I have a confession to make: I am not new to the idea of simple living. In fact, if simple living were a food in my life,  it would be ketchup. Often dabbed on the side, sometimes nestled between the pickle and the cheese, or in most cases loaded in a enormous pile next to a plate of fries. It has always been present, if not central. This month I hope to super-size simple living from a to-go sized packaged condiment to a big bowl of ketchup soup. Sounds delightful, doesn’t it?

As Sarah and I have revamped our simple living efforts and I’ve begun to write about it, we’ve heard “naynaynay” from the naysayers. “So what?” some people say, “I’ve got a friend who was homeless, living out of a dumpster and eating nothing but the soles of shoes for two years” or “when I was traveling in Africa they had entire tribes that lived for six months on less than what you consume before lunchtime”. Meanwhile, others doubt my use of a blog, email, or the internet because of its obvious technological ties. Shouldn’t I be off in the woods, like a Gary Paulsen novel, left alone to subside with only my thoughts and an axe (“Axe?, that isn’t simple!”)?

It is true that making the choice to live simply is a middle class decision. I do not wish to live without my basic needs met nor do I enjoy being too uncomfortable. I wouldn’t dare attempt to live as bare as those living in the Congo, on the streets and under the bridges throughout  the U.S., or embedded in the ghettos of Rio de Janeiro. However, that shouldn’t negate our desires to live on less but experience more.

Henry David Thoreau, the man who lived simply on Walden Pond and is inevitably quoted in blogs about simplicity wrote:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Clearing his life of its distraction and debris to focus on only the most important aspects of life, H-Dogg (he’s my homeboy, so I can call him that) chose to move to the woods. A pretty interesting endeavor, don’t you think? The only problem I see with it is that too many people get focused on the woods. (You could say they get stuck in the weeds.) Before you know it, would-be simple livers  give up the idea after dwelling too long on the thought of mosquitoes, killing your own food, or being stalked by a bear.

When working with at-risk youth, a common intervention is to bring them to the woods where they can talk about their problems, explore their family system, learn confidence, build self-esteem, and become strong young men and women through interaction with the wild. The problem with this approach, is that eventually these same kids will  be returned to their original, somewhat-to-awfully dysfunctional home environments. In urban settings, a teenager that returns to his gang infested neighborhood or drug addicted, abusive parents having learned to portage a canoe might suddenly wonder how the hell that skill will do any good in the real world. I feel similarly about simple living. Learning to scale back while being an active participant in society requires a more thoughtful approach that integrates some of the realities of the world you live in. Using smoke signals to make dinner plans just doesn’t bode well.

What is profound about what Thoreau said isn’t that he moved to the woods, but that he wished to live deliberately and to front the essential facts of life. Moving to the woods was just his vehicle of choice in getting there. As Sarah and I scale back, not only to be less wasteful and perhaps wealthier, we hope that we will remove those things that inhibit us from living deliberately, and fronting the essential facts of life. We are not looking to deprive ourselves of things that we believe will aid us in our journey, or even those things that obviously bring us great joy, but hope that by removing the excess we will make room for that which is truly important. We are in search of  clarity, not austerity.

Please pass the ketchup.