Thursday, October 18, 2012

Voluntary Simplicity

Review: Voluntary Simplicity: Toward A Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich
By Duane Elgin (219pp. 1993, Pub. by Quill, Div. of Wm. Morrow & Co., New York)
“You can’t tell a book by its cover.” For the second time this past year, I have found truth in that statement after feeling that I had been hoodwinked by a book‘s title. I read the title, and assumed it was about what it said---either finding or creating simplicity in life. I felt even more confident about the seemingly straightforward title when I saw that it was listed in the book section of Piragis Northwoods Company’s Boundary Waters Catalog. They said of it, it is “One of our most requested titles.” Perhaps that means too many other people are making the same mistake I did.

In fairness, in the beginning is does discuss some of the considerations facing someone wishing to exchange personal growth and peace for the corporate world’s insistence on ever greater consumerism, greed, waste, pollution, and the ever present expectation that we don’t fit in modern culture unless we are forever competing with the ’Jones’. Further, it explains that simplicity of life can come from different sources---voluntary simplicity or poverty. “Poverty is involuntary and debilitating, whereas simplicity is voluntary and enabling. Poverty is mean and degrading to the human spirit, whereas a life of conscious simplicity can have both a beauty and a functional integrity that elevates the human spirit.”

A life of simplicity is not meant to be a life of deprivation. “Life is occupied in both perpetuating itself and surpassing itself; if all it does is maintain itself, then living is only not dying.” Simplicity means being selective. It means prioritizing. We wish to have what we need, what we value, and what enriches us, but avoid the trappings of acquiring for fad, fashion, the hope of finding happiness in possessions, of becoming slaves to our things because of the demands of storage, of our time, and of the expense of maintaining things that demand attention but that add little to our lives. We go back to the New England Puritan adage we’ve probably heard our grandparents use---”Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without.” A study by E. F. Schumacher, noted statistician and economist, found that people in the study discovered a new sense of freedom when they carried less baggage in their lives. The less they felt they ’needed’, the freer they became, and the more they could dispose of. The more they disposed of, the happier they became. Greater simplicity freed time, energy, expense, and promoted greater personal growth and self-improvement, family relationships, and other satisfying activities.

That struck a chord. Our family had taken a three-month sailboat cruise up the New England Coast many years ago. Having what you need for vessel operation, navigation, and safety, and then adding the personal things you’d like to have, and getting it all into a 29-ft. boat definitely requires selectivity and prioritization. By the time we had been underway a few weeks, I began to think of the rich experiences we were having in contrast to all that STUFF back home that I hadn’t needed or missed. If all that had disappeared, I could have continued on in much greater contentment than having to go back home and paint this, repair that, weed here, fertilize and trim there, pick up this, find a place to store that, and so on. I found simplicity and peace at sea, but it was definitely not part of my life ashore..

In the latter chapters the book suddenly swerves off the road. You begin to find that simplicity is not just for personal enrichment, but is a tool for dealing with the collapse of society, the environment, world economies, and wars over dwindling resources. You can adopt simplicity as a way of heading off world collapse, or, failing that, as a way of surviving after world collapse. The author makes the point that we are in civilization’s winter, the beginning of the end that doesn‘t have to come, but which is inevitable without drastic changes. If simplification became widespread, we could reverse this trend. He points out that 98-percent of all homes have a television, that the average person watches four hours of TV a day, and endures 35,000 commercials a year. More than advancing particular products, the commercials try to define happiness, satisfaction with life, attitudes, values, and lifestyles geared to ever-increasing commercialism. He says the most precious resource of any civilization is the shared consciousness of its citizenry, and our consciousness is being prostituted to the highest corporate bidder. “By programming television to achieve commercial success, the mind-set of entire nations is being programmed for ecological failure.” The remainder of the book deals with individual activism to change political and economic priorities, social reform, saving the world’s environment, seeking alternative energy programs, solving world hunger, etc. While I did found the book thought provoking, I think I needed one whole book just on how to change me, as the title suggested. Saving the rest of the world’s billions of citizens and their cultures would probably take at least a couple more volumes.

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