A simple plan

Gary Tetz

I have a coffee mug that says “Simplify.” I don’t know how to obey that command, short of pouring the scalding hot beverage directly from the coffeemaker into my mouth. This illustrates how simple it is to try to make things simpler, and how hard it is to actually do.

I think the mug came with a book by the same title. But after flipping through the pages and feeling overwhelmed by all the helpful suggestions, I realized the simplest thing of all was simply not to read it. But now I wish I had.

Famous pond-master Henry David Thoreau was big on simplification. I think his exact words were, “Simplify, simplify.” But he wasn’t very popular at parties, because he would always tell the same depressing joke:

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

The mass of men.

The mass of men who?

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

Then he would laugh a cynical laugh while the room got kind of melancholy, and he generally wasn’t invited back. Henry David Downer, they called him. It turns out he wasn’t alone at Walden Pond by choice. It was just that no one wanted to spend time around him. That’s a little-known, totally fictitious literary fact.

As a personal goal, the quest for simplification is understandable. The world is moving faster, accelerating on its axis, and if we don’t hold on to something solid we’ll be catapulted into meaningless orbit. We’re children with white knuckles and heads thrown back on an out-of-control merry-go-round, or James Bond in the movie Moonraker, helplessly trapped in the g-force simulator. It’s hard to accomplish anything useful in life when all our energy is spent just hanging on.

Unfortunately, in the long-term care profession, I’m willing to go out on a limb and pronounce that things will never get simpler. Technology may make things physically easier. I find it far less taxing to tap on a smartphone or keyboard, for instance, than to lift a pen and move it across a piece of paper, which can leave me gasping for breath. But as electronic medical records prove, easier, safer and better don’t necessarily mean simpler.

So if simplicity is to be achieved, I believe we’re going to have to do it on our own time in our personal lives, where we have at least some autonomy and control. While I’m certainly not suggesting I have the magic formula for that, I should divulge that since adopting the following four strategies my soul has become as peaceful as a mountain lake:

Toss. Feng shui enthusiasts call this decluttering-getting rid of life’s accumulated debris. This is critical. I rented a storage unit when I moved across town 10 years ago, and I’m not even sure I remember where the key is, much less what’s inside. And just knowing that somewhere out there is a large room filled with useless stuff I’ll never need again exerts a negative force in my life. So it’s time to get the bolt cutters, fling open the door and begin a purge.

From home to garage to mini-storage purgatory, when in doubt, cart it out. You’ll feel better, I promise, and bonus points will be awarded if you just give it away, instead of trying to sell it to someone. Have you ever tried to execute a successful yard sale? Then you already know that spending the day arguing with strangers about the price of used coat hangers will not bring the serenity and simplicity we’re seeking.

Cancel. Magazines are my downfall. Harper’s, Esquire, Time, Entertainment Weekly-I’ve subscribed to all of them for decades. But I’m realizing that getting a magazine is basically a homework assignment that arrives by mail. You feel like you have to read it, whether or not it’s interesting or valuable. Magazines are also a gateway drug to pop culture triviality and obsession. Do we really have the emotional bandwidth in our personal lives to care whether Lindsay Lohan is still wearing her ankle bracelet? Which leads right into …

Click. Turn off CNN or Fox News or MSNBC or any of the other shouting channels. Chances are that whatever they’re saying, even in the unlikely event that it’s actually true, is something you don’t really need to know. It used to be that bad news came in a letter on a pony that took three months to arrive, if it did at all. Are we really better off today, when it comes instantly and all the time?

As Thoreau himself observed, most news reports are irrelevant and meaningless-the recounting of repetitive events we can’t change, and from which we derive nothing but a cheap ride on an emotional roller coaster. Blissful, selective ignorance offers a beautiful alternative. Did the stock market go up or down today? Who cares? Just shrug and say, “I have no idea. I was making gazpacho at the time.”

A few news items truly matter: Is my town being attacked by Canada? Is a radioactive cloud headed my way? Is the ebola virus running loose in the park? Is Lindsay Lohan still wearing her ankle bracelet? But otherwise, we should just shut it off. Now. Seriously, go ahead. I’ll wait. There, isn’t that a refreshing simplification? You’re welcome.

Stop. I find this one is the hardest of all. Whatever you’re doing in your time outside work, stop for a moment and ask yourself, “Why am I doing this thing I’m doing, buying this thing I’m buying, going to this place I’m going? Who is this for? Who am I trying to please?” I realize it will feel funny talking to yourself that way, but somebody needs to.

So much of what we do is motivated by pride, competition, guilt, pressure or boredom. Once I realized this, I stopped shaving, car shopping and purchasing expensive sunglasses and hairpieces. I canceled cable and started working in the yard. I wear the same khaki pants everywhere every day. Clearly I’ve taken this concept much too far, and will soon be socially ostracized and alone, just like Thoreau. But the principle endures.

That’s it-just four of many simple steps to simplification, four ways to take this far-too-complicated bully of a world and bend it to our will. So give it a try and let me know how it goes for you, though not by email since I’ve canceled that too.

In the meantime, Henry David Downer and I are going for a walk in the woods together. Lindsay Lohan is out of jail, so we have a lot to talk about.

Gary Tetz is a long-term care commentator based in Walla Walla, Wash Long-Term Living 2011 October;60(10):20-21

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