On April 17, 1790 the American founding father Benjamin Franklin passed away at the age of 84. He had developed a notoriety for his smart turns of phrase and apt proverbial observations. Just a few months before his passing, he wrote a letter to a French scientist named Jean-Baptiste Le Roy, concerned over the doctor's lack of correspondence to him since the start of the revolution in France. Franklin's letter was composed in French, but was later translated into English in 1817. It would contain his last great, and perhaps most memorable, proverbial quote: “Our new Constitution is now established, everything seems to promise it will be durable; but, in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” Little did Franklin know how the truth of that statement would resonate with the generations to follow.
If there's one amendment I would make to Franklin's proverb, it would be to include the general observation, "and life gets more and more complicated." It doesn't matter how simple of a life you try to live, unless you actively manage that simplicity, life will naturally get more and more complicated. Mankind, for its part, attempts to manage this ever-increasing complication through technology. But the tool often times adds to the complication, and what started out as the servant quickly becomes the master. Life gets complicated.
I'm beginning to feel that in new ways at the moment. With four kids spaced oddly apart (ages 12, 11 and 3, 2), we seem to have reached the end of the line where we're able to keep life at the level of simplicity we once had. Oh sure, I guess we could maintain the simplicity by sheer will. We could just say "no" to everything. No sports. No extracurriculars. No friends. No fun. But that would only maintain the surface demeanor of simplicity. The complications would come in family relationships as the hearts of kids whose desire to learn and grow and try new things meets the desire of parents for a simple life, all ending in a head-on relational collision sure to make the evening news.
No, you can't just say "no" to everything. Life changes. Families need to adapt. And so I find myself in a new season of life with older kids entering into the world of sports and all the time and energy (and money) that requires, all while still juggling the realities of raising two toddlers. Life gets complicated.
You can add to that the hustle and bustle of life. Of work. Of owning a home that, like myself, isn't getting any younger. There's a dozen things all vying for money, time, and attention, and they don't go away based on the desire to have a simple life. Adapt or die. Manage toward simplicity or drown in the complicated.
Now, some who are reading this have been there and done that. You're past that season of life. You're basking in the sunset of kids out of the house and onto their own versions of "life is complicated." But here's the thing about life. As certain as are death and taxes, so is the tendency for even the simplest of lives to get complicated. Some things you can control, but some things come whether you like them to or not. We grow old. We get sick. Things happen. Hard things come. Life gets complicated as we have to deal with all the things that come. So even if you're the empty nester who's lived the life of the traveling sports team for all the kids, survived, paid for college, and now just get to be grandma and grandpa...I'm sorry, but life doesn't remain simple. Just wait for it. Complications are coming. They take on many forms.
I suppose the temptation each one of us have, whatever it is in our life that is making things harder than we'd like, is to somehow think, "If only I could just get rid of this thing, then life would be easier." "Oh, wouldn't it be better if I didn't have to do x or y or z." Are you a parent struggling to keep up? "Wouldn't life be easier without the kids?" Are you a homeowner? "Oh, wouldn't life be simpler if we just rented somewhere?" Are there hard things going on at home? "Oh, wouldn't life be better if I didn't have to worry about dealing with my spouse?"
Believe it or not, as apt as Benjamin Franklin was in his real-life observations, there's someone a lot wiser who lived and wrote down his life observations as well. King Solomon saw this very temptation in people—probably in himself—and wrote a short but very powerful proverb addressing it: "Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox" (Prov. 14:4).
I admit that some proverbs stump me. I have to chew on them quite a while before their wisdom sinks in and I start to understand what it means. That's the reason they're written like they are. They're not meant to be read quickly. They written in an intentionally enigmatic manner, like riddles, so that the reader is forced to slow down and consider carefully the wisdom hidden within the riddle.
But that doesn't seem to be the case with this particular proverb. It's meaning is pretty apparent at first reading, and its significance easily ascertained. Imagine you're the owner of several oxen. These are big animals, weighing in anywhere between 900 to 1800 pounds. They eat a lot of grain. Grain costs money. They produce a lot of undesirable byproducts. All that has to be cleaned up or the ox, which itself costs money to acquire, may become sick. Cleaning up after these animals is an everyday event. Feeding and watering them is an everyday task. It takes time. It takes money. It takes energy and work. Owning oxen makes life complicated.
And so, quite naturally, a person seeking simplicity and a little easier lifestyle would come to the conclusion that "wouldn't life be easier without these oxen? No more feeding and watering them. No more cleaning up all the mess. Without oxen, the manger would be clean!" And all that would be true if it weren't for the flip side of things. The oxen enable the owner to accomplish what he couldn't do otherwise. They perform work in the fields so he can raise more crops which generate a greater harvest and greater revenue. He can do more with the oxen, which makes the investment of time, money, and work worth it. The outcome gained is greater than the input required. The complications they make are overcome by the results they accomplish.
This is a great proverb for us in moments when we find ourselves thinking, "Wouldn't it just be better/easier/simplier if _____ wasn't here," or "we didn't have _____ in our lives." Whatever that blank is filled with: kids, a house, a spouse, hardships, an illness, you name it. Yes, life would be easier without it. Life would be simpler without it. But would life be better? In the short term, maybe the answer is yes. But what about the long term? What might be the "harvest" of that difficult thing in the long term? How might you learn and grow and adapt and change as you're pressed through whatever it is that you're secretly wishing you didn't have to deal with?
This is the kind of proverb that lifts our gaze up above the horizon of the here and now and reminds us that there are things that can come out of the hard things of life that make it worth it to go through them or even invest in them, though we may not like it in the moment. It reminds us that there are some things that require a lot of hard work now, but that will feel completely worth it in the long run. And you never know. When you're attitude about the outcome changes, you may just find yourself enjoying the present moment, too. It may not be easy. It may not make life simpler. But sometimes complicated, for as hard as it is, can still be fun. And even if it's not. It's inevitable. Like death and taxes.