A Path to Simplicity

The Gift to be Simple, part 3

The Greeks had a concept of paideia. They meant that life at its best was a continuous self-transformation of our person; that this lifelong project of transformation was an art form. In 1987, for the first time in this country, the number of shopping centers exceeded the number of high schools. A life of shopping – and working so that we can get the money to do the shopping – is not conducive to the practice of the art of lifelong transformation.

How did we get in this mess?

Humans have been around, as roughly the species that we are, for about 3 million years. We were designed to solve certain problems – find food, shelter, a mate, get the children raised, interact socially. So, of course, when, in the last 9,999 ten-thousandths of those 3 million years, the rich societies of the world developed technology to meet those basic needs more plentifully than we ever had before, we had to use it. It’s what we were designed to do. We were designed to try to solve those problems – built to spend our lives working on them. We weren’t designed to know what to do with ourselves after actually solving them. We’re built to seek more because for all those generations, more numerous that we can conceive, seeking more improved our survival odds.

We’re also built to compare ourselves to our neighbors. Financial advisor Dave Ramsey said, “We buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like.” Why do we do that?

Robert Frank, Cornell economics professor has pointed out that our relative income is more important to us than our absolute buying power. Most of humans would rather make a $100,000 a year in a world in which everyone else was making $90,000 than make $110,000 in a world in which everybody else is making $120,000. Why are we like that?

UCLA neuroscientist Michael McGuire and colleagues have done a number of studies on vervet monkeys that suggest part of the answer. Serotonin levels correlate with position in the social hierarchy, both as cause and effect. If you artificially raise their serotonin levels with drugs, they become more likely to ascend the social hierarchy; and if you remove the most dominant monkeys, then the next ones down become the new top, and their serotonin level goes up. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and behavior; it enhances feelings of well-being. Writes Robert Frank:
“Suffice it to say that no matter how the relevant mechanisms work, there is compelling evidence that concern about relative position is a deep-rooted and ineradicable element of human nature.”
I think we have to have our eyes open to the sort of beings that we evolved to be. But that relative position that by our nature we attend to does not have to be a hierarchically-ordered position. I know not what options may be available to those vervet monkeys, but humans, at least, have powerful cultural concepts, ideas, learning, spiritual cultivation to interact with our genetic construction. We, at least, can have status without having to have a higher position in a hierarchy, without having to accumulate wealth, without having to impress people we don’t like.

We can learn to recognize and feel status as an equal, making an equal’s contribution to the community. The development of closer-knit communities is thus essential.

We need status, but if we don’t have a close sense of community, then the only path open to us with be the trappings of status, the symbols of status, which we accumulate in order to feel a status in which we cannot be secure because it is conferred partly in our imaginations, and by others whose deference we cannot trust, whose love we do not believe in, and whose eyes we do meet.

There’s another way.

We can live deliberately. There are people intentionally deciding to cut back work hours, cut back clutter, cut back consumption. For instance, there’s a tiny house movement – houses less than 400 square feet are popping up around the country.

The best hope is not to go to the woods, like Thoreau, nor to embrace the hardships of subsistence farming. The best hope is, however, to live deliberately in community. In community, we can share. The co-housing idea, for instance, I find more encouraging than isolated tiny houses. Co-housing communities don’t have all property held in common. But they hold in common some property – maybe a shared garden plot, and shared power tools, for instance. They may have some shared meals – where people take turns fixing a dinner for the whole community – say three times a week. While most of the cohousing communities built in the 1990’s and early 2000’s were suburban, there is now a surge in urban cohousing. That’s a hopeful direction for lives of greater richness and sharing and connection, less stress and alienation, more encountering life more consciously.

Whatever the path toward simplicity might be for you, it requires intention, deliberately breaking with some of the forces that have been pulling you along. There probably is a better way for you. May the path be found, and the courage to take it, step by step.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "The Gift to be Simple"
See also
Part 1: Our Sordid Boon
Part 2: Consumption Up, Well-Being Down

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