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Sometimes, simple feels complicated

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by Allison Vesterfelt

Allison is a reader, writer, dreamer and author of Packing Light: Thoughts on Living Life With Less Baggage. She lives in Nashville with her husband. You can follow her daily on Twitter.

No matter how much I try to simplify my life, sometimes it still feels really complicated. Do you know what I mean?

Several years ago, I started by getting rid of excess stuff. I made countless trips to Goodwill and Salvation Army, gave things away to those who needed them, and got ruthless about excess and clutter in my space. Honestly, it felt so good and freeing and opening to live with fewer physical possessions, I couldn’t help but simplify in other areas of my life.

I realized I could feel better if I would simplify my diet—start eating more real, whole foods and less stuff from a bag-so I really went after it. I bought only organic food, ate vegan for a period of time, and starting cooking everything from scratch.

This totally transformed the way I felt on a day-to-day basis, and it also dramatically reduced the number of times I needed to go to the doctor and/or buy medication. I got fewer headaches, was less likely to get sick, and almost completely eliminated heartburn and stomachaches.

I was a believer, an evangelist for simplifying.

My husband and I simplified our finances by going a whole year without buying anything new, and also by sharing a car. It wasn’t always convenient, but we learned a ton about our wasteful habits and we couldn’t believe how much we were saving on insurance and gas because we shared our one reliable, not fancy, but paid-for car.

Again, how could I ignore the benefits of living with less? Our lives were simpler, more streamlined, and we were happier and more productive. I felt like we had found the answers to everything, ever (that’s how strongly I felt about it).

But several months ago, things started to feel complicated again.

First of all, I travel all the time. And my diet—no sugar, no dairy, no wheat, organic only, whole foods—while simple when I was at home, wasn’t at all practical or simple when I was on the road. In fact, it made everything more complicated. I would have to skip meals at times when I couldn’t find anything to eat, or miss out on opportunities to be a part of a group when everyone was eating something I couldn’t have.

Not to mention, my husband and I reached a point where it just wasn’t practical for us to keep our “buy nothing new” stand-off going any longer. Like I said, it was such a great experiment because it taught us about our buying habits, but long after the lesson was learned we found ourselves still trying to stand by this arbitrary restriction—just to prove a point.

Additionally, not long ago I realized that for me, not having a car wasn’t just a small inconvenience anymore. It was a gigantic road block to everything I wanted to do in my life and all the things I felt like I was supposed to accomplish.

I couldn’t hang out with friends, found myself sitting home at night way too often, couldn’t make an impromptu trip to the grocery store, couldn’t schedule the meetings I needed in order to move my career forward.

What had once made my life feel so simple (even if at times slightly inconvenient) was now making my life feel incredibly complicated.

It wasn’t simplicity that was holding me back, but the way I had interpreted and internalized simplicity—my extreme adoption of it—was in some ways preventing me from growing and progressing and making decisions I knew were right for me in each individual moment.

So one night, my husband and I had a “family meeting” about it.

I told him what I had been thinking and how restricted I felt by all of our self-imposed restrictions. I broke down into tears as I explained how I really wanted a car—my own car—and I was so sick of making sure every single thing I put into my mouth was organic. It wasn’t that I didn’t see the value in these things. It was just that the whole point was to make my life simpler, and my life didn’t feel simple at all. It felt horribly complicated.

He listened to me and finally said, matter-of-factly, “Okay, so let’s get a car.” He suggested we call off the no-new-stuff ban and that we use the small amount we’d been putting in our savings account to buy a second, not-fancy, reliable and paid-for, car.

He also suggested I cut myself a break with the organic food stuff.

I felt such relief in that moment—the moment he let me off the hook from following my own, self-imposed, high ideals. It wasn’t that I lost the value of simplicity, but that I was given permission to see simplicity for what it is—not a list of rules and regulations, but a tool to make my life simpler.

To the extent it did that, I could embrace it.

To the extent it didn’t, I could cut myself some slack. I didn’t have to be perfectly simple, all the time. Maybe there isn’t even such a thing as “perfectly” simple. Maybe I get to make my own definition.

Maybe trying to define simple in this really complicated way is taking away from the point.

