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.