Simplicity For You, For the Earth

For You

Most of us have complicated lives. E-mails, phone calls, working long hours. Carrying the kids to music lessons, soccer practice, play dates or scouts – church. It’s a fast culture and just trying to match the velocity of others makes life hectic.

Consider how much we work. In a report last August, Gallup found:
“Adults employed full time in the U.S. report working an average of 47 hours per week, almost a full workday longer than what a standard five-day, 9-to-5 schedule entails.” (Gallup, 2014 Aug)
And if you’re answering work emails even when you’re at home, you’re really working more than that.

Do you sometimes feel like a short-order cook at the lunch rush? It’s fine to rev up every once in a while, but constant rushing is stressful. “Risk & Insurance” reported earlier this year:
“In a trend that shows no sign of reversing, American workers are reporting higher levels of stress.” (Risk & Insurance, 2015 Jan.)
Stress weakens the immune system. It wears down your mood. When we’re living in a rush, we worry more, find more things to get irritated about. We don’t think so clearly, and we make worse decisions.

Is there a way to simplify, slow down? The hectic pace of modern life is driving us nuts. We are the most stressed people in history. And since stress can trigger depression, it’s no coincidence that we’re the most depressed people in history.

So many of us have somehow gotten sucked into a bad trade: we traded in our time for a little more income, when in fact, having more time and less income is more conducive to happiness and well-being. As Juliet Schor writes:
“Evidence that longer hours of work are associated with lower happiness is accumulating, as is the more general point that how people spend their time is strongly related to well-being. In a series of studies, the psychologists Tim Kasser and Kennon Sheldon found that being time-affluent is positively associated with well-being, even controlling for income. In some of their studies, time trumped material goods in importance. Kasser and Kirk Brown found that working hours are negatively correlated with life satisfaction.”
Economist Richard Layard found that across the globe, the average happiness score of a country stops rising when its per capita income reaches $26,000 in today’s dollars.

I had to laugh when I read about a study finding that three activities most likely to elicit a bad mood are: the morning commute to work, being at work, and the evening commute from work.

In the quest for more, what we got was more stress, more clutter, more stuff in our lives. We’ve created a booming storage industry just to stow it all. In the quest for more, so many Americans got less: less time and less enjoyment of life.

Plenitude is about a life attuned to the abundance of grace from simply being alive. Duane Elgin, the author of Voluntary Simplicity, first published back in 1980, wrote:
“To live voluntarily means encountering life more consciously. To live more simply is to encounter life more directly.”
And that’s what Thoreau was on about. He went to woods in order to simplify, simplify – and thereby in order to encounter life more consciously and more directly.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
As Thoreau also wrote in Walden:
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
Can we march to a more measured drummer? Is there a way to do that? We’d be happier, less stressed. And some of the work we stop doing can be given to some one else who needs a job.

For the Earth

The call to simplicity is for our own sakes. The call to simplicity is also for the sake of our planet. Longer hours increase your environmental impact
“both because of more production and because time-stressed households have higher-impact lifestyles.” (Schor)
Time-stressed households don’t cook as often. On average, they rely more on pre-prepared packaged food, and eat at restaurants.
  • Ready-made packaged foods involve a lot more CO2 production than foods you prepare yourself.
  • And restaurants? One study found that an hour of restaurant eating uses 11 kilowatt-hours of energy, while an hour of eating at home (including all travel for food purchasing, gas or electricity for cooking, and so forth) uses only 7.4.That means, eating out uses just shy of 50 percent more energy than eating at home.
We need to slow down. And the planet needs us to slow down.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "The Call to Simplicity"
Part 1: "Are You Temporally Impoverished?"


Are You Temporally Impoverished?

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau, one of our transcendentalist and Unitarian forebears, wrote about the call to simplicity:
“Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion."
* * *

How are you doing?

Remember when the usual answer to that question was, “fine”? What may now be the more common answer is: “busy.” It’s a very popular thing to say. For one thing, it’s often true. For another thing, it has the benefit of making us seem virtuous, or at least decent. Decent people, according to general expectation, keep themselves occupied. Moreover, saying “busy” has the further advantage that it might deter whoever you’re talking to from asking you to do something more.

We guard our time, because we have so little of it.

