Plain like Barack

As befits a Quaker wit­ness, when I felt the nudge to plain­ness ten years ago, I didn’t quite know where it would take me. I trusted the spir­i­tual nudges enough to assume there were lessons to learn. I had wit­nessed a God-centering in oth­ers who shared my spir­i­tual con­di­tions and I knew from read­ing that plain­ness was a typ­i­cal first step of “infant min­is­ters.” But all I had been given was the invi­ta­tion to walk a par­tic­u­lar path.

After the ini­tial excite­ments, I set­tled into a rou­tine and dis­cov­ered I had lost the “what to wear?!” angst of get­ting dressed in the morn­ings. Gone too was the “who am I?” drama that accom­pa­nied cat­a­log brows­ing. As clothes wore out and were retired, I reduced my closet down to a small set of choices, all vari­a­tions on one another. Now when I get dressed I don’t worry about who I will see that day, who I should impress, whether one pair of shoes goes with a cer­tain sweater, etc.

Appar­ently, I share this prac­tice with the forty-fourth pres­i­dent. In “Obama’s Way,” a wide-ranging pro­file in Van­ity Fair, Michael Lewis shares the President’s atti­tude about clothes:

[He] was will­ing to talk about the mun­dane details of pres­i­den­tial exis­tence… You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day prob­lems that absorb most peo­ple for mean­ing­ful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m try­ing to pare down deci­sions. I don’t want to make deci­sions about what I’m eat­ing or wear­ing. Because I have too many other deci­sions to make.” He men­tioned research that shows the sim­ple act of mak­ing deci­sions degrades one’s abil­ity to make fur­ther deci­sions. It’s why shop­ping is so exhaust­ing. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to rou­tinize your­self. You can’t be going through the day dis­tracted by trivia.”

A few dis­tract­ing caveats: we can assume Obama’s grey and blue suits are bespoke and cost upwards of a thou­sand dol­lars apiece. He prob­a­bly has a closet full of them. He has staff that cleans them, stores them, and lays them out for him in the morn­ing. You won’t find Barack wan­der­ing the aisles of the Capi­tol Hill Macy’s or the Lan­g­ley Hill Men’s Ware­house. Michelle’s never run­ning things to the dry clean­ers, and Sasha and Malia aren’t pair­ing socks from the laun­dry bin after com­ing home from school. A Pres­i­dent Romney’s closet would also fea­ture gray and blue (though his under­wear drawer would be more uncon­ven­tional). When pro­to­col calls for the commander-in-chief to devi­ate from suits – to don a tux per­haps – one appears. Pres­i­den­tial plain­ness is far from sim­ple.

The Quaker move­ment started as an invi­ta­tion to com­mon sense. Every­one could join. Early Friends were min­i­mal­ists on fire, fear­less in aban­don­ing any­thing that got in the way of spir­i­tual truth. In a few short years they method­i­cally worked their way to the same con­clu­sions as a twenty-first cen­tury U.S. pres­i­dent: human decision-making resources are finite; our atten­tion is at a pre­mium. If we have a job to do (run a coun­try, wit­ness God’s King­dom), then we should clear our­selves of unnec­es­sary dis­trac­tions to focus on the essen­tials. Those core expe­ri­en­tial truths have last­ing value. As Jef­fer­son might say, they are self-evident, even if they still seem rad­i­cally pecu­liar to the wider world.

Unfor­tu­nately the kind of plain­ness that Barack and I are talk­ing about is a kind of mind-hack, its power largely strate­gic. I’d love to see a pres­i­dent take up the chal­lenge of some hard­core Quaker val­ues. How about the tes­ti­mony against war? Eliza Gur­ney got pretty far in cor­re­spon­dence with Obama’s hero, hon­est Abe, but even he punted respon­si­bil­ity to divine will. The wit­ness con­tin­ues.

  • I have repeated the story about the suits sev­eral times since hear­ing the article’s author on Fresh Air. It reminds me of a very well-written and inter­est­ing book called The Art of Choos­ing, which also sug­gested that our minds need to pair down choices. After buy­ing a new house that needed a lot of work sev­eral months ago, I find I am just worn out from choos­ing which home improve­ment project to do first, when and who to hire, what kind of win­dows to get, what color to paint the trim, etc. I’m want­ing to go on a choice fast or at least a choice diet so that my mind can cen­ter on things that are really impor­tant. Thanks for the encour­age­ment!

    • I didn’t know Lewis was on Fresh Air, I should look that up, thanks. I’m actu­ally still work­ing through the Van­ity Fair arti­cle.