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The Myth of a Simpler Life

Life was so much simpler when I was young.

Have you ever heard somebody say that? Have you ever thought it yourself? I certainly have. And yet, thinking about it, was life really all that simple for me when I was young?

Let’s see, my parents divorced when I was five, after which my mom moved us a few times (all within the same small town) before we finally settled down. I rarely saw my father. I was short and shy and had terrible allergies, which resulted in hearing loss, which resulted in speech issues for which I had to be pulled out of class a few times a week. I could catch a nasty case of poison ivy just by looking at it from ten feet away and was generally under-confident about everything I did … except getting good grades.

Okay, so … no, life was anything but simple. It was all quite complicated actually. Probably more than I ever realized.

Then why does it often seem so much simpler in retrospect? Maybe because our expectations are much lower when we’re young?

To borrow from a metaphor that Seth Godin used in a blog post recently (in a much different context) when you’re a fish, you don’t really notice the water.

When we were young, all of the complications in our life were there, just as they are now, but we probably didn’t have much reason to pay attention to them. They were like the water.

Our parents paid the bills, bought and made the food, went to work, dealt with bosses and co-workers, balanced the checkbook, kept the car running and the house from falling apart, and in between, it all tried to find time to spend time with us and maybe relax for five minutes a day if they were lucky.

Our main job was to be a kid. To grow up. To have fun or not have fun. To go to school. To figure things out. And so those things that might have seemed logistically or existentially troubling to us if we’d had adult brains were just our reality — things we probably couldn’t change even if we tried.

I recognize that some people had far more difficult childhoods than this, of course. Ones where they were expected to be an adult long before their time. But my guess is that those aren’t the people walking around saying how much simpler life was when they were young.

For the rest of us, it’s worth considering that even as adults, we can choose to be more fish-like. To not to focus on the water all the time. To simply accept it and live in it.

This is something I’m struggling with myself right now.

After all, it’s one thing to be a fish that’s never noticed the water before. But once you’re aware of it, you can’t unsee it. You realize you’re surrounded by it. That it’s everywhere, pressing in on you. THAT YOU’RE ACTUALLY BREATHING IT IN.

But … watch what a fish can do because of the water. How it can move not only on two axes but on three. Like flying. How gravity is such a minor factor in its life. How the very properties of water are what give a fish the kind of freedom it wouldn’t have on land.

I’m guessing that life seems fairly simple to a fish. But simple isn’t the same thing as easy, is it? Because there’s nothing easy about the constant threat of being eaten by a bird or a bear … or a bigger fish. Or being caught by a human. Or being trapped in a glass container until one day you’re flushed down the toilet.

So there’s something to be said for managing one’s expectations.

If the story we’re telling ourselves is that our best days are behind us and that “life was simpler when …”, then odds are, that’s the story we’ll end up living. Focusing on the complications is a great way to double down on making everything seem complicated.

How do we instead tell ourselves a story of simplicity? Of getting less hung up on outcomes and things we can’t control? Of continuing to grow and figure things out, the way we did when we were young … back when our expectations of the world and of ourselves were much lower?

With this kernel of an idea in mind, I’m trying hard to channel my inner fish. My inner kid. It’s not easy. So many complications in this life, especially the ones it doesn’t serve us to focus on, are hard to unsee once we’re aware of them.

And so instead of focusing on the water, I try to picture a fish, moving freely in all directions, riding the currents. Or myself at ten, pedaling my bike around town all summer, looking for adventure. Or myself in my early twenties, driving across the country in a U-Haul truck, looking for answers.

What is the simple story we can tell ourselves that feels like that? The one about who we are and what we’re doing right now? The one that cuts through all the complications and gets to the heart of things?

What do we do and who do we do it for?

What is the change we’re trying to make in the world?

What is the change we’re trying to make in ourselves?

These are questions that should have simple answers.

If they don’t, then it could be that we are (I AM) paying too much attention to the water, and not enough to the joy of being a fish.

