Inching Toward Simplicity: Pragmatics and Prose

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Ants, The Tao, and, always, Simplicity

Note: I am pleased that I will be published in Simple Living America’s anthology Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough. Watch this space for more information.

The ants finally came this week. We’d purchased a National Geographic Ant Farm for Gavin at Christmas time and mailed away for its inhabitants.

The package said to refrigerate them, to “calm them down” before the big move from vial to farm (does hypothermia calm anyone down?). Then, I tapped and they fell, great heaps of them, upon the gooey green gel that will be their home, their food, and, finally, their resting place.

I can’t help but draw parallels to humans. What if my neighborhood, most of us outside for long-postponed lawn maintenance in the May sun, had been scooped up into a tube, dumped out into a house of meat? I don’t think we’d consider the free food some sort of paradise. Still, we’d eat to survive, try to replicate the homes we’d been torn from (as closely as we could with meat). We’d chat just like we had on the asphalt of our old street, only now on meat paving, while Gavin played with toys made of meat. (I don’t think his scooter would roll very well.)

I peered in, overlooking the stereotypical industrious ants and focusing instead on the corpses (or pieces of corpses) that didn’t survive the journey. The anniversary of the Hindenburg has just passed, and (always one to take a metaphor too far), all I heard in my head was Oh, the humanity. Okay, maybe not humanity. But, oh, the unfairness and sadness of being uprooted, of stepping over corpses that had tumbled out with you. Also, they have lost their leader. Federal law prevents shipping of queen harvester ants.

I’m coping now, just as the ants are. I mean, the deed is done. We can’t return them. Tom pointed out that in a big colony those ants were probably used to stepping over corpses to begin with, inevitable with the large community containing infant to elderly. Small, strange comfort there.

It’s 5 something AM on Sunday, my best writing time, and I have to work through the restlessness caused by the ants upstairs. What does any of this have to do with inching toward simplicity, my beloved theme? The only metaphor I can draw is compassion.

Many proponents of the simpler life talk about how releasing burdensome, nonmeaningful things, be they habits, possessions, or attitudes, goes beyond simple, egocentric de-stressing and works to free up compassion. There is less to get in the way of connecting. A Simplicity as Compassion course designed for churches builds on this premise as a way of connecting with the earth and to people affected by environmental degradation.

It turns out there is an old tradition of connecting simplicity with compassion. Lao-Tzu listed them as two of the greatest treasures, with a third important element in between: patience. I love that I learned this at Tao Logic, which seems to be an unusually evolved Web site design/consulting group. They talk about patience in the context of page loads and site specifications, and for the first time I can relate to “techies”. Also, a nice insight into how you can bring your belief system into whatever you do.

I got more information on the Three Jewels of the Tao from Wikipedia: Simple in actions and in thoughts, you return to the source of being. Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are. Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world. I am not sure who wrote the entry, but like how they explained Lao-Tzu further: Simplicity is extremely important in Taoist philosophy in that complex actions generally are destructive and can upset the natural balance of the universe by imparting too much intellectual yang structure into a person's actions. Acting in simplicity allows for one to lead a more harmonious life without having to deal with complex social constructs that can arise from living in that complexity. The more simplistic an action, the truer that action can be from that individual. Patience is also key in Taoism in that the lack of patience is caused by wants.
Reading this, I am reminded of patience as a great connector. For me, more need to sit quietly and think. To sometimes observe rather than act. To stop for a rest. To lower my "to do list" standards.

This morning, Taoism. Later, a return to our Congregational church after 2 weeks off for Vegas. All thought provoking, all good moves on a Sunday morning overrun with ants.

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