Over the holidays, I re-read an old favorite from my undergraduate research days at Hamilton College. David Shi’s remarkable book The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture has long been a favorite of cultural historians and those longing for an understanding of what the simple life means and its importance as a profound thread in American intellectual history. Written in 1985 while Shi was an Associate Professor at Davidson College, The Simple Life traces the rich cultural heritage of the movement beginning with the Puritans and Quakers, moving on to the New England Transcendentalists, and ultimately to the modern-day communitarians. Along the way, Shi paints a vivid picture of a life and a lifestyle that has, over decades, provided practitioners with physical, emotional, and spiritual sustenance.
I returned to Shi’s work last week for the first time in over 30 years as I have been on my own personal journey toward a more simple life these past 18 months. As daily existence has become increasingly more busy and hectic and my professional and family life more complex, I have found myself striving for what Shi notes is “the recovery of personal autonomy and meaning through the stripping away of faulty desires and extraneous activities and possessions.” Whether by coming to grips with middle age or seeking some sort of deeper purpose in my life, I take solace in Shi’s work and even all these years later I find myself wishing for the simple life.
At heart I am a shameless idealist and there is perhaps nothing more idealistic to me than simple living. For those who’ve succeeded in their quest for simplicity, and made it who they are, there is tremendous satisfaction, purpose, and peace in the process and the product. And, for those like me, who’ve spent decades in an on-again off-again quest for the ideal, it’s been both aspirational and inspirational. For me, my running, particularly over the last year and a half, has provided a foundation upon which to base my quest. And, as such, for the first time, I feel myself trending toward a simple life that may be sustainable.
Running has always been a place where I can strip life down to its essence. Perhaps in my own little version of Henry David Thoreau’s “sucking the marrow out of life,” running gives me a regular glimpse into a simpler existence. Alone, out in the woods or the mountains, running keeps me honest and allows me to dream. And, as long as I stay healthy and smart, it is something fundamentally simple, often enlightening, and almost always thought-provoking. Simultaneously, running teaches me discipline, focus, and commitment while also opening up the capacity to hope, to strive for something more and, in the midst of its stripped-down essence, to be purely human.
And so, as I embark on another year of running, I am committed to learning what it has to teach. Armed with the simple wisdom of Thomas Jefferson, Thoreau, Marguerite Bigelow, Lewis Mumford, and Wendell Berry, I plan to find a way to return to the simple life. Whether on my daily runs before work or my long eight-hour days in the mountains, I am certain that the simple way is the way for me. Given all the competing forces in my life, it won’t be easy. But, as they say, the most satisfying things in life never are.
AJW’s Beer of the Week
This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Taproom favorite Ballast Point Brewing Company in San Diego, California. Recently they released nationally a delicious session IPA called Fathom. Weighing in at a gentle 6% ABV and 60 IBUs, this classic West Coast Style IPA is just the right beer in this crowded marketplace. In fact, it’s nice and simple…
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Would you call certain elements of your life simple? Do you intentionally maintain simplicity–or at least strive for it–in certain relationships with others, with your running, or with another hobby?
- What value do you find in simplicity?