Randy Heller
Randy Hellerhttps://randyheller.com/
Randy Heller is a writer and storytelling guide for small and solo businesses who aren't sure where to get started. Randy began his career with a Master's degree in Creative Writing and a love of computers, which then translated into 25 years as a digital marketer, web developer, and Marketing Director. Most of those years were spent in publishing, bibliographic data, trade magazine, and libraries space, always keeping him close to the world of written words and ideas that are his lifeblood. In 2018, Randy shifted gears to focus entirely on writing and storytelling and is now able to leverage his natural creativity and decades of corporate marketing experience and insights to help small businesses pursue their dreams. He can be found posting weekly about the secrets to business storytelling and owning one's personal narrative (often with a decidedly nostalgic bent) at StoryHeller.com, as well as on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (see links above). He can't wait to meet you and ask that magical question: "So ... what's your story?"

19 COMMENTS

  1. Randy, food for thought. I often remember a time when life felt simple and filled with wonder. I would not want to change that memory . I retired and moved out to the country and it turns out that returning to the the memories reinforced that they were true. I have a simple life with my dogs, my family and it is filled with days on the lake, walks in the forest, time with our grandchildren. For me my memories stood the test of time. Thank you for a great post

  2. Well said, Randy. I would venture to guess that there are many people who would share that perspective. But I’m one of the dissenters. I too am the product of a broken home. But in the town where I lived, I spent so little time actually at home that none of the normal complications every got to me. I had a paper route, I was a caddy in the summer and a rink rat (ice scraper) in the winter and a pool hustler all year round. I had more meals at my friends’ houses and my aunts’ and uncles’ houses than I had at home, so very little of the tedium of breaking in a new parent and having to deal with whatever it was they called authority didn’t really apply. I can however see your point, and life certainly did get more complex after marriage and children and the need to have and maintain a career and a house and all that. But you know what? It never really bothered me all that much. In fact, I believe the experiences I had growing up made all the complex stuff in my life that much simpler because, and maybe I was lucky, but I knew exactly what I wanted to be, and how I wanted that to happen at a very young age. Mostly through people I met who were generous enough with their time and wisdom to give me the valuable tips I needed to achieve what I wanted. Not everybody lucks out that way for sure. But some of us do.. For most people the road is endless and littered with rusty nails and broken glass. And it takes a while to see the future clearly.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your perspective, Jim. I was aware as I wrote this that it didn’t really cover everybody’s experience. How could it, right, with so many unique stories of growing up out there? It definitely sounds as if you “grew up fast” … but in all the right ways. Which certainly speaks to your resilience and/or adaptability at a young age. I wish I could say I embodied much of either growing up, but I probably didn’t. In hindsight, I was mostly in denial about the fact that my life/family wasn’t as “normal” as I wanted it to be, and yet was always keenly aware (and secretly jealous) that the families of my friends were just that … normal. So I spent a lot of my young adult years trying to come to grips with that, and to accept my childhood for what it was, rather than what I had tried to make it at the time. And it’s only now, in middle age, as a parent in an often dysfunctional mixed family, that I truly see it with any clarity at all. I certainly could have stood to meet some of those generous people you’re referring to along the way, but rarely did, and so have to tried to be that for others when I can.

  3. Great perspective Randy!
    “…we can choose to be more fish-like. To not to focus on the water all the time. To simply accept it and live in it.”

    We can swim with the currents & learn to flow with life’s challenges … AND push against the currents & develop strength to make the long journey back to the ocean. Fish do both, and why do we humans often think it should ALL be about swimming downstream?

    I’m going to keep reflecting on your words. Powerful imagery that is stirring in me. Thank you.

  4. I enjoyed reading, Randy. Thank you for writing and the reminders you brought to our attention. Love the insights you shared.

    It’s interesting that if we were to dive into the lives of many people who make that original quote, we’ll discover ‘simple’ was only in their selective memory. But choosing to be selective in what they remember has proven to be powerful for them. And, perhaps, they choose to embrace the thought that you can’t move forward by looking behind.

    • Thank you, Yvonne! And I have no doubt that you’re right. Maybe perceiving the past in an idealistic way is the only way some people can deal with the challenges in the present. Since we can’t go back in a time machine (except in books and movies), what’s in the past is fixed forever. It’s a kind of constant — a North Star against which to navigate the uncertain way forward. And so it wouldn’t do to remember it as being anything but better than what we have now.

