Simplicity and Incrementalism

Posted on November 14, 2011

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In my last post I wrote how I have a tendency to believe that whatever is ‘next’ in my life will be the secret to my happiness, but at the same time how I know this is all an illusion.

Now I will reveal to you the two tools I use, when I am in my best mental state, to slice and dice life into eatable little pieces.

They are the concepts simplicity and incrementalism. When I focus on these two ideas, my days and nights are happier, I am less overwhelmed by unmet expectations, and I am able to fill my thoughts and words with gratitude and love.

Simplicity

Show up and open your eyes. And ears. And if you’re daring, your sense of touch and taste too. But try your best to keep your mouth shut. Read a lot of books. In fact, it might be smart to have a read : write ratio of 10 : 1. Keep your listen : speak ratio at 50 : 1. Learn and listen from people you respect. Ignore everyone else. Ignore the phonies, posers, haters, grumblers, and meanies. But if you come up against a bully, don’t give an inch.

Try hard. Really, really hard. Try so hard you start to sweat. If something comes easy to you it probably means you’re not doing your best. It doesn’t matter if your better than most everyone else, if you’re not working, your still failing yourself. Believe that you are not just competent, but amazing, because if you’re going to have some opinion of yourself, it might as well be that you are awesome. Just don’t act like you are. Think that you’re awesome. Act like everyone else is.

Try hard, but don’t over-evalute the results. It’s cliché, but it isn’t about the results. It’s about the process, the journey, the discovery, the effort, the lessons learned by the bumps and bruises of life. I don’t know why, but when I get too wrapped up in my own head, I think of Napoleon. That’s right, Napoleon Bonaparte. Maybe Alexander the Great would work better for you, or Constantine, but think of a world-conquering leader, think of all they have done, all the people who were influenced by them during their life-time. Now remember that they are dead. Time fades each life into the same forgotten gray. And that can depress you or it can free you from constant over-evalution. It can even put a kick in your step because you really do only go around once.

Don’t spread yourself too thin. Pick a few things and do them well.

Don’t confuse yourself with your stuff. Get rid of as much of your material possession as you can. I promise you that you won’t miss them. I know you won’t believe me, but I promise you that there is a spiritual aspect of simplicity. You will be a better Christian if you got rid of 1/4 to 1/3 of all the stuff you own. Try it and see.

Make mistakes. My college roommate Matt, when teaching me to water-ski said, “If you’re not falling, you’re not learning.” Matt was a much better skier than I was, but he still fell just as much. One of the greatest catchphrases I came up with during my youth ministry days was “Are you willing to try?” This came about during a high-ropes exercise where several kids were a little scared, not just afraid of the height, but afraid they weren’t going to be successful in front of their friends. The beauty of asking “Are you willing to try?” is that is doesn’t expect that you’ll achieve anything, only that you’ll give it a shot. This is a question to which it is very hard to say, “No.”

Incrementalism

Keep moving in the direction you want to go, however slowly you may be moving. This is a lesson I have learned most clearly in training for long races. Currently I am training for a 50-mile ultra-marathon. Does that seem do able? Not really. But I then I remember when running a 25K did not seem doable, and a marathon, then the 50K. I did all those things by putting in my time and slowly moving in the right direction, both literally during the race, but more importantly in my planning and training. This same concept applies to writing, baking bread, eating an entire bag of potato chips (don’t judge my goals). Anything can be managed in small pieces. Impossible feats are worn down to attainability by the flowing water of time.

Applying these two ideas to my search for God.

I have explained in the past how I am searching for God. Not like you search for your car keys, something that once you find you can own, use, and control, but rather like a birdwatcher searching for a rare bird. Something that might be witnessed from a distance, record in a book, and tell other people about. Or you might go home having seen nothing.

My search for contact with the divine needs to be simple. Reading Henri Nouwen’s book Adam: God’s Beloved made me understand that the good news is available to all people regardless of ability. This eliminated any notion I had that I could “get more” of God by learning more about God. If you haven’t read this book it should go on your Christmas list. I need a simple faith (though not simplistic) because, compared to God’s love, we are all infants in our thinking, our need for love, and our ability to comprehend the mystery of the divine.

Incrementalism is an important part of my search for God, but only when paired with the idea of eternal-life. I know that I will never be perfect, not because I can’t learn or improve myself, but because the concept of perfection only makes sense within finite time. Perfection is a stagnant and infinity is essentially dynamic. Ironically, eternal-life only makes sense when uncoupled with the idea of perfection. If I believe that I am already living the eternal life of Jesus Christ, then the question becomes, not what moves me closer to perfection in this life, but what action must I take each moment to embraces the divine gift that is each day.

This is the question that meets us in this life. And it will continue to be the question in the next.

*Flower Photo: Nanagyei

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