Let’s face it. When you’re about to lose your house to foreclosure or a job due to layoff doing with less is a bitter pill to swallow. The resulting heartache and worry may make us very reluctant to imagine any good coming from such setbacks. Yet most of us have a different type of tribulation. We have no idea of what it means to be down and out. We aren’t having our houses repossessed, we don’t live in the bombed out neighborhoods of Iraq and we don’t have to scrounge for food on the tundra of Africa. We in fact have it too good.
Oh yes, even in recessionary times we may gripe about the increasing cost of gas or the rising prices of our morning lattes. We expect life to come easy for us living in an affluent society. We don’t see how doing with less may in fact be good for our souls. We don’t see how we are already impaired by having everything come so easy for us. We don’t see how our over reliance on material goods to define our identities is a spiritual deficit. Once Mother Teresa was asked, “How can you stand working all the time among people in poverty?” She replied, “Oh the poverty in America is much worse. At least in India we feed our souls.” Indeed doing with less may be very good for us.
What does it mean to “do with less?”
Seneca, a wise Roman philosopher, once said, “It’s not things that stress us. It’s what we make of things.” Doing with less is an attitude—a way of looking at life and ourselves in a different light. It is a way of opening ourselves to possibilities. Clearly there is nothing wrong with desiring material comforts. Indeed, financial suffering is no immediate joy for any of us. However, when we have material setbacks how we decide to look at ourselves and our own identities in view of these challenges is really up to us. It’s our attitude, not the setbacks that define us. Some of us are plagued by silly worries. We may fret about losing our cable TV due to having to tighten our belts. However, what truly worries us are the disturbing unconscious beliefs we have about the relationship between our identities and material comforts. When we do with less we put aside these beliefs, accept the possibility that good things may come from the lack of material comforts in our lives and we acclimate ourselves to enjoying what we already have. Obviously if doing with less were so easy to do, more of us would do it. It is not easy.
Hidden beliefs in the culture of affluenza
In our consumer driven culture Americans dodge nearly 3,000 advertisements daily, all giving the same message: “shop til you drop,” “bigger is better” and “more is not enough.” Such beliefs get internalized and guide how we deal with emotional distress—often to our detriment. For example, after 9/11 President Bush said that the best way Americans can fight the terrorists is to go out and shop. Oh, we may have shopped, but few of us feel more secure years after 911. On average we citizens spend six hours a week shopping and only 40 minutes playing with our kids. Our hidden beliefs about money and spending drive such behavior.
Money is happiness and rich people are happier
Actually, rich people live longer, have better health care and higher education levels than poorer people mostly because they have the money to do so. However they are no more happier. A recent international study of happiness concluded that Danish people who make much smaller incomes are the happiest in the world since they have low expectations, are less interested in careers and have strong ties with community and extended family.
Money is a measure of my worth as a person
Worthiness is a self-perception that has little to do with money. Even a poor man can feel like a prince. Image only goes so far. Many rich people become disillusioned that the wealth they already have as it doesn’t fill them up or make them like themselves any more. Their only solution is to make more money.
Money is love and the way to express love is to spend it
When we throw money at an emotional problem it doesn’t go away; it only covers it up. Money may be a way to avoid love. Companionship, listening and compassion express love more than money.
Money is security. The more you have, the more secure you are.
People who live in gated communities have more physical safety but are no more secure. They symbolically cut off what makes most of us secure: warm loving friendships that accept us as we really are and have full access to our insides.
Unforeseen benefits of simplifying our lives
Living on less may actually increase your happiness. A 1995 poll in U.S. News and World Report found that 86 percent of people who did with less—called “down-shifters”—said they were happier with a simpler lifestyle. They spent more time with family, had more family meals together, had time to read and recreate as a family, and discovered new aspects of themselves that were laying dormant in their prior frantic career-driven lifestyle.
In our over-the-top culture one of the scarcest commodities is time. No one has time for anything. We have traded time for material comforts. What if we reversed that trade? What if we ate more meals with out families, resisted the switch to digital TV and volunteered four hours a month. Studies show that family dinners, getting off the couch and contributing to our community substantially improves our health, keeps us off medication longer and improves our longevity. Many people who turn off the TV and read books, learn a hobby like baking bread or knitting, and ride or walk to work find they have more time than they ever dreamed of having with their frantic materialistic lifestyle.
Why is this? Time is relative. When we complexify our lives through escapism, time flies by unnoticed. We have too little of it because we don’t see it flying by. When we simplify, time stands still and we are present enough to have and appreciate it. It fill us up.
Why are we so reluctant to downsize our lives?
Besides the enormous influence of our materialistic society, psychological factors strongly cause us to resist keeping our lives simple. I once asked a well-off friend if he could stand to lose every material aspect of his life if he knew his wife and children were OK. He said, no. I was surprised to hear his answer since I knew he loved his family. What he told me next was even more surprising.
He said he didn’t have faith that his family would love him if he wasn’t such a good provider. He said even if they did he could not love himself if he wasn’t being the good provider. I was horrified at his response since I saw him as a very good person. Too many of us are unwilling to downsize our lives because we would have to face our own nakedness and the dim aspects of our own identities. If we are simply hanging out with loved ones in a more personal way and not distracting ourselves through TV watching, surfing the net, or using a cell phone we would be having more eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart contact. We would be looking into our souls! Such contact makes many of us nervous as we don’t see ourselves as very acceptable or our relationships as truly intimate. My friend was essentially telling me that about himself. Slowing down to smell the roses, downsizing our lives and not defining ourselves through material goods, all put us in touch with deeper aspects of ourselves. To avoid ourselves we keep our lives busy, get consumed with consumerism, and surround ourselves with things we don’t need.
Accepting less: Is it more?
The Dalai Lama once said, “Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.” So many of us can actually benefit from hard economic times. For example, if our hours are cut back at work we may have more time to spend with out children and spouses. We may find that our loved ones actually enjoy us even more than when we were always buying them things and away at work. We may find that our family actually values us—even with all of our inadequacies, more than a new I-Pod! Even more amazingly we may find that spending personal time with our loved ones is actually better than working overtime. In short, we may discover the true delights of love!
A friend of mine once told me an amazing story. He and his wife and two children had finally completed this enormous remodeling of their country home. It had a large red oak deck in the back with a patio for grilling and looking at the birds and a panoramic view of the woods nearby. It had a sunken pool and waterfall garden with native plants. It had the works! A week after it was completed a tornado took everything while the family was away. A week later I found my friend weeping. As I tried to reassure him he said, “No, you don’t understand, I am weeping tears of joy.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said that the outpouring of love, support and assistance the family got from people from all over the place was more than he had ever experienced in his life. It was nearly more than he could handle. He always had an “I can manage it myself” mentality and never knew how deep love can really go. Now he knew.
There really is no point to talking about doing with less. You may just have to experience it for yourself firsthand. To guide your journey consider reading Affluenza by John DeGraff (Berret-Koenhler Publishers, 2001) or go to www.newdream.org for resources and ideas. Believe me, less is more!
John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St.Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990) He can be reached at 651-699-4573.
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