Juliet Schor’s 2010 book Plenitude – along with Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 book Walden -- have been inspirations to me. Throughout Walden, Thoreau is constantly seeking to simplify his lifestyle: he patches his clothes rather than buy new ones, he minimizes his consumer activity, and relies on leisure time and on himself for everything. He asks us:
“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed at such desperate enterprises?”
Yet for the last century and a half, the problem Thoreau identified has grown steadily worse.

Juliet Schor’s book adds 21st-century empirical studies to Thoreau’s 19th-century insights. The data tell us – if data we needed -- that US culture generally has not taken Thoreau to heart. She writes:
“Millions of Americans have lost control over the basic rhythm of their daily lives.
They work too much, eat too quickly, socialize too little, drive and sit in traffic for too many hours, don’t get enough sleep, and feel harried too much of the time.
The details of time scarcity are different across socioeconomic groups, but as a culture we have a shared experience of temporal impoverishment.”
Temporal impoverishment: we are time poor. We don't have enough of it.

What can you do about this? I’m not talking about going to live in a hut by a pond by yourself – although, if you can manage it, for a year or so, as Thoreau did, with occasional visits and trips to town, it does sound like a wonderful exercise. I’m just asking: Is it possible to slow down, simplify, de-clutter, go ahead and drop some of those balls we’re juggling and not pick them up? Is that possible? I don’t know. We’re New Yorkers. We're like, “Stop doing stuff? What’s he talking about? Stupidest thing I ever heard.”

You know your life. Is having less stuff and doing less stuff even a remote option? I don’t know. What I’d like to do is invite us to think about that.

Thoreau thought that the way to simplify, slow down, live a more authentic and present life, was to get away from modern conveniences – which, for him would have been things like steam engines, sewing machines, combine harvesters, and telegraph machines. Instead, we have persistently followed a different path: more and more devices and "conveniences." It seemed so logical. Creation of labor saving devices will save us from labor. By definition, right? And if we are saved from labor, then we have more leisure. Also, by definition, right?

Yet here we are with our microwave ovens, ice-making refrigerators, washers, dryers, and dishwashers, home computers, cell phones, interstate highways and jet airplane travel, central heating and air conditioning. And somehow we are busier than ever.

In some ways you could say our devices liberated us. In some ways you could say they enslaved us.

Robotics and automation do more and more of our manufacturing for us – and, indeed, more and more of our farming. Restaurants and prepared packaged food items do more and more of our cooking for us. And somehow we are busier than ever.

Freed from what we used to do, the labor force shifted away from industry and agriculture and into the service sector. We work frenetically in order to pay for all these conveniences and each other’s services.

Our lives are complicated. Would it be possible to simplify?

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "The Call to Simplicity"
Part 2: "Simplicity For You; For the Earth"


This Week's Prayer

Thank you, Earth.
Thank you for air.
The sunshine:
Morning rising beauty of hope,
Evening setting grace of gratitude.
My brain processes the light that comes from the sky as blue –
I’m not clear on why
Or how a bunch of neurons does that.
And chlorophyll is green because, I don’t know.
I just know the blue sky and the green grass and trees
Are home.
I don’t know why blood is red, either,
The vivid aliveness motion inside me, and us.
Or why flower blossoms are so variously, brightly colored.
Thank you, Earth,
For ants, worms, beetles, spiders, jellyfish, squid.
Thank you for fish: shiny, darting;
And reptiles: gopher tortoises, bright little lizards, dark green gators.
Thank you for birds, and the unignorability of the fact of flying.
Because they are, and I am they, I, too, fly.
Thank you for other mammals: foxes and alpacas
and manatees and rabbits:
The things with hair and milk-making bodies.
All the funny, weird animals – the different ways that life can be.
I imagine living on a space station,
The view, so deep the black, and vast starfields,
Filling me with infinity every day.
It takes ground to be grounded.
I was made to be among your colors and life and limited horizons, Earth,
Even when it is dangerous.
Even when it is too hot, too cold, too rainy, too dry,
I was made for you, Earth.
All the millions of species, each was made for you
Out of dirt and water and sunlight.
Did you make snakes able to be thankful?
Have blue jays gratitude? Lobsters?
Maybe they are always grateful – and what they aren’t able to be is not thankful.
This is a wonder to me, who am sometimes ungrateful and who other times,
Like today, am
sky-blue thank you and leaf-green thank you and blood-red thank you
And lavender and fuchsia and goldenrod thank you.
Grateful feels good,
Dear Earth,
And you offer so much for which.
Sometimes I forget.
Then I remember again.


