When true simplicity is gain'd
'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.
Simple Gifts (1848) by Elder Joseph Brackett
I grew up singing this Shaker dance song as a hymn in my Unitarian Universalist church. I've always sort of passively liked it, but recently I've been thinking of it more actively.
We live in the most hectic age in the history of humanity. While the trials and tribulations of previous generations may have been deeper, there is no way they were more varied. I am regularly thankful for my civil liberties, car, gas stove, and hot, running water. On the other hand, my great grandmother never had to play the delicate game of balancing her professional, personal, social and cyber life in a fast-paced world filled with a myriad of pressures as part of a generation of people, who were raised with instant gratification and a self-centered mindset only to grow up underemployed and lacking individual identity.
Sometimes I feel like we were ill equipped to deal with how much faster the digital age would be, and then I am amazed that we are handling it at all. The world our parents told us about as children in the 1980s is not the same world we now live in. There are constantly developing technologies to learn. There are entire societies that exist exclusively online, and have new and unique social codes to follow. Our lexicon has expanded to include phrases like "google it", "facebook me", and "tweeting". Not to mention the staggering amount of information (and misinformation) we now have access to, or the barrage of multimedia that assaults our sense every day.
It makes me yearn for a pastoral life, even though I know that my mind’s conception of it is highly idealized. I picture myself calling my friends in from the fields at sunset to a delicious and wholesome meal. I fantasize of songs and stories around a fire, while I knit and sew. I dream of watching the snow fall in the woods, cats in barns, the smell of damp wool, sun-ripened berries, patchwork quilts, large stews, and time to think. That is my “valley of love and delight”, and it is simple. Admittedly, the idea of being tied to the land does not sound very free at first. But, I think the freedom comes with time: the ability to weather all storms, and still be able to be happy and love. That is true independence – true freedom.
If you look back at history, every time there was a fast push of great development it has been swiftly followed by a pastoral movement in response: transcendentalism, naturalists, and the hippie movement. I think it also part of the integral essence of America, as it was initially founded as an agrarian state. Thomas Jefferson believed strongly that real Americans were those who worked the land. While the concept of voting rights being tied to land ownership is classist, racist, and sexist, there is something to be said for the idea that people who regularly interact with the natural landscape of a county often know that country the best. For example, John Muir has to be one of the most admirable and true Americans to have ever lived, at least in my humble opinion.
I think we are on the cusp of another pastoral movement. Globalization is chaotic, mass multimedia is overwhelming, and our capitalist consumption is unsustainable. The growing popularity of the green movement is testament to shift in the public’s desires. It’s apparent in many aspects of society and culture, including music. The recent acclaim of folk bands like Fleet Foxes and Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros is also indicative of these changes. The people are speaking. Give us the gifts of simplicity and freedom. Better yet, let’s give ourselves these gifts.