Complex Simplicity

10 March, 2000

Humanity is searching for simplicity in the midst of this life so full of complexity.  In Henry David Thoreau’s “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s “The Channelled Whelk” the reader is exposed to two authors’ desire for simplicity and how they seek this.  Although from different centuries, both authors have found similar sensations in nature to be calming and draw feelings of simplicity from it.  One attempts to absorb the basis of life by changing surroundings and absorbing the simple things of this world.  The other recognizes the way nature reminds humanity that the life within can retain lessons in simplicity and grace of the mind, heart, and environment.

Thoreau and Lindbergh find reminders of simplicity in the nature where they seek refuge from the distractions of life, but they have very different perceptions of the meaning of simple living.  Thoreau sees life as an experience: “I wanted to live deep . . . to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of my excursion” (256).  He takes the simple life he lives and makes it into a celestial experience with the gods of the Greeks.  This time in nature becomes something he can experience, write about, and remember yet somehow a temporal experience.  For Thoreau the rituals of simplicity, like his morning bath in Walden pond, were “a religious experience” that remains in the woods and is gone when he returns to society (255).  Lindbergh, however, sees her vacation on the beach as an escape, or break, to rediscover simplicity in life and the chance to take that simplicity back to the life she knows will continue to remain complex despite desire for simplicity.  She compares herself to a hermit crab that has left it’s shell, she writes: “I too have run away, I realize, I have shed the shell of my life, . . .” (261).  They have both left busy society behind, but one difference between Thoreau and Lindbergh is that Lindbergh recognizes that outward change is not enough: “Simplification of outward life is not enough. It is merely the outside,” she writes (266).  She is looking for an inner simplification or “grace” that allows her to “function and give as I was meant to in the eye of God” (262).  Thoreau is looking for an outward simplification and hopes the answers to life will be revealed: “I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essentials facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach . . .” (256).  The lesson he is looking for seems to be only an aspect of life rather than application of life’s lessons as Lindbergh promotes.

Despite their different opinions about the meaning of simple living and how this is gained and retained, both Thoreau and Lindbergh agree on the presupposition that life is too busy.  They see life as full of busyness whether it be from details of life in general as Thoreau says: “Our life is frittered away by detail” (256).  Life’s meanings may be lost in the attitudes behind our busyness as Lindbergh learns.   According to Thoreau, simplicity comes by adjusting the surroundings and tossing aside anything that adds complexity:  “Simplify, Simplify.  Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one . . .” (256-257).  He seeks to lose himself in the simplicity of nature.  He sees nature and simplicity as the escape from a life “cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense” (257).  In the simple cabin where he lives, Thoreau feels at home counting himself caged within nature (254).  Lindbergh also learns from the simplicity of her surroundings, but her simplicity goes much deeper than the bare walls and simple nature around her.  In shedding physical items she finds that she also sheds a mindset as well: “Physical shedding . . . mysteriously spreads into other fields” (265).  Thoreau sheds physical items and remains focused on, even distracted by the attempt to keep away from them.  He fails to see the mind set behind distractions as Lindbergh does so beautifully.  It is like Thoreau tries too hard.  Lindbergh realizes her need for only a few clothes, pieces of furniture, and minor creature comforts, and finds herself shedding attitudes.  She sheds pride and vanity and masks of hypocrisy becoming her own simple self.

Balance is key.  Balance between distractions of simplicity and multiplicity that keep one from the realities of life.  The two authors agree on the point of view that busyness is a distraction cycle.  Thoreau writes that people are so busy that they cannot take the time to relax and see what is reality, yet they will allow themselves to be distracted from the distraction of labor by other  distractions.  Thoreau claims that people are so worried about missing some new distraction that they are blind eyes in the “dark unfathomed mammoth cave of this world” (258).  Lindbergh does not promote being filled with worry or distractions nor does she promote bidding society and interaction farewell and becoming a hermit blinded to the world by simplicity itself.  She seems to say Thoreau’s answer is merely a first step: “A first step is in simplification of life, in cutting out some of the distraction” (264).  She finds her answer in laying aside distractions and fulfilling her responsibilities with a balance between  the two and a learning attitude: “In my periods of retreat, perhaps I can learn something to carry back into my worldly life” (265).

The two authors travel the same road toward a more fulfilling life–the road of simplicity– one just travels further down that road than the other and each walk in different world views.  Thoreau fails to move on to balance reality with a recess into simplicity as does Lindbergh.  Thoreau has a dreamy, aesthetic, and even ritualistic view of simplicity in nature–a view that keeps him from moving beyond the mist of that dream world and back into reality with valuable lessons in hand.  Lindbergh uses the vacation on the beach to put reality in check and remind herself of the valuable things of life without living in a dream world that is forgotten like the morning mist.  Thoreau seemed to live in a world view of secular naturalism embraced with Greek myth–a world view of self-fulfillment–while Lindbergh is seeking the grace of God’s will for her life and looks for a way to balance herself in light of God’s will.  She carries a world view that retains God at the center rather than self.  When a reader considers the lessons of simplicity presented by Thoreau and Lindbergh he is faced with a choice.  He must choose for himself whether he is going to merely experience the lessons of nature and simple living or apply those lessons in even the most hectic times of life.  If he chooses the former application the simplicity and peace will be long lasting and an improvement to all aspects of his life.



Works Cited

Epperson, William, et al., eds. Encounters: Connecting, Creating, Composing.

Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1994.

Lindbergh, Anne Morrow. “The Channelled Whelk.” Epperson. 261-266.

Thoreau, Henry David. “Where I lived and What I lived For.” Epperson. 253-258.