Transformation of Self and World

Transformation. That’s our theme of the month for April at Community Unitarian Church: Transformation.

These themes that we explore, in our worship and in our Journey Groups, all interrelate. Transformation is ultimately what we are always about. As I said last week and expect to say again: I don’t think people choose to enter congregational life to stay the same. We’re here to transform. Not to deny who we are, but to become who we are, to realize our most authentic selves. Every theme we explore is in service to our transformation. This month we take a look at transformation itself.

The actress Nia Peeples put it well. She said:
“Life is a moving, breathing thing. We have to be willing to constantly evolve. Perfection is constant transformation.”
Perfection is constant transformation.

The idea of perfection with which we are constantly bombarded -- the consumerist model that presents perfection as just one more product or service purchase away – actually makes us less satisfied. The “work, buy, work more, buy more” cycle pulls us away from our true nature and our unique gifts. The consumerist model presents perfection to us as a destination at which to arrive. Alternatively, suggests Nia, perfection is actually “something we move through one moment at time, allowing us to discover it again and again.”

It’s not somewhere else, it’s always right here. It’s not in some special experience you need to buy a ticket for. It’s right there in every ordinary moment. Perfection is constant transformation. And transformation is what we are here for.

Look at our mission. We need to keep coming back to our mission – keep coming back to what we’re here for. We’re here to:
nurture each other in our spiritual journeys; foster compassion and understanding within and beyond our community; and engage in service to transform ourselves and our world.
Prior to the mission there’s the fact that we are a religious congregation, and we’re to do what religious organizations generally are for. We’re here as a congregation:
  • To have collective worship and celebration.
  • To provide a certain kind of education to our children, to our youth, and to adults.
  • To care for each other.
  • And to engage collectively with the world on behalf of peace, justice, and basic needs for all.
We’re here to do those four things. And everything else we do – maintain a building and grounds, and a website and a newsletter, establish and follow bylaws and policies, hire a staff and call a minister, elect a board – all of that is what we do only because that’s what allows us out our reason for being, it’s what enables us to have
  • Worship & celebration
  • Education
  • Relations of caring for each other
  • And collective action for peace, justice, and basic needs.
With our mission statement, we then go one step further. With our mission, we say that what we’re here for, the reason we have worship, education, relations of care, and action in the world, is: to nurture each other in our spiritual journeys, foster compassion and understanding within and beyond our community; and engage in service to transform ourselves and our world. Nurture, foster, serve. That’s what we’re here for.

And to go still one more step further, to sum it all up in a single word: transform. The reason that we nurture spiritual development, that we foster compassion and understanding, that we engage in service is to transform. The third part of our mission explicitly says so – “engage in service to transform ourselves and our world.” But of course nurturing spirituality and fostering compassion and understanding is also in order transform ourselves and our world.

There are other ways than congregational life to nurture your spirituality. There are books and videos and spiritual counselors and yoga and meditation classes. You can journal on your own and you can study the great wisdom literature of the world’s traditions on your own or in various classes – and I hope that you do. Congregational life allows a crucial further channel for the learning and the practice that nurtures that development.

There are also other ways than congregational life to engage in the work of peace, justice, and basic needs for all. You can engage in volunteer service and political action through a variety of organizations that have nothing to do with this congregation. And I hope that you do.

But only in a faith congregation are those two things brought together. In congregational life, nurturing your spirit and helping heal our world come together. You can be active down at the soup kitchen, active in organizations advocating for peace or justice or the environment, and you won’t hear much there about nurturing your spiritual development. You go to classes and counselors that focus on your spiritual development, and you won’t hear anything about working for justice, social action. The unique power of congregational life is this integration. It’s why I’m here. So that the work we do for spiritual development doesn’t stop at the door, but carries over into service and justice work outside. So that the work we do for service and justice outside can be deliberately, intentionally, and explicitly be brought back to spiritual development.

The best slogan that our denominational headquarters has ever come up with for advertising Unitarian Universalism was seven words: "Nurture your spirit, help heal our world." Yes. I think that’s as good as it gets in expressing what Unitarian Universalism is all about in seven words or less. Nurture your spirit, help heal our world. Great. And whenever I get more than seven words, I want to point out that what congregational life allows is that those aren’t two things, but one thing.

