Souls yearn

A November 2004 photo of a bedroom at Colonial Williamsburg

A November 2004 photo of a bedroom at Colonial Williamsburg.
Was life really simpler for our ancestors?

“When the fever-stricken patient is undermined with heat and craving with thirst, he dreams in his dozing of a fresh brook where he might bathe or a clear spring where he might drink in long drafts.  In the same way, in the complex agitation of modern existence, our wearied souls yearn for simplicity.” Charles Wagner

The most remarkable thing about today’s quote is that it was written in May 1895, as part of the author’s preface to his book A Simple Life which is now available for free downloads at Project Gutenberg. I found the quote in one of the original editions of the book, a lovely antique (published in 1905) which was a gift  from my Aunt Peggy, to whom it belonged for many years.

I have to wonder what could have been complex about life before electricity, telephones or automobiles were widely available, not to mention smart phones, iPads, DVRs or other trappings of our times.  Yet the term “complex agitation” was applied to life over 100 years ago.  Could it be that this tendency toward over-stimulated frustration is more a function of human nature than of any particular era or location?  If so, then its opposites, serenity and simplicity, would seem to be traits that require cultivation regardless of external circumstances.

Today, whatever our day is like, I hope we realize we can choose between serenity or agitation no matter what comes our way.  Contented simplicity is probably no more easy or difficult than it has ever been.  The good news is that it surely lies within our reach.  Given the multitude of advantages we enjoy compared to the audience to whom Wagner was writing, we have the perfect opportunity to choose wisely.


  1. Bobby Harris

    Martha, Martha…..

  2. Carlyle

    Dear Julia,
    Very astute observations. From my 85 year perspective, I become more convinced daily that what we recall as simplicity in the past is nothing more than a blurred comparison with what we are experiencing in our present state.

    • Yes, the agitation is within us. Only the details have changed, apparently. As Bobby points out, it’s been with us at least since Jesus chastised Martha for being “anxious and worried about many things and told her that very little really mattered in the end.

  3. Thank you for the encouragement. I can certainly use serenity in my life. It is helpful to realize that even “way back then” folks chose simplicity/serenity or complexity/agitation.

    • Carla, when Aunt Peggy gave me that book, lovely though obviously very old, I was immediately struck by its title: A Simple Life. My initial reaction was to think, why did they need a book like that way back then? 🙂 As humans we are so tempted to think “nobody understand this but me (us).” So much of life is a frame of mind!

      • I’d say probably 95% is frame of mind! Love you!

  4. Sheila

    Julia, I am certainly the “caboose” today! The photograph depicts such a serene, no frills, no clutter room. It is lovely to me because of it’s simplicity. I couldn’t help but think of the Williamsburg Inn, a short distance away, with all it’s grandeur. I have read this post several times, Your writing is such a talent and a gift to others. I have thought of you often this weekend. I hope a good week awaits all. Sheila

    • Thank you, Sheila! I do think the buildings at Colonial Williamsburg are lovely in their simplicity and functional design. The gardens are charming as well. Believe it or not, as many times as we’ve been there (season passes for several years) we have never been to the Williamsburg Inn, but have heard it is really something. However, if I had a choice, I think I’d prefer the chance to stay in one of the simpler historic homes in the restored area that they rent out to visitors. I’m sure they go quickly in the busy season. For years when Matt would attend classes at William & Mary in the evenings (special programs for people with disabilities) I would often stroll down the streets of CW while he was in class, since the W&M campus is adjacent to CW. I loved being there when all was relatively quiet. It’s very magical then since the sparse crowds make it easy to imagine one is back in the 18th century. Thanks for being here, hope you and Bill have a wonderful week!

      • Sheila

        How nice that Matt could attend classes there, and at the same time you were able to enjoy such a lovely, historical setting!

        • Yes, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the wonderful William & Mary students who work with the Arc of Greater Williamsburg to host so many activities for adults with special needs! Matt loves being with them and I love being in Williamsburg, so it has been a nice situation.

  5. I probably enjoy a more serene life than most. I only feel agitated when I drive. Solution? Walk more! 😀 Good for my heart and my mood…lol. I actually think our ancestors probably got more done in a day, far more distractions to trip me up now. Ellen Show, Crafting, coffee shop visit, Blogging…it’s a wonder I do actually get stuff done. Great post Julia, very thought provoking.

    • I feel the same way about driving, which is one reason I love our townhome; it’s close enough that I can walk to almost anyplace I need to go (shops, post office, pharmacy, grocery, etc.) and that saves gas & money PLUS keeps me more fit than I would be otherwise (I HATE exercise machines!). I think our ancestors had more drudgery and less fluff. Our distractions are more fun than theirs were. But I’m sure they felt burdened with many cares that we never stop to think about. The book Home by Bill Bryson made me really grateful for things such as sewer systems and indoor plumbing. It’s a great book!

  6. Things have never been simple as simplicity satisfies just a few. Just take a look at the extravagant (ancient) Indian architecture. They are stunning and incredible but at times I cannot help wondering – did these structures actually make their owners happy? What made them build all these? Did someone actually need them? They might have hindered the normal life of the ordinary people. Anyway they have become great works of art and centres of tourist attraction. But I find a simple idol in the shade of a tree more divine and serene than the towering structures of worship.

    • I think you are raising some very valid questions. I think people build these structures to satisfy their own longing for beauty, power and infinity. It’s interesting that there are so many soaring, magnificent cathedrals built in the name of Jesus when he taught that the place of worship was not important, but that true worship happens “in spirit and truth.” That’s not to say that such places are not to be admired as works of art, and even the longing to express faith is admirable. But in reality, spiritual sanctification is not tied to physical grandeur. We might sometimes be better able to imagine God’s magnificence if we build visual representations, but it’s dangerous to confuse these man-made and ultimately inadequate symbols with who God is. Perhaps this is one reason why one of the ten commandments (in the Old Testament of the Bible) prohibits “graven images” – yet the people still found it irresistible to build them. Humans nature is interesting indeed.

  7. Ellis Anderson

    I so appreciated this essay, it completely shifted the way I view the problem! Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

    • Thank you, Ellis! I am so happy you like it. Hope you and Larry are doing well. Give me an update when you have time. It’s always a joy to hear from you.


  1. Our consolation | Defeat Despair

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