Our Sordid Boon

The Gift to be Simple, part 1

Two hundred fourteen years ago, about, William Wordsworth’s 1802 poem said:
“The world is too much with us, late and soon
Getting and spending we lay waste our powers
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon.”
One hundred sixty-two years ago, Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 book, Walden, asked: “Why should we live in such a hurry and waste of life?” Thoreau said he wished to live deliberately, which, for him, meant fronting “only the essential facts of life.” Only the essential. Elsewhere in Walden he wrote:
“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. 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.”
Thirty-five years ago, Duane Elgin’s 1981 book, Voluntary Simplicity, expanded on Wordsworth’s and Thoreau’s desire for “a way of life that is outwardly simple, inwardly rich.” To choose simplicity, as opposed to being swept along in consumeristic habits that we never stop and think carefully about, never question, “means encountering life more consciously. To live more simply is to encounter life more directly.”

It’s about living with a purpose; mindfully and consciously emphasizing spiritual wholeness. It’s about de-emphasizing materialism and using less of the world's natural resources and promoting a humane, sustainable future -- as integral parts of an approach to developing authentic selves and beloved communities.

Like Earth Day, which began a little earlier, voluntary simplicity represents values that have only grown more important. Intentionally building a life of simplicity requires careful attention.

I need to be clear that simply having less money doesn’t get there. I returned from Honduras Thursday night, where I spent a week of my time there in a tiny and very poor village of fewer than 100 people. This village, Mabita, is in the Moskitia region. The Moskitan people are an indigenous people. They speak Spanish with visitors but speak Moskitan among themselves. The region is supposed to be set aside for them, though there is little actual protection from the gradual encroachment of outsiders cutting down the forest and pine savanna to make cattle pasture. I have some anger about that, and so I do have to mention to you that if you eat beef then you probably are supporting the market forces that are making that happen. In any case, the Moskitan people have been subsistence farmers for centuries, and they are still basically subsistence farmers. The village just a couple years ago constructed a small water tower with about a 1,000-gallon plastic barrel on top, and PVC pipes now provide running water to some of the houses. For the rest, household water still comes from carrying a bucket to the town well. There are no electric lines bringing power from a power plant. Last year a UN grant allowed them to get a few solar panels, so now they have a few electric lights – but before that, no electricity. There’s no telephone service. Never have been any landlines. Many of the residents have cell phones, but to use them they have to go outside of town a couple kilometers, and go up on hill where they pick up a signal from a cell tower in Nicaragua.

There’s a need there for cash. Subsistence farming doesn’t pay for health care. A large part of what money they can get will be sent to a sick or hurt relative in some other village to help with their care. They used to get a large part of their cash income from poaching macaw chicks in the area. Now, thanks to LoraKim and One Earth Conservation, the nonprofit she founded, they earn money helping to preserve the macaws.

This is not the kind of simple living that I’m talking about. Even if health-care were provided, even if their life were a little less fraught and arduous, and even if they weren’t under constant threat of losing more land to cattle ranchers, what I learned was, it’s a complicated little society. They don’t have email, or websites, or newspapers or newsletters or any way of letting each other know what’s going on. Transparency about the making of decisions that affect the village is difficult. So there’s constant gossip and innuendo about who did what. Subterranean resentments fester. It’s complicated and kind of stressful in its own way.

Turning now to the other end of the spectrum, there is, well, most of us. We have known for some time that much of the US suffers from “affluenza” – defined as
  1. the bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses.
  2. An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the American Dream.
  3. An unsustainable addiction to economic growth.
If the Moskitan people are impoverished the old-fashioned way, by lack of wealth, we are often impoverished by wealth itself.

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

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