The Common Good
January-February 1996

To Relinquish One's Possessions

by Patricia Horn, Mark Preece | January-February 1996

The call to a simpler life.

The lure of "simplicity" is everywhere. Which of us does not feel his or her life is at the edge of spinning out of control sometimes, in danger of coming apart under the sheer weight of phone messages, tax receipts, birthdays, and who knows what all else to remember?

Simplicity is the watchword of management consultants who preach the benefits of KISS ("keep it simple, stupid"), of commercials that try to sell some modern product by associating it with a nostalgically half-remembered simpler life of 30 or 40 years ago, of a whole industry that tries to sell closet organizers or pocket date books on the promise that an organized life is a simpler life. A simple life is one you can control.

There's never been a shortage of books preaching this kind of simplicity in American bookstores. But more and more people, from a variety of backgrounds, are exploring a more radical approach to simplicity-the "voluntary simplicity" movement-for reasons ranging from the spiritual to the political.

Just as many of us worry we no longer have control of life's details, so many of us also have a nagging fear that we may be too busy to pay attention to the really Big Things. A morning at the park playing with the kids, a quiet afternoon walk in the country, a family dinner where miraculously everyone gets along-suddenly we're reminded that the moments of bliss are there for the taking, if we just notice them. Who hasn't wondered whether doing the day-to-day work that keeps the bills paid isn't blinding us to the abundant life we have miraculously been given for free?

Or, if rediscovering the richness of daily life doesn't draw you to simple living, perhaps the new world economy will. Cutting back on material goods and spending can seem a sort of insurance policy-if we can live well on less (voluntary simplicity), it's easier to face the uncertainties of a modern career, with the prospect of job layoffs and falling wages (involuntary simplicity).

Some people are drawn to the voluntary simplicity movement for reasons of social justice. War tax resisters keep their income low to avoid funding the military; environmentalists want to stop using up or polluting the world's natural resources. Others want to protest the excessive commercialization of the consumer economy. Still others want to bridge the gap between rich and poor and the industrialized and developing worlds. Or, with St. Francis, many simply feel a call to embrace Lady Poverty.

This complex web of motivations means that no single description of the voluntary simplicity movement can tell the whole story. Some (the "tightwad" movement) want to maintain their current lifestyle for less money; others preach the benefits of a lower standard of living. The books that extol "simple living for conscience sake" may not have a lot in common with those promising "a rich inner life." And the discussion is hampered by the fact that money, politics, and religion are the three topics we're taught as children never to discuss in public.

THE THREE BOOKS reviewed here tackle separate issues within the movement. These are just a few of the ones you can find spread throughout most bookstores-in the religious, environmental, home organizing, and finance sections, among others. Or you can seek out a few of the magazines, newsletters, and World Wide Web sites built around voluntary simplicity.

Adventures in Simple Living: A Creation-Centered Spirituality , by Rich Heffern, is an entry in the already crowded group promoting the spiritual benefits of personal downsizing. The increasing public awareness of spirituality-witness mass market bestsellers with titles like A Book of Angels and Care of the Soul -is clearly one force behind the rising interest in simple living. From Jesus and Gandhi to the Buddha and Henry David Thoreau, most religious philosophers have taught that material possessions can get in the way of a direct experience of God. When you work for a living, time really is money. The less money you need, the more time you have for meaningful living.

Heffern's book is intended to inspire people who might be drawn to this aspect of simplicity. Heffern, the assistant editor of Praying magazine, writes of his own experience in general terms, hoping to pull us in as well. He includes pieces on his 10 years living on a small communal farm in the Missouri Ozarks: the walks, the mushroom hunts, the importance of nature to his life.

Later it came to me while reflecting on that woodland encounter with the night that simplicity offers two very valuable spiritual gifts. The more we can strip our lives down to essentials, the more deliberately and attentively we can live. And the more lightly we walk on this earth, the more it gives to us. I call these spiritual gifts "inner smiling" and "outgoingness of heart."

This is not a "how to" book on living simply; it is a call to a richer life spent walking, reading, and enjoying friends and family. To Heffern, simple living never seems a challenge to be overcome-it is the natural choice, a more gentle life journey.

This is not the approach in Downwardly Mobile For Conscience Sake, a collection of 10 essays by people who have chosen simple living for reasons of social justice. The essayists here are on the extreme side of those who cut back on buying and spending. One of the authors, Charles Gray, argues that inequality cannot be a foundation of nonviolent economics. So he calculated a "World Equity Budget" and lives on $142 a month.

To a limited extent, the World Equity Budget puts you in the position of the poor so you feel what it is like. Struggle for equality is no longer a merely head trip. The injustice of the system is experienced not as guilt but as oppression.

Gray's offering is one of the more interesting essays, which are a mixed lot. All are told in a personal, gritty fashion. This practical book is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Heffern's. How these people cut back on spending is one of the most interesting aspects of the book: "Conservation comes naturally when we pull every bucket of water hand over hand from the well in front of the house. We use about two and a half gallons of water per shower, which consists of soaping up and having your partner douse you with a pail of water."

The book, not inappropriately, was produced on a limited budget, and that often shows in the editing. Despite that, the stories are mind opening (if a little daunting) to those of us who work and live in mainstream America.

YOUR MONEY Or Your Life is a voluntary simplicity classic, the Bible of parts of the movement. It bridges the gap between personal finance simple-livers and social justice/spiritual simple-livers. This is a book about money and how we use it.

We are still operating financially by the rules established during the Industrial Revolution-rules based on creating more material possessions. But the high standard of living has not led to a high quality of life-for people or the planet.

The book, which offers a mix of philosophy and practicality, centers around a nine-step plan to "financial independence." The first step is determining how much you have earned in your life. (It is likely a lot more than you think.) The second is establishing your real hourly wage after deducting things like the cost of commuting and at-work meals and adding in the time spent de-stressing. Another step includes tracking how you spend your money and then evaluating how much satisfaction that money actually bought you.

Authors Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, who live on $600 a month, advocate cutting back to gain financial independence so that you can devote yourself to your own good causes. If everyone followed their plan, they believe, people would retire earlier, freeing up more jobs; would develop greater purpose at work; and would give much of their free time to volunteer work, helping to solve the world's problems. And the consumer feeding frenzy would slow down.

Is voluntary simplicity about stepping back from the brink of materialism or about maintaining material success in times of economic hardship? Is it about self-sufficiency or community building? Is it about social justice or retreating from the world's troubles?

The jury is still out, but the very diversity of motivations driving this movement suggest that it could be a real force for change as this exceedingly un-simple century winds down.

PATRICIA HORN and MARK PREECE live, write, and work in Bradenton, Florida.

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