The problem with most of us is there are no borders in our life anymore. As a result, everyday our lives become increasingly more difficult to get our arms around because of the complexity of the world in which we live. We are inundated with complexity. Inundated is defined as overflowing, being overwhelmed by things or people that have to be dealt with. And yet instead of scaling back we continue forward, adding layer upon layer of personal, societal, and technological complexity to our already over-stressed lives. It was in 1855 that poet Robert Browning first penned the phrase “less is more”, but it is apparent that it never gained the traction for which Browning had hoped.
Imagine the year is 1840 and you live in the small community of Littletown, USA, population 765. The next town is fifty-five miles away, accessible only by wagon trail. There is one general store in Littletown, one restaurant, one church, one schoolhouse, one livery stable, one barber shop, one hotel, and two saloons. There is really very little to do in Littletown after your chores are done for the day other than gossip, play checkers or head to the tavern. Everybody knows everybody else, all their children, all their stories, and all their foibles and flaws. It’s pretty hard to be inundated or overwhelmed in Littletown, no matter how hard you try. Life is quite prescribed and you can literally see the borders of your prearranged life. Okay, perhaps not anything we’d be interested in today, but they did have their dances, and celebrations, and horse races, and for the most part, people were pretty content with their scaled-back lives in Littletown.
The problem is that human beings seem to love complexity. If it doesn’t already exist, they invent it. In the Book of Exodus, it is claimed that Moses received the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai. By the time his son was born, however, these ten commandments had morphed into 613 complex laws, laws that had a stifling and repressive effect on the average person’s daily life. We humans just couldn’t leave well enough alone. They didn’t have lawyers yet in those days to complicate things, but they had the next best thing – Pharisees. The Pharisees expounded on these laws for fear that people wouldn’t understand the Ten Commandments and thus would break them. In the longest form of the Ten Commandments there are 243 words, in the shortest form, 66 words. Yet it took fourteen volumes to compile the Pharisees explanations when all it really takes is “love your neighbor as yourself (plus the Golden Rule) and you’ve pretty much got all of God’s message.
Experts have a special talent of complicating things. An hour in front of CNN (with their panels of experts) and you’d think selecting delegates for the 2016 political conventions was as difficult as landing a man on the moon. A few minutes with a financial adviser will have the same confounding effect. Did you ever spend an hour listening to a State of the Union address only to spend the next two hours having political “experts” tell you what you really just heard? What are we, all a bunch of dullards who can’t fairly well figure out what the President just told us? The standout genius or teacher in any field is always the person who is able to take what is incredibly complex, break it down to what is essential, and present it in a way that makes it seem simple. What we need is more teachers and less experts.
How many gifts did you give others last year for Christmas, especially to the children? Now not all that long ago gift-giving was a symbolic gesture. It told the recipients that we were thinking of them fondly and that we cared about their happiness and pleasure. Each child received three or four – possibly five – special gifts (total) at Christmas and, because that was the expectation, they were happy as clams at high tide. Today there is a gift-giving inventory that must be fulfilled for each child in a family for fear that without same, the child will be devastated. The inventory includes the compulsory one, two, or three articles of clothing, one or two toys, a book, a video game, some form of music, and a half dozen little stocking stuffers. And that’s just from one gift giver. And after each Christmas several dozen gift boxes and twelve rolls of crumpled gift wrap, along with the already discarded toys, are set out on the curb for disposal in a landfill, making each neighborhood look like an advertisement for Glad trash bags.
Did you ever play baseball as a youth? If so, you probably played in a sandlot or at the single diamond located at the community center. And you only played the game during spring and summer, because the rest of the year was reserved for just playing – outside – as a kid. Now soccer and hockey are not mentioned because they hadn’t been invented yet, at least not for anyone other than adults. When they were first invented for children, you played in a local league, you had a heck of a good time, and that was that. But somewhere along the line, already over-stressed parents conspired to imagine that your little local league must be stifling to your childhood ambitions and “travel teams” were conceived. Today, as a youth soccer or hockey player, if you don’t travel a minimum of two hundred miles away to play your game (or in another state all together) you are referred to, by parents, as just bush-league or amateurs (which is exactly what you are).
And talk about stress, the landscape of America is being besieged by McMansions. Even modest communities have seen their fair share of this type of architecture. Four thousand square feet of home sweet home just to shelter two adults and their two overindulged children. There’s also the furniture and furnishings required to fill up all the many rooms, in addition to the maid service, the landscapers, and the pool boy. It certainly gives the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” new meaning. Can you imagine the anxiety of waking up the first day of every month knowing that you have to earn six thousand dollars (mortgage, taxes, insurance) just to open the doors? Instead of decluttering their lives so that they can be less busy, less stressed, people simply continue to add more stuff on top of their already chaotic existence.
So what’s the point of all these curmudgeonly comments? The point is life really is quite simple and should remain that way. You’re born, you grow up, you go to school and work, you retire for a few years, and then you die. If there’s any question in anybody’s mind about that, just picture a person’s first birthday party and their last. Very much the same; someone else invites all your guests, someone else has to blow out the candles, and at both events you don’t know what the hell is going on. Why do we insist on complicating things? Years ago, people thought Henry David Thoreau was a pretty cool guy, living out in the woods as he did in Massachusetts, personifying a carefree existence. Today, most people probably consider him an eccentric or just a nut job. And yet only in simplicity can there be real, lasting peace; and peace is something people are dying to find these days.
Complexity is only going to get worse unless we purposely and courageously unpack our lives, control our expectations, and simplify our needs. We often smirk at the KISS Principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid), but keeping it simple is the only real reprieve from complexity for mankind. Marketing professors will tell you that each day the average person is confronted with over 3000 commercial advertisements in one form or another. Talk about over-stimulation! It’s sure hard to love your neighbor as yourself when all you can possibly manage is trying to navigate the mega-shopping mall and surviving the ever-increasing inundation.