23 March 2013

Reopening those "Simple Gifts"

Recently some friends of mine and I were talking about the personal issues we are facing, and I brought up my having gotten away from simpler living. I used to be passionate about it, and still am -- but recently the value of simplicity hasn't been visible in my life. I adopted simple living as self-defense  years ago, before I began living with intent. Starting my first job taught me that everything had a price not in dollars, but in time. After figuring out what my daily take-home pay was, I could evaluate every purchase as one which cost me hours of my life. Whenever I had an itch to buy something, I'd ask:  is this worth a day and a half of my life to pay for? Three hours? Usually, the answer was no.  Simple living became a lifestyle for me when I moved to university, though, aided by the fact that I was penniless. I had an on-campus job, but after tuition and so on I was reduced to practically nothing in terms of discretionary spending -- enough to make one trip home every month, and buy the odd used book.

 Despite the lack of money,  those first two years remain two of the best of my life, because I found everything I truly needed was there at the university.  Not only did I have the basics of food, shelter, and companionship, but I was surrounded by beauty -- living on a campus of tasteful architecture, tied together with cobblestone roads and flowers -- and even outside of class,  opportunities for intellectual and creative stimulation, like lectures and art galleries, abounded. The town library, that portal to a world of infinite ideas and experiences, was only a short walk away. Though my living quarters were spartan, I lacked for nothing. Stuff was valueless: my life was filled with meals shared with friends, days spent lounging under trees reading, and nights of stargazing or conversations over coffee.

Although there the simple life was forced on me by financial circumstances, while living it I learned to appreciate minimalism as a concept -- starting when I read Erich Fromm's To Have or to Be? wherein he criticized our tendency to base happiness on what we possessed, rather than who we were. Ever since then, I've been increasingly critical about consumerism. Simplicity became a 'spiritual' value for me:  I enjoyed having so little to worry about -- not only did I have few things to protect or maintain, but I wasn't interested in getting more, or bothered if people thought less of me for not spending as much money as they did. My mind was as free of clutter as my room.

My studies, both private and academic, encouraged the flowering preference for simplicity. Inside the classroom, I studied history and sociology, where Marx redoubled my hostility toward consumerism and I began to see the world more deeply through the lens of conflict theory, and thought that if people were content to live simply, the needs of all could be provided for, and no one would need waste their lives in joyless work: I remembered all too well my days working in a factory, and counted every hour locked away in that noisy, dank warehouse cut off from natural light as a loss.

Outside the classroom, I explored philosophy --  Thoreau and the Greeks. I found many intersections between their critical perspectives and the knowledge I gleaned from history and sociology. Epicures promoted a quiet life of self-sufficiency, modest tastes, and the company of friends.  Epicures is associated with an indulgent lifestyle, for he taught that the only good in life is pleasure, or enjoyability.  His name is thus attached to revelers and hedonists, as well as to wine snobs and food critics who cultivate extravagant tastes and demands -- a cruel joke history has played on a man whose idea of a feast was a ‘little pot of cheese’.  Epicures believed that if we keep our tastes simple, we are easy to please and hard to inconvenience.  He preferred to live away from the hustle and bustle of the city, where people make livings by convincing other people to buy things they do not truly need.  Stoicism taught that the only good in life was virtue, and that only the degree to which we conformed our lives to he will of nature mattered. Caring about the judgments of other people and trying to construct our idea of self around our possessions was nothing but foolishness.  This echoed Erich Fromm's criticism  of the modern conflation of ownership and identity.

There is thus no question for me about the wisdom or practicality of living simply.  What has changed is not the value I place in it, but the environment in which I live. I don't currently live in a location where I can walk everywhere as I did in Montevallo, though one day I will, for Selma still has a downtown core which functions: it has lost some of its commercial activity, but not its soul, to sprawl.  My peers have changed, as well: my companions at university were hippies, Buddhists, and environmentalists. Now I have peers who the Joneses aspire to keep up with. Financially, I'm much better off than I was as a student. I now have ample discretionary money to devote toward Buying Things, and bought them I have: the amount of money I spent on books last year, even though most of them were used and some purchased for a solitary cent, is embarrassing.  And where have those books gone?  Everywhere.  When I returned home from a retreat a few weeks ago, I just sighed to view the disorderly stacks awaiting me.  I used to dream of surrounding myself with books, of sitting serenely in a private library with books covering the walls. The dream has come true and I view the multitude of objects as a burden.

And so I have decided to begin reclaiming my life. I have already donated two boxes of books to the library, and plan on giving more:  others are being circulated to friends.  I am too ardent a lover of books to turn into a minimalist though: even when I am finished decluttering, I will still probably have "more books than blood cells", as I once mockingly described myself.  My hope is that I can also dampen my rate of future acquisitions by using interlibrary loan more, and not becoming a book glutton. Last year I almost purchased five books on garbage and waste management. (I blame SimCity 3000 for ensnaring my interest in  municipal elements as mundane as sewers, power lines, and potholes.) I need to adopt the same discipline towards book purchasing as I've learned to have toward eating: go more slowly, enjoy what you have, and sit back from the table lest you have too much.

