Yesterday, I went to the first session of what I thought was my Introduction to the New Testament Class. For about 10 minutes, I gave a broad overview of the ways we’d approach our engagement with the scriptures. Then, a student spoke up and said: “I have you for New Testament at 1:00 this afternoon, but I think this is FYS 112.” She was right. When I realized my mistake, I broke-out in laughter at myself, apologized to the group, and told them to sit-tight (and, of course, to talk about their absent-minded professor in my absence) while I ran up the hill to my office to retrieve the right syllabus. When I got back, I mentioned that part of an ethical life is the willingness to seek and give forgiveness! I think we recovered and got off to a decent beginning for the class, despite my false start.
FYS 112 is the second of two seminars which first-year students take to acclimate them to the college experience, to hone their skills for navigating it, and to help them develop their abilities of recognizing and making wise choices about a variety of ethical issues and challenges. For my section of FYS 112, we’re going to be doing ethics by focusing on The Good Life: Discovering What It Is, Exploring How to Live It. Among other subjects, we’re going to think about the roles which time, stuff, status, relationships, a sense of vocation or calling, work, and matters of the spirit play in a good life. We’ll listen to a variety of voices and perspectives: Aristotle, Buddha, Jesus, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Paul Farmer, Dr. Seuss, and Mr. Rogers. I’m grateful for the opportunity to explore these themes and viewpoints with my students.
As often happens to me, the material I’m teaching prompts me to consider my own ways of being, thinking, and doing. In particular, I’m pondering the value of simplicity. One dimension of simplicity is a kind of functional minimalism, the kind of lean and orderly life which Marie Kondo attractively described in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying-Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.
I’ve also found help and challenge in Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. His book convinced me (re-convinced me, actually) effective and meaningful living most often results from the pursuit of only a few clear and compelling goals which are rooted in deeply held values and inspired by an expansive vision.
So, where simplicity is concerned, part of what I’m looking for is the Goldilocks Zone: not too big, not too small or, more precisely, not too many or too few but just right. For me, the cliché is true: less really is more.
The lure of simplicity also has me revisiting Jesus’ insistent invitation that “we become like children in order to enter the kingdom of God.” It’s important to note a crucial difference between childlike and childish. Childishness is a serious, even complex, problem. Childlike simplicity is part of the solution.
Childishness puts us at the center of things, makes us think that what we know is all there is to know, and believe that our experience of God exhausts, defines, and delimits everyone else’s experience of God. Childishness insists that others agree with me, serve me, and be like me. It’s petulant and, often, petty.
Childlikeness revels and rests in mystery, welcomes wonder as a way of knowing, and delights in discovery. It lives in the world with openness and curiosity. Childlikeness takes God and the world seriously though not somberly, and takes ourselves lightly though not irresponsibly.
Childlikeness is the capacity of glee and for grief. It is the ability to laugh and to cry without shame—even, especially, to laugh at ourselves and to weep over our own pain as well as the pain of others. When we’re childlike, we approach our days with playfulness and prayerfulness, which are, I’m learning, almost the same thing.
Simplicity isn’t necessarily easy, but it is a way of freedom and, for me, a necessary part of a good life.