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Simplicity: Seeking the One Thing


I was outside my natural habitat, standing before an art design class, but the professor, Martha Mason, builds her classes on a spiritual foundation and a belief that art is important to everyone, not just artists. My limited experience in artistic design focused on redecorating my house, a task I approached with pure mortal terror. I had decorated it once, so doing it again should be no sweat. The house was over 30 years old and I had built it myself when I first moved to Walla Walla. I designed it to support the things I love to do, including a sizable study with bookshelves all around, a dining room for entertaining, two big fireplaces for warmth and atmosphere, and a big picture window looking out to my tree-filled backyard. These were the things I knew I needed in my life, and they have sustained me well. 40 years later, I am still happy there.

Decorating was simple in those days. Walls were white and colors were neutral. I felt rather daring in choosing a spring green carpet, but I thought it was the most beautiful color in the world and thirty years later, when it was simply wearing out, I still thought so. If I could do the same thing over again, I would have, but that was not an option. Colors and textures have changed. I looked at the wall of color chips in Gary’s Paint Shop and felt overwhelmed. “I am just going to do white walls,” I proclaimed stubbornly, “they were beautiful then; they can be beautiful now, and who knows, in another 20 years they will cycle back into style.”

My good friend Eileen Greenwalt was having none of it. “No,” she said, “You can do this.” And then she showed me how. She looked outside my picture window to the beautiful sunburst locust that shaded my deck and threw a lacy spring green shadow into the living room. “You have loved the yellow green of the sunburst locust and brought it into your house. Now, you must look at the blue green of the quaking aspen and bring that into your house. You love the colors of the outdoors and have brought them inside with beautiful trees that shade the windows. You did it once with the sunburst locust; now you can do it with the quaking aspen.” And with Eileen’s parable of the trees, I got the vision: I will love this. I got direction: I can do this.

My friend did something wonderful for me. She showed me what was in my heart. I didn’t have the experience or vocabulary to see what she was seeing, but when she put it in front of me with the aid of the trees I had planted myself, she started me on a path of spiritual growth with a new way of self-expression. And she did so by showing me what I loved. That is what simplicity is all about. Find what you love. Stick with that.

Simplicity is a major principle in designing a home, but it is also a major principle in spirituality, both as a concept and a practice.[1] It is based on finding the one thing. The tough trail boss Curly in City Slickers articulates it well. He asks Mitch, the city slicker, “Do you know what the secret of life is? One thing. Just one thing.” Mitch asks, “But what is the ‘one thing’?” Curly answers, “That’s what you have to find out.”

I had the key to the One Thing in what I consider to be the most beautiful color ever. This rich, deep shade of blue-green has deep roots in my soul. As we looked at the things in my house, almost everything coordinated with it already; and we found things of that same shade coming from every period in my life. We may answer glibly when asked our favorite color, but it is a more serious question than I thought. There must be a phenomenon of a personal color, one that has deep roots in the soul and knowing that simplified the task of decorating my house. Whatever went with that worked.

I read somewhere that we gain our sense of beauty and home from our early childhood. I can see how that might be working in me. I lived in New England in my early childhood and remember well the sense of dark woods and winding roads with overhanging tree branches and the colors of leaves and bark that are now a part of my house and yard. I love the sounds and smells and flickering light of a wood-burning fireplace. I love looking out my picture window at big trees, and the colors are brought into my walls and the wooden blinds on the windows. In learning about color and design, I learned some things about myself. It required a reconsideration of how I use my house, my space, and what I want it to say.

Simplicity has many things working against it. Complications in our lives arise from too much of a good thing: too much to do, too much to eat, too many things, too many options to choose from that we plunge into paralysis. Clutter can lurk anywhere—in our homes, our schedules, our daybooks, our closets, our souls. It clogs the system. And it’s not pretty. The Quaker William Penn called it “cumber.” A great word for it.[2] It encumbers our lives and destroys our sense of focus, concentration, flow, and movement that we need to live a creative and productive life. Google “clutter” and a cascade of articles will fall out on clutter and how to get rid of it or organize it. It’s urgent. We are drowning in clutter. The essayist E. B. White recounts his own struggle with clutter. He says:

It is not possible to keep abreast of the normal tides of acquisition. A home is like a reservoir equipped with a check valve: the valve that permits influx but prevents outflow. Acquisition goes on day and night—smoothly, subtly, imperceptibly. I have no sharp taste for acquiring things, but it is not necessary to desire things in order to acquire them. Goods and chattels seek a man out; they find him even though his guard is up. . . . This steady influx is not counterbalanced by any comparable outgo. Under ordinary circumstances, the only stuff that leaves a home is paper trash and garbage; everything else stays on and digs in.”[3]

