14 ~ Simple Thinking


"By processes too numerous and diverse even to summarize, I have reached a position which may be stated in a general way somewhat like this: "I believe that God's best for another may be so different from my experience and way of living as to be actually impossible for me. I recognize a change to have taken place in myself, from a certain assumption that mine was really the better way, to a very complete recognition that there is no one better way and that God needs all kinds of people and ways of living through which to manifest Himself in the World."

Henry T. Hodgkin (Quaker)


Those of you who have followed the course of this ‘book’ so far will have got the four basic messages; that more simple living can be richer living, that we must incorporate ‘green’ ideas into our plan for simple living, that simple living must be ethical with respect to other people and life on the planet, and finally that rejecting all modern technology is foolish, but we must be more selective in how we use it.

In this last chapter I intend to look at some of the thinking that has driven me to these conclusions. These thoughts are rarely, if ever, original, but they do draw heavily on my life experience, discussions with others, and wide reading on the matter. I make no apologies for the fact that I do not draw heavily on the eastern tradition of simplicity, but restrict my arguments to simplicity within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, particularly from the last century or so. In doing so I am not dismissing the Eastern tradition (which has been covered widely by others) but merely focusing on where my particular journey to a simpler life has led me and those that have guided me by their example.
Thinking about simplicity should, in itself, be simple. If you find yourself developing deep, intellectually stretching explanations for simple activities I suggest that you have missed the point. This is not to say that some of the greatest minds in history ~ Jesus, Leonardo, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Einstein and others haven’t all adopted a simple lifestyle, rather that they didn’t need to write a great tome to explain themselves.

We need also to be on guard about developing any conceit that our chosen way is the ‘only way.' It’s not. One can quite fully understand someone reading this and finding a different set of conclusions to the questions we all ask. There are many ways to live your life, but I would suggest that with only one planet to share between us, any chosen way must not inflict further damage on what has already been partially destroyed.

Green Simplicity


"When we look at the future we have three basic choices: we can continue as we are at present, short sightedly guzzling finite resources in a crazy rush of consumerism; we can attempt to mollify some of the grosser aspects of consumerism, and try still to hang on to our present ‘living standard’; or we can change, willingly, profoundly and radically."

~John Seymour


How can any of us fail to recognise the importance of an individual commitment to protecting the environment? How can any of us deny the overwhelming evidence that our planet and the living things that have their home upon it are suffering as a result of our greed, our demands and our selfishness?  How can any of us fail to recognise that now is the only time we can act to help slow down this process of spoliation, do all we can to limit further damage and start to repair what we can? How can any of us look at most important tasks of environmental protection and think that we can leave them to somebody else to sort out for us?

Our forefathers knew little about the environment and its fragility; to them the world was full of resources, the ocean capable of absorbing any amount of waste, the skies able to take any effluent and filth without problem. To them getting rid of waste simply meant putting it out of sight. If they wanted more timber, more whale blubber, more metal, more land or more of anything, they just took it. Are we truly any better? We certainly cover our tracks when exploiting the world and its riches, we dump our waste a little further out to sea and we put our smoke a little higher up in the atmosphere.  The difference is we have no excuse, we know what we are doing and we continue to do it.

Unless each and every one of us makes a personal and lasting commitment to live in greater harmony with our planet, with the plants, animals and humans that live upon it, then we have no hope.
In the outstanding film, American Experience: The Amish ,one scene opens with a night time view of a field with thousands of fireflies glowing as they go about their business.  We then see a small Amish homestead in complete darkness; the camera then pans out and we see a town in the background alive with electric light, presumably visible from space. The Amish do not reject electricity for environmental reasons, but by the very nature of their lives they damage the planet less than the rest of us. Do we need out cities to be glowing out into the night sky? Do we need to burn fossil fuels just to keep office blocks shining out into the darkness when all who work in them are at home in bed? Do we need our streets to be alight around the clock when those who need to use them in the small hours of darkness could carry a pocket torch? Do we need our kitchens and living rooms to be warm round the clock and do we need all those little red and green lights?