  5. Nostalgia for “one’s own times” as a measure of reality is the definitive indicator that having become old, because what we regret is not really “the times”, but the time when we were young and everything seemed bright and wonderful because it was new and we had expectations. It is as if past situations are remembered with pink lenses, which make those events seem far better than those that happen in the present. But in reality the present moments are (and can be) just as meaningful or enjoyable as the past ones.
    We must learn to accept the uncertainty of the present, no matter how frightening it may be, awaken and use the feelings of euphoria we experienced as young people, the dreams and expectations, thoughts and feelings that can motivate us and lead life in the right direction. .
    So it is important to remember the past, but it is equally important not to forget to make good use of it to build our future and contribute to a better world. It all depends on the choices we make, how much we manage to build a full and meaningful life, how much we manage to cultivate passions and goals, and the relationships we create.

    • Amen to everything you just said there, Aldo. 🙂

      The only comment I would make is that I often think of the well-known line from Bob Seger’s song “Against the Wind” …

      “Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.”

      Because too often for me, knowledge is what gets in the way of embracing that way of dreaming and “being” that we all possess as kids. And so if I’m nostalgic for anything, it’s for a time when I didn’t know enough yet to talk myself out of things.

  6. Randy, your “origin story” sounds a lot like mine! I felt like that little kid all over again for a moment.

    I just spent a week visiting my father in his “new” home in Mexico. He retired there 12 years ago, and I’m a little ashamed to admit that I didn’t prioritize going to see him until he had a serious health scare recently, and we realized there was far less time than we thought to do so. And what I found there was ~literally~ that “myth” of a “simpler life”. I can’t speak for all of Mexico, or even all of the city where he lives, but the lives of the people we met (and my dad’s a charming dude and master networker… we met a LOT of people…) are, by American standards, just that. More relaxed, more go-with-the-flow, less about “mass accumulation of resources” and more about “quality time spent with people we care about” and it was SUCH a stark difference that it set me back on my heels, in all the best ways, and my brain hasn’t stopped percolating on the matter since.

    Great insights – ones I’ll add into the percolator. 🙂

    • As the son of a “charming dude” who hasn’t been with us for 25 years now, Sarah, your story resonated with me. Mine lived not in Mexico but in NEW Mexico, near Santa Fe, and anytime I would visit him, I would also get introduced to a LOT of people. And like Mexico, New Mexico was also a big change from New Jersey. So much so that shortly after my father passed away, I chose to move there and live a “simpler life” for about 5 years. Eventually, though, it caught up with me. My brain, and maybe my soul, moved too fast for it all, and craved more than big skies and beautiful sunsets and “Mañana Time” could offer me. So I ended up back East again. But I like to think that one day, when I’m ready for it, I’ll end up someplace like that again.

    • That’s a great example, Charlotte. Professionally, this has been a struggle of sorts for me this year. I’ve spent a lot of time, particularly over the past few months, doing work for smaller clients with smaller budgets, because I love what they do (and who they do it for). And I do that because this work “tastes” so much better than the higher-paying “chore” work I could no doubt find if I put my mind to it. So my goal for 2021 is to find a way to do more of that … preferably without going bankrupt!

  7. Thanks, Randy.
    The insight about expectations is especially spot on.
    The more concrete our expectations, the less acceptable we are to serendipity.
    One of the tricks of sailing is that if you’re having trouble spotting a buoy, relax your eyes and gaze without looking for it. Works every time. Did you ever lose something around the house and it came to you after you stopped looking so damned hard?
    And “What the hell is water?” – the punchline to the story of the three fish, is not a bad way to live. I’m not trying to make changes in myself or in the world, really, simply letting go of the thicker parts of my skin that block the light.
    Be.
    Mac

    • I love the comparison to sailing, Mac. I’m not a sailor myself, but I know that feeling of letting go and kind of using “The Force” (for lack of a better analogy). As you say, whenever I lose something, rather than run around looking, I tend to pull the camera way back (in my mind) and “look” at my surroundings in a very non-specific way. To “see” the flow of the house and all the people and things and activity inside of it, as if from the outside. I imagine it’s the way somebody who’s good with cars must look at an engine when trying to figure out what’s going wrong with it. And when I do this, the answer to where the lost thing just comes to me, and sure enough, 90% of the time it’s exactly where I knew it would be.

      Now if only I could get better at applying this as a metaphor to the rest of my life. 🙂

  8. Thanks, Darlene. And you couldn’t be more right. Even though I undoubtedly have more days behind me than ahead of me, it’s about quality, not quantity, right? Because all of those days behind us have set the stage for the amazing (and often simply so) things we can do going forward. 🙂

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