Simplify My Life, Please (Audio Available)

Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert, 3 June 2018

june 3 flowers.jpg

Years ago, when I was a Montessori teacher, there was nothing I loved more than the days at the end of the summer when I would prepare my classroom for the new year. I’d spend hours in silence, carefully preparing materials, and deciding exactly where each activity would be placed on the bare shelves. It was a kind of meditation. When I was done, I could imagine the children inhabiting the space with their excitement and curiosity.

We rented classroom space from a public school that was surrounded by woods and farmland. In September, as the school year began, I’d buy a sunflower from a local farmer. I’d place the big head of the flower on a tray along with a pair of tweezers. I loved watching even the most restless four- and five-year olds mastering the art of using the tweezers to pull out one seed after another from the drying flower head. Time would be suspended as the simple task became everything for that child.

In celebration of the sunflower season, we would make long, rectangular canvases for painting out of  butcher paper cut in half lengthwise. We’d set out jars of yellow, brown and green paint. A brown dot at the top became the centre of a sunflower. Yellow for the petals and green for the stem and leaves. I have been never a fan of cookie-cutter art for kids, but here the only things dictated were the colour choice and the size of the canvas. The rest was up to the child. 

Each year, the results were stunning. Even the youngest child, who had only just turned three could successfully paint a sunflower of their own imagining. Some were quick in their panting, others would take their time as they meditatively moved the paintbrushes to form the blossom and then ran a long green stem along the length of the paper. 

I miss those moments of watching children immersed in their work, as they perfected the skill of using little fingers to do precise movements, as they became lost in the contemplation of the moment, or when they swirled around in ecstasy after having completed something to their own satisfaction. 

Of course, reality ultimately bumped up against my ideas of letting children find their own way. My classroom was filled with open options for exploration and creativity. But the school director and the parents wanted more results. They wanted these three-, four- and five-year olds to read and write, to be transformed into little geniuses, so that their future acceptance into a competitive university would be assured. That wasn’t what I had signed up to do, so I moved on.

Still, I cherish those memories of quiet and completeness, of children teaching me what it means to move joyfully and deliberately in the world. When I think of simplicity, that’s where my mind goes. 

There are days now when I can still feel that same quiet sense of being. I can wake up early in the morning, sit in silence and find my thoughts filled with a prayer that’s waiting to be written. I can spend hours carefully crafting a Ukrainian Easter egg, completely focused on the mystery of placing the eggs into jars of dye, not quite knowing what the results will be as I remove layers of wax. I can walk through city streets and marvel at fragrant honeysuckle blossoms bursting out of an old fence.  

There are the Sundays when I walk into this sanctuary before anyone else has arrived, when this space is filled with such exquisite silence, when I take a moment to breathe, before I am launched into the frenetic activity of preparing for the morning’s worship service. I want to be Zen in all my interactions. I crave quiet. I crave simplicity.

But the truth is, I also love noise, music, hyperactivity and complications. I thrive on sensory overload. I’m a multitasker and an overfunctioner. I’m really not a poster child for simplicity. There are so many luxuries and things in my life I’m not ready to give up. I’m not ready to give up the possessions in my life that are filled with memories, the things that remind me of my travels and dear friends, or the things that were handed down to me by my grandparents, my parents, or by mother-in-law who had exquisite taste. 

And yes, I love my smartphone. I really do. Yet it seems as though every simplicity expert tells me to step away from my screens. But I’ve got an entire library on something I can slip into my pocket! Is it so wrong to want access to the complete works of George Eliot in the palm of my hand? When I was younger it would take me months to read a single book, now in the past two weeks I’ve read Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese and Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, all because of easy access to buying books and reading them wherever I am.

True confession: I’ve also become a podcast addict. There’s just so much access to news and to worlds beyond my own, again, right there on my phone. I can walk the dog for hours, just listening to my favourite podcasts, passing strangers who are doing the very same thing. The Daily, Red Man Laughing, S-Town, Black on the Air, On Being, Tapestry — I love this stuff. 

Last month, the younger members of the worship planning team, who are in their twenties and thirties, suggested that we do a service on the blessings of technology. The message they wanted to convey is that technology isn’t all evil. There’s a lot that’s good about the global connectedness we’re witnessing. 

While I’m not a big Facebook user, I’m so grateful that it connects me to friends and colleagues all over the world. In the old days, we had to wait months to hear from each other. Back then, long distance calls were so expensive. Thanks to social media, I’ve reconnected with old friends I thought I’d never see again.

My phone is a miracle— and a vice. I admit that it can be hard not to check emails constantly, and especially challenging not to Google every random question that crosses my mind. I can also let myself get oversaturated by the constant stream of current news. It can inspire me to action, but it can also crush my soul and leave me despondent. I need to be very careful. These are the things that can make me feel as though my life is overbooked and out of control.

People in the voluntary simplicity movement make a case for rejecting life based on high-consumption and materialistic lifestyles. They warn, “Ordinary Western-style consumption habits are degrading the planet,” and no doubt they are right. I admire anyone who has figured out how to step off the consumer merry-go-round or off the grid. But I think that seeking simplicity is more than just giving up stuff. It’s about the way in which we each interact with the world. It’s also about the clutter that exists in our minds. 

Last week, our guest Rev. Helen McFadyen spoke about her own trials as an overfunctioner. Maybe it’s a trait that draws many of us into ministry. There’s a whole world of aching need out there and we want to respond. It’s hard for us to say “no” to anything. It’s hard not to feel we’ve got to take care of everything ourselves, because everyone else is too busy, too overwhelmed, or too tired. 

People who overfunction often find themselves taking responsibility for other people’s problems, which ultimately translates into major stress for the overfunctioner. Who can possibly do it all? Meanwhile, the other person in the equation, the underfunctioner, can feel unneeded or perfectly content to be helpless. It’s like the child who’s learned that it isn’t really necessary to clean up after themselves. They know that if they wait long enough, their parent always does it for them. The overfunctioning parent, meanwhile, says to themselves, “If I don’t do it, it will never get done!” Believe me, there are times when both my spouse and I have taken turns being that overfunctioning parent. Ask our kids!

There are lots of reasons why an overfunctioner may feel responsible for everyone and everything. Maybe it’s feeling that you aren’t good enough unless you do it all. Maybe it’s a need for control. Maybe it’s anxiety that things might fail. The challenge for overfunctioners is to figure out how to be OK with being less responsible so that others can take on more responsibility and ownership. 

I like to joke that I’m a recovering overfunctioner who has frequent relapses. I know that my life  is greatly simplified when I let go and leave room for others to step in.

Simplify my life, please! Or maybe not…?

I feel so grateful to be able to do all the things I do to serve this community, to serve our movement nationally and internationally, and to be active in interfaith efforts. This is a rich time in my life. But I do think there is wisdom in remembering to seek out spiritual simplicity, to regularly sit still without distractions, to consider what is most essential in life, to think about the things that may be unnecessarily weighing us down. What are the things that are getting in our way, that are keeping us from living a simpler life?

On this flower communion Sunday, as we’ve each contemplated the flowers we’ve exchanged, I think of the beauty of these blossoms, how they call us to find joy in all things. I think of the children in my Montessori classroom who could take such exquisite care to observe a sunflower in all its mystery and splendour. I’m reminded that I need to return to that place of simple wonder now and again before I re-immerse myself in the constant demands of the world that surrounds me. 

Yes! May we simply our lives. May we overfunction or underfunction less. May we narrow down our goals to what is manageable and truly important. But may we never give up on recognizing the challenges and the gifts of life’s complexity. 

Amen. Blessed be. Namaste.

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