Quakers are in favour of simplicity. We keep our worship spaces simply decorated – plain walls, functional rather than fussy furniture, maybe some flowers in the middle but nothing more. (Other than the notice board full of posters and pictures – which is simple in the sense that it’s just a notice board, rather than being other than busy to the eye.) And we strive for simplicity in our lives.
What does that mean, though? Once upon a time, it meant plain dress, the wearing of Quaker grey or sometimes black. When I was a school my brother and I used to say that it meant wearing unbranded clothes – no Adidas, no Nike. As an adult, I think of it as having two parts: functionality over form, and ethical and sustainable sourcing. I think the function of clothes is to keep me warm and comfortable, and so I wear warm, comfortable clothes, even though my needs for comfort are somewhat different to those of the rest of the world. I need enough clothes, especially if I am to continue to approximate the demands of dressing as a woman in a socially recognisable way and the variations of social context. (I could wear my black menswear lace-up shoes everywhere, they’re that comfortable. I don’t. I do wear a hat everywhere – but I want to wear a clean neat one on formal occasions and a dirty one for mucking about in the woods.) But I want those clothes not to contribute to climate change or human suffering, so I try and buy fairtrade or at least not sweatshop clothes when I need new, and when I don’t need new, I try to buy second hand. That’s a kind of simplicity, but you wouldn’t know it was there by looking at me.
There’s also simplicity of living. Sometimes when people talk about this, you get the impression that downsizing is the only option – oh well, they say, now the children have moved out I’ve sold my house and I’m getting rid of all my possessions so I can move into a tiny flat. This is well and good, and if you’ve got a big house with only one or two people in it, please do sell it and move into something more appropriate sized. However, I already live in a one bedroom flat and it doesn’t really make my life simpler – only because it’s in a good location. I didn’t have to declutter my life to move in here; in fact, I bought a TV and a(nother) bookcase. What would actually make my life simpler would be the prospect of a steady job when I’ve finished my studies.
Overall, I’m a bit conflicted about simplicity. I’ve just bought a fancy new phone – that’s not part of the simple life. On the other hand, people who advocate for a simple life rhapsodise about how you get to spend more time with people you love, and I depend entirely on internet and phone to make that happen. (The people who are rhapsodising usually turn out to have a well-paid, probably full-time, job, a partner or spouse, and children. My life isn’t that shape.) Similarly, I own boxes and boxes of what most people would consider clutter, nothing, rubbish. On the other hand, my handicrafts – which rely on boxes and boxes of stuff to make things from – are praised when I finish them, and often considered throwbacks to a simpler way of life. Conclusion: simplicity isn’t simple.