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Toward a Simple Life

June 10, 2009

This article first appeared on a site called Unconventional Ideas. (It’s listed on the Guest Essayists page.) I’m with him all the way until he talks about simplicity and security being unable to live side by side. Material security may be tricky at times  (though surely less so if you’re living the simple life Montaigne subscribes to?) but experience has taught me that  if you feel whole and centred –  a sense of holistic well-being –  then it’s possible to feel secure, whatever your circumstances. (N.B. It’s worth checking out some of the other essays as well as the rest of the site. And just one more thing before I leave you to contemplate this piece yourself – is it a coincidence that the author of this article shares the same surname as the essayist he considers the ‘greatest ever’? Hmmmm….)

Toward a Simple Life

by Shawn Montaigne

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, the great French essayist (and, for my money, the greatest essayist ever), wrote just prior to his death in 1592 that

[w]e are great fools. “He has passed his life in idleness,” we say. “I have done nothing today.” What! haven’t you lived? That is not only the fundamental but the most illustrious of your occupations. “Had I been put in a position to manage great affairs, I would have shown what I could do.” Have you been able to think out and manage your life? You have performed the greatest work of all. In order to show and release her powers, Nature has no need of fortune; she shows herself equally on all levels, and behind a curtain as well as without one. To compose our characters is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. All other things, to rule, to lay up treasure, to build, are at most but little appendices and props.

Isn’t that the best quote you’ve ever read? It is for me. For it speaks directly to what living an authentic life is truly about: being absolutely, unconditionally aware of one’s complete uniqueness, one’s absolute right to be here, right here, right now; that work and rewards and societal hoo-haws and goo-gaws and bells and whistles are, at best, minor; at worst, poisonous and life-destroying.

I think about stuff like this all the time. Especially these days, as I live on my savings account, considering ways I may make my way through this world quietly, with a small footprint, a creative soul attempting to live, as the Taoist masters put it, “the ordinary life.” I realize that I have spent much of my precious existence trying to fit in, a “well-adjusted” herd animal, the membership requirements of the herd the willingness to give up who I am in order to make a living.

Which leads me to a question: what, exactly, does “making a living” imply? That unless I am willing to sell my rare and fleeting hours to some faceless corporation, I am unworthy of life? Why must I “make” a living? I’m already alive! What insidious philosopher sold the human species the notion that “making a living” was in any way, shape or form not nonsensical? But for many years I didn’t question such a specious notion. I got along and went along, fearing the alternatives, which, my guidance counselor assured me, were homelessness, poverty, social rejection, and eventually death while clutching a bottle of paint thinner in some gutter somewhere. (She was very creative in her fearmongering with her charges.)

We are sold the notion that we are unworthy of existence unless we are willing to “make a living.” Then we are sold what “making a living” entails. Question: how many of you were told by your guidance counselor that the best life is the self-created life, the life of self-employment, of self-empowerment? How many of you were told to: go to college, pursue a “practical” degree (as opposed to following your heart and doing what you love), get a job with an “established” firm (the bigger the better, of course), get married, have kids, work, work, work, work, then if you are sufficiently worthy (and lucky that your boss hasn’t made off with your pension), you can retire to finally “do what you want”? Nothing is said for the quality of the kind of “life” you are expected to “make,” as if we are all the same, cut from the same cloth. We are in fact told that we must be the same, that safety is found in numbers, that by following the herd we will be “secure.” There is a very high price, however, for that ever-important security, for that regular paycheck. And few are willing to recognize it, but they surely pay it every day as they sit in traffic going to (or coming from) a job they hate.

So here I am, considering the alternatives, considering living a simple life. What it would look like. How I could make money doing what I passionately believe in. How I could help others. I’ve recognized that simplicity and security cannot exist side-by-side. Choose one, or choose the other. The first requires creativity. The second stifles it utterly. It is a frightening realization for me. I think it would be for anyone. But Montaigne’s words ring in my ears. They challenge me.

A simple life.

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