the rocks and pebbles away.
Faith is not something that flourishes in a solitary fashion. It is something that when shared with family, friends, and those we meet can create the environment where life can be nurtured and held in love. It can be the transformative act that helps us engage our world to create a more just world.
Simplifying our lives by removing the sand so that there is room for the rocks in our lives becomes an important goal. Duane Elgin, author of Voluntary Simplicity, outlines several forms of simplicity that people across the globe are seeking.
Uncluttered Simplicity: … means taking charge of lives that are too busy, too stressed, and too fragmented.
Ecological Simplicity: … means choosing ways of living that touch the Earth more lightly and that reduce our ecological impact on the web of life. … An ecological simplicity feels a deep reverence for the community of life on Earth and accepts that the nonhuman realms of plants and animals have their dignity and rights as well.
Family Simplicity: … means placing the well-being of one’s family ahead of materialism and the acquisition of things.
Compassionate Simplicity: … means feeling such a strong sense of kinship with others that, as Gandhi said, we “choose to live simply so that others may simply live.”
Soulful Simplicity: … means approaching life as a meditation and cultivating our experience of direct connection with all that exists.
Business Simplicity: … means that a new kind of economy is growing in the world, with healthy and sustainable products and services of all kinds (home-building materials, energy systems, food production, transportation).
Civic Simplicity: … means that living more lightly and sustainably on the Earth requires changes in every area of public life—from public transportation and education to the design of our cities and workplaces.
Frugal Simplicity: … means that, by cutting back on spending that is not truly serving our lives, and by practicing skillful management of our personal finances, we can achieve greater financial independence .
There are lots of ways for us to explore living more simply and making sure that the rocks and pebbles in our lives are well grounded and supported. It does not necessarily mean that we live in poverty or that we not purchase the technological gadgets that can cause our lives to be filled primarily with sand. What it means is that we consciously and deliberately choose what we have in our lives. It means we do not fall prey to the Best Buy commercial where the gadget we bought is obsolete the minute we purchase it and therefore must spend more money to upgrade ASAP. It means that we do not spend hundreds of dollars on the special edition Nikes when the no brand shoe will suffice.
It means that we sit down as a family and have face to face conversations instead of the Sprint commercial where the mother texts the teenage daughter that grandma is moving into her bedroom. What is really disturbing about this commercial is that everyone at the dinner table is more attuned to their cell phones than they are at verbal communication. If this sounds like your household, then consider banning cell phones at the dinner table. There are some times when we do not need to be instantly accessible to the latest Facebook or tweet being posted. I realize this is the new heresy of the modern age.
The benefits of voluntary simplicity (1) to the individual are great:
• More time to spend with family, friends and community.
• Less money spent on almost everything.
• Less stress in high-paying jobs or commuting to them.
• Less worry over possessions getting stolen or damaged.
• More satisfaction in learning to do things for oneself, such as fixing and maintaining possessions, cooking, gardening and … by mending and sewing, as well as making music and fun.
• Other benefits that are corollaries of these, including more time to read, less ill health, more opportunity to exercise and do satisfying physical work, less chance of getting in an accident on the freeway, and a general reordering of values from a focus on materialism to a focus on relationships.
But the benefits when people live a voluntarily simple life go beyond the individual and the family. Benefits to society as a whole and to the Earth are significant, and include:
• Less pollution from transportation and less traffic congestion, accidents and need for new roads.
• Less environmental impact from resource extraction and manufacturing.
• Less need for new power plants and new water treatment plants as people waste less electricity and water.
• More community cohesiveness, resulting in less crime and more neighborliness, safer streets and better schools.
• More grassroots democracy as people take more interest in how their communities operate.
• More ecological restoration as people find simple pleasure in connecting with their local environment and seek to heal it.
• A flowering of local culture–music, storytelling, drama, games, poetry.
Voluntary simplicity is a means to re-prioritizing our lives so that we are able to enjoy life more with those whom we love. It enables us to be stewards of this earth by using its resources in a more responsible manner.
I will close with this thought also from Duane Elgin: “Mahatma Gandhi advocate[d] a blind denial of the material side of life. He said, ‘As long as you derive inner help and comfort from anything, you should keep it. If you were to give it up in a mood of self-sacrifice or out of a stern sense of duty, you would continue to want it back, and that unsatisfied want would make trouble for you. Only give up a thing when you want some other condition so much that the thing no longer has any attraction for you.’”
Creating a simpler life is not about giving up things because of the need to sacrifice for the sake of others but rather it is when the desired outcome has increased in value for you that giving up the sand in your life is done voluntarily and easily.
In a world that is increasingly placing demands on our time and on our resources, it becomes a life giving act to consciously place priority on what matters most in our lives. It becomes a transformative act that can model for the world another way living that is healthy for our selves and for our planet. May we all examine our lives to see if the rocks in our life are placed first in our lives. Blessed Be.
Other quotes unless noted within the text with a hyper link are from Voluntary Simplicity Secondition: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich (Duane Elgin)