February has been a difficult month – the frequent dreary skies have mirrored my weary and restless soul. Mark and I have taken turns being ill or fighting illness the entire month. Our two weekend programs this month were cancelled – one because of our illness, the other because of climate change.¹ Because of physical illness and psychological weariness, daily chores and work have felt particularly burdensome.
This is by no means my first hard season, yet this season is still a first. It’s my first time going through a time of inner isolation, a sense of lost purpose, and pervasive weariness while immersed in this simple way of life. In some ways, this lifestyle has made my felt experience of this season much more difficult. Naturally, I’ve been tempted (and I’ve given in to the temptation) to blame our way of life for my inner restlessness. If only our life was easier and more convenient, I wouldn’t be so lonely, foggy and grumpy. If only I had a bigger home, then I’d be happy. Ha! How short and feeble is my memory! How quickly my mind forgets similar seasons living in a four-bedroom house in the middle of town thinking, “If only I was living closer to the land, then I’d be happy.” Or “If only I had a husband to take care of me, pull me out of this state, etc.” Happiness is not a consequence of environment.
I adamantly reject the idea that more convenience would make me happier. However, I am discovering that living simply requires me to feel my unhappiness at a deeper, more raw level, hence making the felt experience more difficult. This way of life, you see, makes it very, VERY hard to check out.
I’m really good at checking out. It’s my go-to response to stress. When the outer world or my inner world feels like too much for me to handle I reach for Facebook, Instagram, or Netflix. Living without electricity or internet has made it painfully difficult to check out in my favorite and easiest ways! Even though I haven’t binged on Netflix since the fall and I haven’t been on Facebook at home since December, I still feel an inner tug to find something to mindlessly consume when my weariness overwhelms me. My cellphone gets 3G in the yurt (I have to smoosh my body up against the front door to get service, but I get it) and it’s been revealing and humbling to discover how much I find myself in that spot hunched over my phone looking for distraction and relief from my inner woes.
For Lent, I “gave up” accessing the internet when I’m home. At least, I’ve been trying to. It’s only been two weeks and an embarrassing number of my conversations with Mark start with, “Confession: I checked my email, but let me tell you about this message we got!” So often the miracle of my existence, the love Mark and I share, and the infinite wonder outside my door does not seem to be enough. I do not have the eyes to see, so I crave the distraction of what’s happening anywhere but where I am.
It’s not just the removal of distractions that can make it harder to check out of simple living. It’s also a lifestyle that requires regular action for our daily needs to be met. When I don’t have access to the internet – the means to endless abstracted distraction – my next favorite way to check out is sleep, or general mopey slothfulness. In our off-grid 20-foot yurt, I can only be so lazy. We do not have the luxury to distance ourselves from the elements by a mere flip of the switch, reserving contact with the natural world and our bodily needs to times when we’re feeling robust, invigorated and fully alive. On even the worst days, wood needs to be brought in and the fire needs to be stoked if we’re going to stay warm and fed, the ice in the ice box needs to be changed out if our food is going to stay fresh, water needs to be hauled if we’re going to stay hydrated, a 100-yard hill needs to be walked to reach our front door, and our small space needs to be cleaned and organized if we’re going to stay sane.² Sometimes engaging in these necessary chores plunges me further into my isolation and grumpiness, but more often than not they serve as tiny sacraments – marks of grace – inviting me to be present with the moment, present with the task at hand, and – what is always the most difficult for me – present even with my despair.
In our culture of consumerism, we have been trained that negative emotions can be placated, ignored, or even fixed by changing our external circumstances. It’s no coincidence that changing those external circumstances almost always costs money. It’s easy for me to fight this temptation during one day of weariness, but when the fog carries on for days, weeks, or months my mind starts looking around to see what’s wrong. The longer the weariness continues, the harder it is to admit that the fog is probably coming from within me. That perhaps instead of more space or things in my house, I need to restart my routine of walking by the stream each morning, or recommit myself to our rhythm of prayer, or spend a few days in silence and solitude, or pray for eyes to see the infinite beauty and wonder around me. Most likely, I should do all the above.
When the fog of weariness lifts a bit, I am reminded of what I know to be true. A weary and restless heart is almost always not the disease (or dis-ease). It is a sign and symptom of a deeper dis-ease, of something in my inner life keeping me from total freedom and happiness. When hard seasons arrive, they are not something to escape or check out of. Escaping through distractions or sleep may seem like it’s making things better, but it’s only numbing the underlying pain, medicating a symptom without removing the source of the unease.
The hard lesson I’m (re)learning this month is that seasons like these are opportunities to be led by grace into ever greater freedom and a more abundant life. This is the nitty-gritty, the underbelly of this radical simplicity. It’s not always fun and easy. Though the land of the infinite may be within and among us in each and every moment, it doesn’t always feel like it. My trust in this experiment is that, to the extent that I refuse to check out and embrace a life of simplicity, prayer, and love – and all the good, bad, and ugly it reveals – the life and love of the Divine will infuse more and more of my being, giving me eyes to see that even in the hard times, the infinite is at hand!