By Kyle Reif
I lost my job on the last day of November, 2018. It was sudden, and the impersonal “downsizing” was crushing. Especially because my wife and I moved to town the year before, in large part for this job. My wife is a teacher, so after the initial shock wore off and she began Christmas break it was actually kind of nice. She and I spent a lot of time together, and during the holidays so many people have time off that I didn’t feel too out of place. But it was in that process that I began to feel distressed in a different way that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Next, I tried to fill the vacuum with books I haven’t read, skills I intended to learn, and anything that I thought was a “good idea” I pursued. However, I was directionless and worse, I felt purposeless. I had many things I could do, but which one was the right thing? Which one would “pay off” down the road so that when I looked back I could say that the time not working was not wasted? How is it that having nothing to do could be so complicated! I was paralyzed, like the donkey in the proverb my priest likes to refer to, starving to death because he is an equal distance between two bales of hay.
With effort, I looked inward and considered my situation. I had to admit that the things in my life that I claimed were most important, had not actually changed with my employment status. But I was not living like it. I had time on my hands and was confronted with my own emotional hypocrisy. After much initial struggle, I acted, and it started with prayer. In particular: morning and evening prayer. I had no excuse for not being diligent about prayer every single day. And although I wasn’t perfect, it was a huge leap forward. Some days it even made me reluctant to leave prayer. But eventually I would and then what? I’m not a monastic hermit, nor do I pretend to be one, and I realized structured prayer wasn’t the whole answer, but it was the right start. My problem remained, and even though I still felt like a donkey, I didn’t feel so bad about it.
Now, the cliché resolution to this story would be that once lent began, I turned my heart fully toward Christ, found peace, landed a great job, and lived happily ever-long enough to write this. In some ways that’s how it played out, but getting the job wasn’t the resolution I thought it would be. My new job is even better than my old one in a lot of ways. It was strange, but as I got back to working, I still tried to cross things off my list. I should say I’m not naturally inclined to be organized. I can do it, but it is definitely takes effort. In the places I got organized, I did feel better. And so I realized that the desire I felt was not just about getting a job, it was a desire for life to be more simple. The things in my control included so much that I just didn’t need. I was keeping too much in my life that needed managing, but it only needed managing because I was keeping it. Life is complicated, but I was making it worse by trying to control what I did not need to.
Once I knew what was going on, I saw things differently. I evaluated which things I was serving that were not worth my time, attention, energy, emotion, etc. I should say too, I didn’t do a dramatic minimalist approach, I didn’t throw out all my stuff (or get rid of any of my wife’s, c’mon I’m not that much of a donkey) but there is a tremendous power in doing things like getting your phone organized so that it’s a productive tool instead of a distracting time sink. It’s powerful, but it does take a decision and the will to act. My approach was simple. I took real action toward what was already important to me. I got the most out of the things I already
had. Then was honest about the things I didn’t need, and let them go. There is a Japanese word: “Tsunde oku” which is a pun used to describe buying books and letting them pile up unread. I am guilty of that in many areas of life (including books) and the pile was wearing me down.
The “blessing” of losing of my job was that it made the distractions in my life unavoidable. It was like a tree had been cut and the light could shine down and reveal the weeds growing underneath. Weeds of the world, of money, of stuff. And yes, I know those things must be dealt with, but in their proper place. I needed to find priority, I needed clarity. I needed things to be more simple. I had discovered that the distress I could not explain was really my most important parts of life being choked off without me knowing. It was halfway through lent that I saw a quote that really put to words what I was experiencing. It’s poignant that it comes from a work entitled, ‘Living without hypocrisy’ and it is this:
“Let us live more simply and God will have mercy on us.” – St Ambrose of Optina Living without hypocrisy Spiritual Counsels of the Holy Fathers of Optina.
It affirms that the work of simplifying is not just a productivity-life hack-minimalist trendy-way to be cooler than other people. It’s not about getting more done or having fewer material things. It is not just about eliminating. Simplicity is an active process. Simplicity is about deciding what to make present in life. God, who is everywhere present and filling all things, is still surprisingly easy to miss. As one priest has put it, you aren’t aware of God until you turn your attention to Him in the same way that you aren’t aware you are breathing until you turn your attention to it. We may be tempted to wonder why God doesn’t make us more aware of Him. God doesn’t make us do anything because compelling us to do anything would not be treating us the way He would be treated. God gives us the same freedom befitting Himself. So it’s not that you can make the all-present God more present. But we can give our attention to Him then find Him present with us. Perhaps I have now become distracted from my point, but it’s all connected in that to be with God is not just good for our lives, but it is Life itself. In the end, Simplicity is another way to help us understand what the Christian life has always been about: communion with God.
As we look forward to the Paschal season, I pray it’s one of freedom and clarity, and that by living more simply God will have mercy on us.