We nurture our spirit BY helping to heal our world. And we help heal our world BY nurturing our spirit.

As long as nurturing spirit and healing world are two separate things, you can go off and do them through various noncongregational channels. To live them as one thing, we need to do it as a congregation.

Engaging in service is an essential part of our spiritual development. Activism does not inherently do that. The pitfall of activism is that it’s so easy to get angry – angry at the people who we see as perpetuating the injustice and the violence. The energy of anger has a legitimate place, I believe, but if anger is all there is, then despair and burn-out will follow.

Direct service to the needy also does not inherently facilitate spiritual development. It can be condescending. I can hand out blankets to the homeless on a freezing night thinking all the while of how superior I am – my own charity a further proof of my superiority.

Together, as a faith community, if we’re realizing what our congregational organization makes possible, we gently help each other cultivate humility. We help each other shift our activism from fighting against evil to working for love, remembering that "a positive future cannot emerge from the mind of anger and despair.” Through our work on our spiritual development we can let go of attachment to outcome, understanding that to the extent that we are attached to the results of our work, we rise and fall with our successes and failures. There is always a larger wisdom at work than our own opinions, and, as Gandhi said, "the victory is in the doing," not the results.

The reason for transforming our world is that it transforms us. It connects us with a wider world, it grows our hearts. Expanding our circle of care and concern, embodying that in our service and our activism, increases our own peace and joy. Moreover, the work will teach us things. For example, getting outside our bubble, teaming up with other congregations, predominantly Hispanic, or African American or Moslem or lower income puts us in touch with those we might not otherwise ever have a conversation with. Being a part of Westchester United, sharing the work, standing shoulder to shoulder for justice on the issues that we do agree on, empowers us and them. This is about personal transformation. Our ability to create social transformation is linked with our willingness to go through personal transformation in the process. We cannot expect the world to change if we‘re not willing to. The reason for transforming our world is that it transforms us.

And the reason for transforming ourselves is that it transforms our world. The more peaceful and loving we are, the more our lives inherently contribute to a peaceful and loving world, and the more ready we are to offer our time and resources to help heal our world. We have always been a people who said we must live our faith.

Through the centuries, the ideas and the work of Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists has influenced US culture and politics. As the morning dawned on Sun Apr 12, it found Community Unitarian Church ready – as ready it would ever be likely to get – to begin forming Social Justice Teams. Any effective social justice team will address their issue in five ways.
  1. Service: Direct assistance to those in need.
  2. Education: Classes and collective study of the complexities of a social issue. We have to know what we're taking about.
  3. Organizing: Forming coalitions with other UU congregations, with other faith institutions, and with secular organizations is crucial both for our own learning and transformation and for maximizing our effectiveness in the world.
  4. Advocacy: Lobbying, letter-writing, and anything else that brings our voice to our elected officials, or to others who change and make policy. We cannot advocate for or against a particular candidate or party – but we can and must advocate for policies that are more just, better promote peace, and better meet basic needs.
  5. Witness: Using the media; publicizing the issue and our efforts. Press coverage when we can get it. Occasional advertising. Getting out the word is a part of the justice work.
Based on the conversations at our February 8 Congregational Conversation, and the "dot voting" we did on March 15, our Social Justice Planning Committee has discerned that we are interested in possibly as many as nine social justice teams. The advantage of more teams over only one or two is that it will allow more of us to choose a team on an issue we already have passion for. The world needs your passion. It will allow more of us the opportunity for the tranformative work of leadership in one of these teams.

Each team will need a leadership core of five -- and ready supporters of possibly many more. Doing the math, that means that forming all nine teams will require 45 leaders.

The ultimate vision is that every member will be active on one of our social justice teams. Every member. And as many visitors and friends as feel ready and able. That's the vision. In the end, as always, it is your conscience and the reality of your life situation as you judge it, that must determine what you can do. It's up to you -- we are Unitarian Universalists; it could not be otherwise. And when we adopted our mission 15 months ago with a 96 percent approval, we were saying that engaging in service to transform ourselves and our world was one of the things we are here for -- all of us.

To realize that mission takes all of us. As Lauralyn Bellamy urges in words in our hymnal, "If here you have found love, give some back to a bruised and hurting world." The time for that is...now.