One life-raft in this sea of clutter is provided by Marie Kondo in a little book called The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up.[4] She is death on organizing our clutter. She stands firm on getting rid of it. All the organizing aids just perpetuate the problem. They give us more space to collect more clutter. When she talks about tidying up she is not talking about rearranging the doodads on the curio shelf; she is talking about making hard choices. Her process is rigorous, but she claims that if it is followed, it is final. It will get rid of clutter and she promises there will be no rebound. It is a lengthy process, taking at least six months and probably a lot more, but it means examining everything you own and getting rid of it unless it passes the test: Does this item give you joy?

Instead of deciding what to throw away, she recommends throwing everything away and deciding what to keep, what to rescue, so in the end you will be surrounded only by things that give you joy. All the misbegotten purchases and impulse buys and awkward gifts from well-meaning friends, as well as things important and well-loved at some by-gone time, or things you just might need in some imagined future disappear and you have about you only the things that you actually use and enjoy in the present.

My house has too much clutter. That is the next stage of this adventure in design. But I am not sure that “clutter” is the right word for it all. In the next year or so I will try out Marie Kondo’s strategy and see how it works. But this house has supported my life for 40 years. I see all about me reminders of travel which has expanded my horizons. Are they clutter? Does the number of them make them clutter? I have many interests and things that reflect those interests. Do I get rid of those to have a cleaner surface? That is a design question, but I am not a designer; this is my house, and I can keep what I love, even Marie Kondo says I can do that, but that requires some discernment on my part. With retirement, this is a transitional time in my life. What do I need now? What continues to hold a place in my life? What deserves a place in my house? When does something become a part of my past rather than my present? When should it be discarded? Do I need a memento of a trip in order to have taken the trip? Well, no, but still. These are some things I will be asking myself. Marie Kondo may or may not have the last word.

I remember the words of Henry David Thoreau, good American philosopher that he was: “Simplicity. Simplicity. Simplicity,” he says, and in case you didn’t get the point, he adds, “Simplify, Simplify.”[5] Live intensely, he says, without a surplus of things that get in the way. He has three chairs, “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” Well, I need more than three chairs. I am fortunate enough to have more than three friends. So did Thoreau, but he was content to let them stand.[6] He lived his simple life for two years before he went home, saying he left Walden “for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”[7] That is discernment. What is good now may not always be, and each day, each time in one’s life brings new demands. We must be alert and active in keeping up with ourselves. We are changing and growing, always with eyes on the one thing needful.

I think artists are doing the work of the Lord when they show us what beauty is. God is described in terms of indescribable beauty, always in metaphorical terms. How else can you describe the indescribable? Can we see God? Not fully; not now. He will always be a mystery. But in the eighth Beatitude, the promise of seeing God is given to the pure in heart, those who focus their attention on the beauty of God and filter out anything that would interfere with that vision. What does it mean to be pure in heart except to be focused on the One Thing with singleness of purpose and singleness of heart? Jesus said that the eye that is single is full of light (Matt 6:22), without duplicity, clearly focused, without distractions or distortion. The reward of such single-mindedness is to see God.[8]

We can all seek the One Thing wherever we are. God’s people have always done that. Jesus told us how: What must I do to be saved? Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. Simple. When we seek God with all our hearts we will find him, and what can we do then but love our neighbors. That is living the simple life. That is simplicity at its most profound.

[1] See Richard J. Foster, Freedom of Simplicity (New York: Harper SanFrancisco, 1981) for a full treatment of simplicity in the Christian life.

[2] Foster, 3.

[3] Essays of E. B. White (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), quoted in Bob Benson, Sr. and Michael W. Benson, Disciplines for the Inner Life, Rev. ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989), 296.

[4] The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2014).

[5] Henry David Thoreau, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” The Annotated Walden (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1970), 222.

[6] Thoreau, “Visitors,” 271.

[7] Thoreau, “Conclusion,” 439.

[8] Susan Annette Muto, Blessings that Make Us Be: A Formative Approach to Living the Beatitudes (New York: Crossroad, 1982), 117-128. Also, Foster, 33-51.


Beverly Beem has just retired from the English department at Walla Walla University in College Place, Washington.

Photo Credit: / Patryk Specjal


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