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Comments

  1. I’ve been guilty of doing this too – especially with food. Then I was reminded that stressing out about food is just as bad for my body as eating unhealthy. Now I do my best to keep food whole and simple and don’t worry about it as much.

    • “Then I was reminded that stressing out about food is just as bad for my body as eating unhealthy”

      YES. I remember reading about a study done years ago in Switzerland (I believe) in which the absorption of nutrients from the food the participants ate changed depending on their belief system about the food (when they ate food they perceived to be “good/ healthy”, their bodies extracted more benefit as opposed to when they ate food they thought of was “bad/unhealthy”). Nocebo effect.

      and this:

      “I would have to skip meals at times when I couldn’t find anything to eat, or miss out on opportunities to be a part of a group when everyone was eating something I couldn’t have.”

      Whoa Nellie. This is one of my big concerns when I read about the many restrictive diets everyone’s on these days. This social isolation has got to be unhealthy and ultimately have a bigger impact on health. I think here in America we are so inclined to want to take a “scientific” view of eating, where in other parts of the world people eat for pleasure…. and end up eating healthier and having less trouble with obesity as an end result! I think of the French in particular but also in other places I’ve read about.

      Kudos to the author for remembering that legalistic ideas don’t always get us where we want to go. :-)

      • I love this comment, Carrie. I think stress affects me a lot more than my other choices. When I am living a well-rounded life I am happiest. :)

      • I heard an interview recently with David Sidaris on NPR (maybe the Splendid Table?), where he stated that due to so many friends having special diets, he doesn’t do dinner parties anymore. That was a real eye-opener for me about my self imposed rules (no food problems, just ideals).

    • You took the words right out of my mouth Steph!

  2. Hey Allison, I think you are absolutely right. When it comes to living simply, we all have our own definitions and standards. When we live outside of that spectrum and it becomes extreme, it’s outside of who we are therefore it becomes complex and hard. Thanks for sharing your story.

    Eric.

  3. This is a great great post and revelation. I think choosing a few ways to simplify and not all. I feel restricted enough with kids I could not cut my freedoms by sharing a car. Thanks for such an interesting honest look

  4. Great lessons learned. Moderation with simple. I enjoyed reading about your journey and admire you for all of your decisions.

  5. THIS! Oh my goodness. I haven’t quite gotten around to simplifying most of my life but due to some initial health issues I had to really simplify my diet (no dairy, grains, sugar, etc.) and while it was once a thing which made me feel better, healthier, more able to take control of things instead of going to the doctor became a point of depression.

    I love that men so often listen to our freak outs and then shrug and say, “Okay, let’s buy a car.” or in my case, “Okay, have the bbq sauce that has some minimal sugar in it.”

    Sigh. Permission, not depression. Permission to eat healthy and organic and best for us AND permission to indulge. Permission to share a car and make it work for a long time, THEN permission to get a second car. Love it.

  6. This might just be my favorite Art of Simple post ever! You so clearly point out that simple is not one thing. What’s simple for you really might not be simple for my life. And what’s simple for me today might not be so simple when my life changes in some way.

    I think so often we are all guilty of black and white, all or nothing thinking. Oh, my gosh, I had a cookie – well the whole diet is off. We need to be more comfortable with grey areas. It’s one of the reasons I love another AoS blogger, Megan Tietz at Sorta’ Crunchy. It’s okay to be sorta’.

  7. This is perfect in its honesty and realism! Seriously. I’m all about going green, eating “real” food, cutting out any and all fast foods for the philosophy behind it as much for the health benefit, and de-cluttering our lives. I think the fact that I have some family from which I’d rather not live completely apart, I’ve cut myself some slack — if they invite us for dinner, I accept graciously, eat their food graciously, and enjoy their company (the main reason for getting together in the first place) guilt-free. They’re my constant reminder of moderation…and not to put myself on a pedestal too darn much. ;-)

  8. I know I have a tendency to start following “the rules” I’ve set for myself too, instead of to staying focused on why those guidelines were appealing in the first place! Simple doesn’t have to mean any one activity, it can be our way of approaching the world. I think that’s so much healthier (for me, anyway) than fixating on the one-car-ness or the this-food-ness or the did-it-come-from-the-thrift-store-ness of any one choice. Thanks, Ally! :)

  9. I think in order for things to be simple, we must be free to find our own definition of what simple is to us. What may be simple to me may be complicated to you. Another important factor in simplicity is taking the time for evaluation and allowing flexibility. We will have seasons of simplicity that don’t seem simple in the next season, as you have well described. We need to give ourselves permission to change our minds and let go of things once they become complicated. Great post!