We cannot force big corporations or governments to do much, but we can do our best not to join in the spree of waste and overconsumption that is destroying the Earth. We can refuse to buy what we do not need; we can replace only what is essential, we can buy things that will last instead of buying that which is quickly worthless. We can grow our own food, buy local produce, make our own clothes, be our own leaders and do our best not to contribute to the destruction. We can recycle, reuse, and repair as much as we can, but even better than this is to refuse. By deciding not to buy, not to use and not to go we are doing our bit.

Counter-Cultural Simplicity

Joni Mitchell, in her 1971 album Blue, investigates in depth the counter-culture of the time and its possible consequences. For me as a young man the album had an enormous emotional effect on me, in fact it still does. The song The Last Time I Saw Richard looks at the case of two ‘romantics’; one presumably Joni Mitchell herself and the other the eponymous Richard. In ‘68’ they find themselves in a Detroit café considering what happens to people when they grow up. I don’t mean ‘grown up’ in any derogatory sense, rather what happens to people when they have responsibilities thrust upon them, when relationships become long term and children and mortgages and jobs all exert a pull on what have been up to that time free spirits.
“The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in '68
And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday
Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café”

Later in the song we find that Joni is still seated in the café a year or so later and has become rather detached and alienated from the experience. Richard on the other hand, has become what most of us become; a consumer; satisfied with ‘the good life’ of job, partner and all the trappings of modern life. The song goes on…
“Richard got married to a figure skater
And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator
And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on
And all the house lights left up bright

I'm gonna blow this damn candle out
I don't want Nobody comin' over to my table
I got nothing to talk to anybody about
All good dreamers pass this way some day

Hidin' behind bottles in dark cafes
Dark cafes
Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings
And fly away
Only a phase, these dark cafe days”
(Lyrics © Joni Mitchell/Crazy Crow Music/Siquomb Music, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC)

To me then the message was very clear indeed; we all start off in our early adult years as ‘romantics’ hoping to change the world and everything in it. Some of us continue to remain in this state, but our lack of success in changing the world just leaves us feeling cynical and sad. As a Quaker the analogy of blowing out the candle, effectively rejecting ‘light’ is not lost on me. The alternative is to do as ‘Richard’ does and accept all that is on offer and sedate oneself by drinking in front of the television with his ideals carefully locked away. Both alternatives seem equally bleak; do we simply give up or sell out?

(C) Graham Nash

As an older human, I can see that there is a third way; to live simply, this involves us in accepting the joys of long term relationships and children and work while holding on to our idealism and changing the world. We do not sell out, we do not conform, we do not give up the struggle. Perhaps we are only changing the world by growing onions and knitting socks, but what’s wrong with that? Refuse to compromise; don’t end up back in that café or in front of that television, get out and take the world, not by grabbing a bull by the horns, but by grabbing a handful of weeds.  Take up a hoe not a sales ledger. Leave pre-processed pap on the shelves of the supermarket and eat real food cooked by yourself. Don’t go to war to defend your ideals and lifestyle, but make your lifestyle a war in which your ideals are defended, and never compromised! Prove people wrong not by fighting them, but by your example, show by what you do that it can be done!

Simple living is a viable alternative to the kind of life that you will end up with by default anyway. Not to take the initiative yourself means that somebody else will set the agenda for your life. Not to make your own decisions will let somebody else make the decisions for you. Governments and corporations have a plan for you; reject that plan and draw up one of your own.

