I recently posted a fun history update to Facebook about how the Montgomery Ward catalog was first released in 1872, and it was only one page. I commented, “No wonder life was simpler back then!”
My colleague Alan Stamm replied with a disagreement, acknowledging that I was having fun and he was “being a pooper.” But he raised a good point nonetheless:
Life wasn’t simpler when people had to make their own clothes, furniture, curtains, bedding, tools and other necessities or find a nearby craftsman to do so. Our transactions are impersonal and our creative pride transfers to other tasks, but life is much, much simpler now, as I define it.
And that’s really the heart of the matter, isn’t it? Define “simple life” for yourself, and you’ll likely find others who think your life is much too complicated. I’m sure to the folks Alan mentioned, those who had to make everything for themselves, keeping up with the multitasking on laptops, smartphones, iPads and other gizmos would seem overwhelming. Certainly, they wouldn’t view my current life as “simple.”
However, as Alan pointed out, having to make my own clothes and furniture would be incredibly difficult for me and if I were transported back in time, I’d long for the “simple life” I led when all of that was offered for sale at a local store.
Reaching that store is simple for me, compared to folks in the 1800s who didn’t have automobiles. But those folks transported forward in time would probably find our chaotic and often-dangerous streets to be anything but simple.
Certainly, technology has made our lives easier in many ways, but I can’t say it has kept them simple. Fighting regularly to keep computer systems up and running, maintaining automobiles, servicing whole-house furnaces and air conditioning units is not simple. On the other hand, being able to have ice on demand from our freezer door sure makes things simpler. And that whole refrigeration concept does make fresh and healthy food simpler for all of us.
Perhaps the old saying about “the grass is always greener” really is true. Perhaps “a simple life” is defined by the longing for things you don’t have. People in the 1800s didn’t have the ability to sit down at a laptop computer and share their thoughts with the world after just a few simple keystrokes. I, on the other hand, don’t have the opportunity to enjoy a peaceful summer evening surrounded by a family that isn’t being pulled in six different directions because of commitments to work, school or volunteer and professional organizations.
Is it simply impossible for humans to recognize what a simple life really is? Are we always going to long for what we don’t have rather than enjoy what we do?
What does “a simple life” mean to you? Is it having technology and machinery available to do things for you so you don’t have to? Or is it having the ability to do things for yourself without the need for technology, and accepting that your limits are what they are and when you’ve reached them, that’s simply good enough?
I certainly don’t have a solid answer to that yet, but for now I have to stop wondering about it. I have to get to work, so I can earn money, so I can buy commodities that I cannot make for myself but which I can easily order online thanks to the simplicity of the Internet — one of the most complex technological advancements in human history.
Simple life, indeed.