For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing, often abbreviated as CQ, is pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring. CQ is a megacity of 30 million people in south-central China, on the Yangtze River. I’ve come a long, long way – 13 time zones to be exact – from my original hometown of Rolla in south-central Missouri, on the Little Dry Fork creek. Depending on how loosely you define “city”, one could argue that CQ is the world’s largest city. In my quest for a simple life, I write these observations and admonitions from my 18th-Floor homestead.
First, a moment for a special request: I just checked. I have been publishing articles on this blog since June of 2018. Lots of change in my life, in my city, and in the world since then – in addition to the obvious MAJOR game-changer of a pandemic. Maybe it is time to ask for a little feedback. If you are reading this, I hope you will take just a moment to give me your thoughts about this blog. Are there some things you wish I would write more about… or less about? Are there other areas you would like to see me explore? Your suggestions, requests, comments, even… gasp… criticisms are invited. Please leave your comments in the block at the bottom of this article. (If you prefer to communicate privately, you can send an email to email@example.com.) I welcome your response – and thanks!
Our modern era has been called the Knowledge Age, the Information Age, the Digital Age, and many other phrases. Implicit in these terms is the tacit understanding that you make your contributions while sitting in a chair. Many people – perhaps a majority in urban areas – spend most of their day in sedentary activities. It is indisputable that thinking is more valuable – and more rewarded – than mere lifting and carrying. Likewise, knowledge workers whose efforts are supplemented by modern technology can be vastly more productive than workers of previous generations. This ascendency of knowledge over manual strength has resulted in a world that is richer, more comfortable, safer, and offers much more discretionary time to individuals than ever before. We should acknowledge this with gratitude.
However, there is a downside to this knowledge worker lifestyle. If your life has become too complicated and too stressful and you wish to reinvent a simple life, it is necessary to review the balance between working with your brain and working with your hands. As part of this review process, we can compare our modern lifestyle with how previous generations lived, then choose the best aspects from each.
Some authorities have found the modern knowledge worker is three times as productive as his low-technology predecessors. Sadly, if he produces the output of three former workers, he is also subjected to probably three times as much stimulation and stress. The cumulative effects on our physical and mental health are becoming increasingly overt; that means more and more people are getting more and more crazy.
When we remember that civilization with its domesticated animals and crops, permanent cities, division of labor, written languages, and laws, is only a few thousand years old, we begin to understand the majority of our present genetic and social drives still come from our hunter/gatherer ancestors. Those nomadic tribes established survival patterns of behavior over many thousands of years – much longer than our relatively short civilized period. Many of our modern social rules are taken from those tribal patterns, some of them virtually unchanged. What they did in their tribes for countless thousands of years allowed the human species to survive. Often, their life was not comfortable but it was simple. Simple; that is the part we want to emulate.
I would not want to go back to those primitive times of our ancestors but their behaviors can give us some clues as we seek to reinvent a simple life. Primarily, those nomadic hunter/gatherers worked with their hands. They did most things for themselves rather than outsourcing their work to a specialist. Division of labor is a much more efficient way of completing our work but it carries with it the complications of dependency and miscommunications – two frequent sources of stress and frustration. Until fairly recent times, our predecessor’s day was mostly spent in merely surviving – obtaining sufficient food, clothing, and shelter. This was often hard, physical labor. For our ancestors, “work” meant working with their hands, with being physically active.
Excepting only a few vestiges, we have largely eliminated this fundamental characteristic of primitive life. In our modern era, physical labor is not so essential. Compared to our prehistoric ancestors, our life is wonderfully effortless. You can even get someone to walk your dog while you stay seated at your desk, staring at a screen, waiting for someone to deliver a meal to your door. But is it good for us to be so sedentary?
Let’s take an example from the kitchen. Let’s compare making a cup of coffee in our kitchen with making a cup of coffee in the kitchen of our great-grandmother. Today, preparing a cup of coffee is quite simple. The process is very quick and easy, even if you don’t turn to the expedient of instant coffee powder. You walk into your kitchen, switch on the electric lights, and turn to your source of safe, running water. You can heat water in an electric kettle that will produce boiling water almost faster than you can get the cup and coffee pot ready. You measure the proper amount of coffee grounds and complete the process of producing hot, delicious coffee. In only a minute or two, you are ready to take your cup back to your desk, sit down in your chair, and resume your knowledge work in front of a screen.
For our great-grandparents, it wasn’t quite so slick. Entering a dark kitchen without the benefit of electric lights, the first step was some form of illumination – candles, perhaps, or some form of burning oil. Not so quick and easy as flipping a switch. Next, coffee requires boiling water. Great-grandmother had to start a fire or revive last night’s coals. Building a fire would take a few minutes, even if she didn’t have to split firewood first and carry it indoors. Then she would take a few more minutes to fetch some water from their source – rain barrel, nearby spring or creek, or cistern that had to be refilled periodically. While she was waiting for the water to slowly come to a boil, she could measure and prepare the coffee grounds, which involved grinding beans by hand. Finally, she had her coffee.
Now, take a moment to compare these two extremes of coffee-making – our modern, very brief interruption of your knowledge work, and the much longer, labor-intensive, low-tech process of great-grandmother. If you look at mere efficiency, the modern kitchen cannot be beaten. But, if you accept the premise that working with your hands is a highly beneficial, even therapeutic, break from the stress of our over-stimulated, excessively sedentary lifestyle, then great-grandma’s slower method is the clear winner. Gordon MacQuarrie called these primal activities “incessant chores that please the hands and rest the brain.”
Am I advocating a return to the technology and lifestyle of those earlier days? Absolutely not. Highly inefficient and requiring lots of time to produce the simplest things like a cup of coffee, great-grandmother’s kitchen was where she spent much of her day for the obvious reason that everything took much longer. Continuing the kitchen analogy, try making your meals without running water, electric light, refrigerators, and gas or electric stoves. Great-grandma would have instantly traded her kitchen for our modern version.
Do you see where this is going? In your process of reinventing a simple life, choose more activities that keep your hands busy but calm your brain. I propose incorporating some of the best parts of great-grandma’s life into your modern lifestyle. There is great value in working with your own hands, of doing something yourself instead of paying someone to do it for you – or buying a machine to do it. The benefits of consciously adopting a slower method come from resting your brain from the rushing pace of knowledge work or simply from too much stimulation. Think of working with your hands as a brief escape from the sedentary yet hectic lifestyle that has trapped so many modern desk warriors.
If you wish to reinvent a simple life, you must restore the proper balance in your life. For most of us, that means spending more time working with our hands.
Action Step: Make a list of ways to interspace some physical tasks among your knowledge work which usually involves mostly sitting and thinking. Which of your modern activities could you change to spend slightly more time working with your hands? What can you do to insert some physical activities between sessions at your desk? Do some of them today.