Simplicity and the Changeable Me
“‘We badgers don’t change. We hold on…I tell you, we don’t change, we beasts,’ said Trufflehunter.” [i]
“With every morn my life afresh must break/ the crust of self, gathered about me fresh.” [ii]
I’d like to say I’m with Trufflehunter.
Every day, outside my kitchen window, I have the delight of watching the beasts: in my case, a variety of birds, occasionally a pair or more of deer, and those incredible sprinters and climbers, the squirrels. I thought the gray squirrels were fast until the little red squirrel showed up. He runs and climbs at such speeds, he makes the gray squirrel look like a hobbler.
I am fascinated by the beasts. Why don’t the birds bump into tangled branches in their seemingly haphazard flight? How can the deer—including the fawns—go from a standstill to vaulting over my side-yard fence without even scraping their undersides? The squirrels, to my amazement, never miss catching hold of a limb when they make their leaps between trees. And, as far as I can tell, the squirrel does not dream of being a deer, and the deer does not try to fly or climb a tree. They each stay within their own given boundaries as bird or squirrel or deer.
The answer, I think, is their simplicity.
The “simplicity” of the beasts is that they are true to their natures. They act today in the same way they acted yesterday. It’s always entertaining, oh yes! But the robin does not climb headfirst down the tree trunk like the nuthatch. The cardinal does not sit for long minutes on a branch and stare at the ground watching for a snake to snatch up in her claws the way the red-tailed hawk does. The deer does not roll over on her back for me to scratch her tummy like my cat. The gray squirrel and the red squirrel act exactly like squirrels, despite their differences in speed. I get to watch as they construct their nests by gathering up mouthfuls of dried leaves out of my wintery flower beds, skitter up the trees to form those leaves into a messy-looking but fully adequate home for babies.
At times, I have tried to convince my husband that I am simple. He laughs. “No,” he insists. “You’re not simple.” “But,” I protest, “I have simple wants. I have simple needs. I can be content, for instance, with a book and a cup of tea and lots of quiet.”
How wrong I am. Yes, of course, I can be content for a while. But my “simple wants” extend to every aspect of my life: my family, my friends, my hobbies. I want variety in how I spend my day or my week, in what I wear and certainly what I eat. My “simple needs” mean I am not content with just the basics; I happen to take certain creature comforts and a few labor-saving devices as givens.
My contentment is conditional.
The simplicity—and therefore, the “contentment”—of the beasts is that they act consistently with their natures.
The fact that I am not simple is that I act consistently with my nature—which is a bundle of contradictions. I am not like Trufflehunter. I do change: my moods, my opinions, my desires, my outlook, my whims, and yes, my clothes. I am like what George MacDonald was describing when he wrote the unpleasant truth that he had a crust of self—which gathered about him daily, like a scab.
I have to admit—I’m more like George MacDonald than like Trufflehunter.
Which means that I may wake up “on the wrong side of the bed” on any given morning. And unless I take measures to break that crusty self, I will carry my disgruntled mood to the breakfast table. What happened to the cheerful self of yesterday?
This could be why my husband laughed at my protestation of simplicity. He’s at the breakfast table with me.
Theologians like to talk about the “simplicity” of God. The thought seems absurd. Surely God could not be described as simple. Unless, of course, we think of “God” as an impersonal force, not as Creator. But, as Creator, the complexity of the creation—the beasts—as well as the human body for example—would naturally make us think of God as the epitome of complex.
What the theologians mean (simply put) is that with God, there is no contradiction in his self: he does not wake up one morning on the wrong side of the bed. He is not fickle, doting on us in a grandfatherly way for our “little foibles” one time and blasting us with judgment on the next. He is complete in himself and has no “parts” that get entangled in competition with each other. His self is, so to speak, always in agreement. He acts the same today as he did yesterday. I can trust him, then, to treat me out of his changelessness.
If you live with even one other person, you realize how quickly the “crust” of the fickle self shows up—at the breakfast table if not before.
I don’t agree with myself at times. Unlike God, I am fragmented and often don’t know what I need or even want.
How do I break the crust of self?
It begins with an act of the will. I well remember the time I decided to smile at my husband—before breakfast! Before coffee! In those days, I was usually accosted by one or more children straight out of my bed, long before I was in the Mood (notice the word) to greet the madding crowd. It took effort to overcome my Self-centered Self, but, amazingly once I’d done it, I realized that it could be done and how that one small gesture changed my attitude toward the day.
The next morning, of course—or even the same day—the crust had to be broken again.
Recognizing that my true nature—which is changeable—won’t change, I choose to cast myself, again and again, on the changeless nature of my Creator—he who gave me the capacity to be willful, unlike the beasts. When I do that, I find I have a growing desire to have that kind of simplicity. To break the crust. To be content.
I have to make it an act of the will. I make it a prayer.
[i] C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian [ii] George MacDonald, The Diary of an Old Soul, October, Day 10