Plain Simplicity

Perhaps the most commonly made point to me about simplicity is why it is necessary to link it hand in hand to plainness. Why is it not possible to live a simpler life at the same time as living a life that is ornate and colourful? I can answer this in two ways ~ firstly by suggesting that this misunderstands what plainness is about. Plain people, the Amish, many Mennonites, Quakers and others would say that Plainness helps them to forget about themselves and immerse themselves more fully into their community and their simple lifestyle. They would point out that Plainness not only saves time and money, but that it identifies them with others on the same path. They would say that not to be Plain would mean not applying the same principals of simplicity to their person as they apply to the rest of their lives. Secondly, you may need to re-examine what you mean by the word ‘plain’ by thinking about some synonyms:

simple, ordinary, unadorned, undecorated, unembellished, unornamented, unpretentious, unostentatious, unfussy, homely, homespun, basic, modest, unsophisticated, penny plain, without frills, stark, severe, spartan, austere, chaste, bare, uncluttered, restrained, muted, unpatterned, patternless, everyday, workaday, obvious, clear, crystal clear, evident, apparent, manifest, patent, visible, discernible, perceptible, perceivable, noticeable, detectable, recognizable, observable, unmistakable, transparent, palpable, distinct, pronounced, marked, striking, conspicuous, overt, self-evident, indisputable.

Some of these may seem a little negative, but some very positive concepts are up in there as well. Obviously we are playing with semantics just a little here and there, but have a good think about what you mean by the word ‘plain’ and how you might like to personally  redefine it to fit your own life and your own style. Try to make your ‘plain’ leaning towards those positive words, above all simple and unpretentious, and avoid your ‘plain’ becoming stark, severe, spartan or austere.

Some years ago, in my early stages of plain dressing, I caught a view of myself in a mirror and thought that, for the first time in my life, I could have been any white, blond, thin, tall man from the last two hundred years. I considered that if I could travel in place and time and find myself anywhere in Europe or North America in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries without anyone thinking my appearance anything too odd. Far from being upset by this conclusion, I found it reassuring and humbling; what am I; a middle aged white European man, what did I look like? Exactly that.  At the time of this ‘mirror viewing’ I had been unwell; with some viral infection for a few weeks (making me a little thinner and more gaunt than usual); this brought to mind all those earlier men who suffered illness and hunger, not as a temporary phase in their lives, but as a regular part of their life. I am no different to them, I identify with them and my Plainness is an everyday reminder that we are all the same, our differences superficial and, in the long run of things, pretty meaningless.

To you I can only suggest that you try a degree of greater plainness and see if it helps you as a constant reminder of who you really are, why you are on your chosen path and what is your purpose. For those of you who are of faith, consider also that your plainness of dress sets before the world that you intend to be different, that you intend to not to seek equilibrium with the current day, its fashions and fripperies.  Instead your aim is to live a godly life where nothing comes between you and your aim.  Plainness of dress can be your first act of non-conformity each day, make it a habit.

Aesthetic Simplicity

© Antique and Country Furniture Lincoln


“The cottage here is rather splendid – something monastic about it – severe white walls and oaken furniture – beautiful.”

~D. H. Lawrence


All of us at times are taken by the beauty of things, just because they are simple. We don’t fully understand the psychology of finding something simple beautiful, but I suggest it has something to do with familiarity, with unpretentiousness, and perhaps a little longing for what used to be, or what we suppose used to be. When reading literature, we constantly have our attention drawn to what is simple and yet very beautiful; Charlotte Bronte, Walt Whitman, Virginia Wolfe, D. H. Lawrence are known for their love of things simple, but we can also find praise in less expected places.


“Simplicity is beauty and beauty is simplicity, nothing more, nothing less.”

~ Oscar Wilde


In the visual arts too, many artists have found a lifetime of inspiration in some very simple subjects and, for me simplicity is the first point of interest in any painting. Woodcuts, linocuts, and simple silk screen printing all bring simplicity with them as much as in their method of production as their inspiration.

Van Gogh


“As I grew older, I realized that it was much better to insist on the genuine forms of nature, for simplicity is the greatest adornment of art.”

~ Albrecht Durer


For made-made structures to attain simple beauty they must be functional and have a ‘blending into the surroundings’ quality which may come with age. Also, we need to see that the materials used in construction are locally produced and that with changing time and use; the original function can still be discerned. 