My first steps toward reclaiming simplicity have already made me feel a hundredfold better. Living simply means far more than decluttering, though, and I am intent on continuing to rediscover the old contentment to be found in having less.

02 March 2013


Years ago, when I began this blog, I was a much younger man who had just escaped a constrictive, shallow culture and had to build my own worldview from the ground up -- my foundations being skepticism and human-centered values. I was then just starting my twenties: I am now entering their twilight, and feeling the advance of age (I am sure older adults will find that risible),  not so much for a declining body but for the increasing weight of responsibility and outside demand for deepening maturity. That owes, in part I suppose, to age, but perhaps more to the fact that in pursuit of certain ends, I have voluntarily placed myself into positions where more would be expected of me. Such, I believe, is the key to self growth.

The ends I speak of involve my community of Selma. After having lived for three years in Montevallo, I was won over completely to the charms of small town life, and in particular to the fact that I spent so much time relating with other people in our common place. My friends ate together, we explored the town together: we frequently bumped into one another in the course of seeing to our own separate affairs. When I returned to Selma, I was determined to restore that sense of community in my life. Although Selma is my home, I had never considered it such until then. After returning from university, I began to walk its streets, and immersed myself deliberately in what social fabric it had: I began volunteering at the library as I looked for work, and even began attending services at the local Episcopal parish, since they offer opportunities for community life and spiritual/personal growth without the usual downsides of religion, the suppression of thought and coercion to authority. (The Episcopal church is of course very traditional, but the relationship between humans and tradition there is proper: there, traditions exists for humans and are maintained or changed at will.)  In the time since I began both endeavors, I have become a member  of the library's reference staff, and an increasingly involved member of the parish life of the church.

There's an essay in my making peace with religion, one I have attempted to write but have never published because it invariably involves experiences of mine which had  a profound impact on my perceptions, but which are impossible to communicate to other people.  Not that I was felled from my horse on the road to Damascus, but I eventually realized there was sometimes more to people's faith in divinity than an arbitrary, stubborn belief in a Santa Claus for adults.  I think most people believe in deities for meaningless reasons, but I've developed an appreciation for the realm of mystery, of people being moved by things they can't explain.  I don't think religion can be banished from the human mind any more than the abuse of authority can be riven from human politics.  And while usually I wouldn't be one to settle for defeat, in this case I'm more willing to bury the hatchet with religion, and perhaps even embrace it as an ally, against anomie, meaninglessness, and consumerism. Marx wrote that religion was the heart of a heartless world, the soul of a soulless situation.  It will remain with us for as long as people need comfort against oppression, and I cannot imagining that changing.  That doesn't mean giving religion a free pass: I see it as useful, and sometimes benevolent -- but ever dangerous. It's like fire: protected against itself, kept in its place, it does good work and is charming in its own right. Outside of those bounds, destruction waits.

So the years have seen the furious fire of idealism within me be tamed into a murmuring hearth of their own; quieter now, but still hopeful despite a lessening of intensity. I think it a safe assumption that most people here will never be won over to some of the ideals I cherish, and so in the interests of relating with them and working with them, I turn to more pedestrian matters, matters of interest to everyone, subjects that cannot be boxed up and buried in a partisan camp -- matters like transportation.  As I spend more time with people of different political convictions, I realize how perfectly asinine the liberal/conservative dichotomy is. Why should fiscal conservatives embrace war and the waste of suburban sprawl? Why should liberals tolerate the increasing dominion of the state over individual lives?  The world of beliefs and values is more complicated than I ever imagined.

My own beliefs are not free of contradictions. There are moments when I am still the young social democrat, who believes in government and who thinks people should make health and education public issues out of pride: of course we should work together to do  this, we're a team! And there are moments when I want to run away, to retreat into the woods living a simple life and subsist on fish and mushrooms or something. I dream of the future, of what the human race can achieve -- and yet look nostalgically toward the  simpler past out of despair for what eager attempts to Create the Future have resulted in. In the end, of course, my world will neither be transformed into a Star Trek utopia, nor fall apart to such a degree that I would be justified in not being concerned with it.  What is left for me is to continue to live in the world I currently inhabit, the one with messy politics and people who act in distressing ways -- to continue to live in it, and to work to create and preserve a worthwhile life, to make my local community a better place to live...to practice the noblest virtues humanity has conceived to aspire to.

In future posts, I will be working through the contradictions occupying my mind -- the tension between individualism and community life, for instance, or between the value I place in science and the annoyance I have with human life being overly complicated by and dependent on gadgets and technotoys. Practical philosophy, especially Stoicism, is still of interest to me, but I may muse about the human environment more, from the viewpoint of a concerned citizen.  The particulars of the world in which I live are of increasing importance to me, not only because they give me an area to work with others to improve,  but because as I grow older, I look at the world through the eyes of someone who may one day introduce children into it...and I want it to be as conducive to human flourishing as possible.