  10. avatar
    Beth Crawford says:

    Yes. Yes. Yes.

  11. avatar
    Linda Sand says:

    Only God is perfect. Our goal as humans is to be better than we were. That means realizing we don’t need to give up a social life to eat perfectly. It means to buy less not stop buying at all. It means to stop and think about changes in our life and how we choose to respond to them instead of blindly following any one path. I’ve watched you, Allison, as you have made great improvements in yourself–give yourself credit for that as we all do for you. And thanks for taking us along on your journey as we all take our own journeys.

  12. This was SO good! I think we could all use a dose of this type of encouragement from time for time: that life and seasons and we ourselves change. And so must the restrictions we place on ourselves (for some reason I think women have a harder time admitting that the crazy diet or schedule needs to change. Guys would just throw the daytimer in the trash and order a pizza!) Thank you for these honest words; they are so refreshing!

  13. I have done some monthly “challenges” (never a whole year … good for you), and had similar results. It’s a big eye-opener to how some bad habits are, but it’s not necessarily practical to keep doing forever. But, I think it also does bring some long-term change in my life as well. Maybe not as drastic as the super restricted times, but also not as indulgent as before.

  14. What an awesome post! I do think that everyone could benefit from making our lives less complicated, whatever that means.

  15. I agree that the simple things you adopted are the most complicated when you are travelling. You can stitck to them by having a cooler in the car with organic items you can eat on the way.
    My family is trying to live fully without working long hours. So, we have to be careful about our spendings. The urge to eat out is tamed by not being hungry when we are out. So, packing some snacks with us help us a lot. Having tap water in reusable containers (steel flask) is really makes me feel good. I try to upcycle many things so I don’t have to buy new. Buying second hand and giving unwanted items to thrift stores are my way of reducing my carbon foot prints.

  16. You are delightful! Thanks for sharing your journey with honesty. Our self-imposed rules really can squelch the life right out of us. I’m sure you will continue to live a balanced, healthy and simple life – but, now you can enjoy your choices with FREEDOM. Way to go! PS. You’ve got great readers who give meaningful feedback.

  17. I’ve been thinking about this post since yesterday. It is SO. VERY. GOOD. So thank you.

    If it makes you feel any better, though, I think it’s actually easier to start off a simplification being legalistic. I’ve been working on mine for 3 years now and there is definite progress but I get frustrated sometimes taking this slower route.

  18. Don’t be more Catholic than the Pope.
    Every step in the right direction is a step in the right direction.

    If we relax and do the things we can then maybe more people will do steps in the right direction.
    I think, many people are discouraged to try organic food or vegan cuisine or whatever because they think that you have to do it 100 %. Why can’t you be vegan but eat a steak once in a while if you like it?

    Cut yourself some slack. And others, too!
    Don’t preach, just live your way and show others what you’re passionate about.

    Greetings from Berlin, Germany
    Henriette

  19. Allison, I’m so glad you shared this. I have felt the same way as you, and I’m relieved to know I’m not the only one who has felt areas of my life got more complicated as a result of trying to simplify them. The minimalist lifestyle has many, many advantages, but you’re right that there are some occasional disadvantages. I’m glad you’ve been able to reframe your thinking and find new ways to re-simplify. :)

  20. This was very helpful and encouraging–thank you!

  21. Allison,

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with simplyfing your life and then realizing you had unwittingly complicated things. It’s wonderful that you re-evaluated your plan and gave yourself permission to change your view of simple.

    I believe the Nocebo effect mentioned by Carrie in the comments operates in many aspects of our lives. When we are wise enough to see our plans as tools, as you did, we can embrace the healthy lifestyle that creates happiness too.

  22. I am just starting to dive into minimalism and simplifying and I loved reading your perspective. I can see myself in your shoes down the road and this was an awesome reminder to keep things in perspective that the idealisms of minimalism and simplifying are not meant to be restrictive.

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