Above all the simplicity of nature is the easiest to appreciate; if there is clutter it is natural clutter. Nature is the only way that we can appreciate raw simplicity. The simplicity of living that we seek, with less dependence on others, more self-sufficiency, is lived every day in the woods, and in the mountains, or at the seashore by millions of living things. To protect these environments is to safeguard natural beauty.


“Nature has a great simplicity and, therefore, a great beauty.”

Richard Feynman


Simple Faith

As a young man I buried myself, or rather my nose, in the writings of the ‘great’ Christian philosophers; Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant, Roger Bacon, Soren Kierkegaard, Rudolf Bultmann and many others. I don’t read them anymore, not because I don’t recognise their worth, but rather because my own conclusions have led me to a much simpler understanding of what my faith is all about. No life is long enough to answer all the questions we have to ask, even assuming that the questions have any answers at all! We could chose to spend our lives struggling with understanding the exact nature of Jesus, what God wants, or submersing ourselves in any theological debate, but is there any reason to do this?

The message of the early Quakers was not that we had to understand all, but that we should allow ourselves to become aware of what lies within us; we need to wait and listen, not with our ears but with our whole being. Most people who would be considered ‘Plain People’; Quakers, Mennonites, the Amish and others, reject a deeply ‘intellectual’ interpretation of faith for a highly practical one, that of ‘following Jesus’. This ‘following’ is not based on any Medieval interpretation of the nature of Jesus, but on the words of Jesus as given in the parables, the sayings, and the Sermon on the Mount. For me this is what being a Christian is all about; following those words and trying every day to live by them. When people start digging out Latin and Greek terms to explain the very simple and practical message of Jesus, as far as I’m concerned they miss the point.

Do not think that by assuming the practical that there is no need for the mystical. Being a Quaker means to me that by accepting simplicity, I am making myself fully available to the mystical aspects of faith. Also, I do not take issue with those who find developing a more complex understanding of their faith is a help.


"Stand still in that which shows and discovers; and then doth strength immediately come. And stand still in the Light, and submit to it, and the other will be hush'd and gone; and then content comes."  
 ~George Fox (Quaker)


To reach the point of my current beliefs, I found myself having to clear my mind of all those pompous Victorian hymns, clear out the Renaissance artworks, throw away the Latin and Greek terminology, cast out the medieval philosophy and read the words of Jesus (admittedly in translation with all the ‘errors’ that may come with the package) and let the ‘still quiet voice inside’ lead me to what meaning they have for my life. Today I get more religious inspiration from listening to the Purple Hulls rather than reading Kant. 

Future Simplicity

The aim of this book has been to encourage voluntary simplicity; perhaps the future will see many more people adopting this as a lifestyle choice ~ others think that we will all be ‘forced’ to consider simplicity as a result of increased demand on resources or economic/environmental disaster. Either way, you can make yourself more fully equipped to cope with whatever comes your way, taking the time to glance behind you, and by learning how things were done before somebody else came along who did all the chores for you or invented a machine to ‘make life easy’.


“For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you.”

2 Corinthians 1:12 English Standard Version (ESV)

·         Don’t fall into thinking that there is only one way to live
·         Consider overconsumption as the main barrier to simple living
·         Develop a way of life that marries what you believe with what you do

·         Try to define your faith in very simple terms
·         Try to develop a life that allows for the practical and the mystical
·         Try to avoid looking for answers to questions that can have no definitive answer
·         Don’t be afraid to reject ideas that complicate simple concepts
·         Consider that simple things can also be beautiful things
·         If you lack ‘religious’ faith don’t necessarily reject the ideals that have developed from it

·         Consider your simple lifestyle to be both radical and alternative
·         Let your simple life speak for you


Please follow this blog to keep up to date with my thoughts on simple living and please feel free to add your own comments and read those of others.

(C) Ray Lovegrove (aka 'Hay Quaker') 2014


  1. Thank you for very interesting thoughts. This was something I've been looking for, covering so many aspects of life.

  2. Thank you for these ideas and thoughts on Simple Living. They are helping me live a simpler life already!


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