Just Living Simply
December 3, 2006
(With voice of evangelist)
Sisters and Brothers, it is GOOD that you have come today to this house of worship. For the time is drawing nye — YES, the shoppocolypsee is coming! If ye are not to be stricken down by the dreaded disease of Affluenza, if ye do not want to be doomed to the hell of clutter and waste, if – indeed ye have already overspent – ye must REPENT!!
And the people all said — AMEN.
Those of you that are teachers know that if you really want to learn something well, you should teach it.
Well, I’ve also found out as a minister – that if I really need to change something in my life, then I should preach it.
It’s hard to prepare a sermon on simplicity without taking a hard look at my own life and practices.
So Greg’s station wagon has made more trips recently to the recycling center, the Goodwill store, and the Habitat Store.
I’ve always lived a comparatively simple life. My dad used to say — Jane gets everything she wants. She just knows how much to want. So I’ve been blessed that material stuff has never been something that really turned me on. I’ve also inherited my grandmother’s frugality — at least when it comes to things for myself.
However – Living Simply is not simply – Living Cheaply!! In fact – I changed the title of this sermon after I started working on it to emphasize another aspect of Living Simply. The title now is “Just Living Simply” with an emphasis on Just. That word has a double meaning, of course. And if you didn’t catch it at first – the Just in that phrase is the root word for justice. And if you want to live “justly” as well as “simply” – it may cost more for some things – not less; and sometimes it’s more difficult to do. But I’m committed to making an effort to move in that direction.
This may seem like the wrong time of year to emphasize, “just living simply.” The holiday season is a time when we are encouraged by the marketplace as well as friends and family to buy more, eat more, drink more, travel more, give more, live MORE . Even the TV preachers are emphasizing how you can have a life of ABUNDANCE – just send them the “seed” and your wealth will multiply.
How did we get to this point where our social, emotional, and even spiritual identity is so deeply interconnected with what we own and consume? According to Duane Elgin (one of voluntary simplicity’s modern day gurus):
Since World War II, we’ve seen the most massive experiment that’s ever been undertaken in programming the psyche of a civilization. And it has worked. The advertising culture has succeeded in creating identity consumption — a sense that our meaning in life depends upon the significance of what we consume.
A retail analyst, Victor Lebow, who promoted consumption as necessary to our economy in the post-war period, was very clear about this. He said, “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”
(Elgin says) I think people are having a very tough time separating their sense of spiritual identity from their consumer identity. And, there’s a conscious blending of the two by advertisers to make it seem as though our spiritual or soulful significance is manifest in our consumption.
But most of us have already figured out that more is not necessarily better. Not only do we have problems with the ethical dilemmas resulting from too much consumption – like what we are doing to our dear earth and other beings in the process – but we’ve also found out that having more does not mean being happier.
Studies show that although most families today live in bigger houses, have more cars and more stuff than they did in the 1950’s, they are not any happier. In fact, the added complexity of more stuff and more things to do has increased stress for many folks – especially during the holidays when we feel the need to do whatever it is necessary to please all the folks on our list. So I thought it would be a GOOD time to focus on the simplicity movement and remind us that we do have alternatives. When I chose this topic, I didn’t realize that we would have had several messages by our guests and own members which deal with some particular examples of living justly, compassionately, peacefully, and simply. It does seem like our congregation – whether intentionally or not – has chosen to explore this lifestyle together and support one another in our efforts.
Our Unitarian forefather – Henry David Thoreau – would say, “It’s about time.” Of course, Thoreau was one of the first folks to discover and write about “voluntary simplicity” – although he didn’t call it that. Thoreau’s two-year experiment on Walden Pond led to his book initially entitled, “Life in the Woods.” This extremely simple life had to end because of his increasing debt. After that, he maintained what would perhaps be considered a more balanced simplicity.
And of course there have been others through the years who have swum against the tide of greater and greater abundance and consumerism. But the voluntary simplicity “movement” really revved up in the 70’s – lost some momentum in the materialistic 80’s, and regained some of it in the 90’s. In this new millennium – especially after the jolt of September 11 and the loss of the idea that material wealth brings us real security, folks started to pay attention. But it’s hard to maintain that attention in a world in which you are bombarded with advertising that has such strong pulls that you may be pulled into thinking a “want” is a “need” or even “an absolute necessity.”
George Gerbner (professor of communications and founder of the Cultural Environment Movement) says that to control a nation, you don’t have to control its laws or its military, all you have to do is control who tells the nation its stories. Television tells most of the nation most of its stories most of the time.
And Elgin warns:
If television is our social brain, then American television currently has the highest level of intelligence that beer and car commercials can buy. And this dumbing down of the U.S. public is happening at the very time when we face unprecedented social upheaval and change. As people have really tried to live out the television dream, and seen how hollow it all is, they are becoming deeply cynical about it and saying, “I don’t care how many more ads you show me, I don’t believe them anymore. I don’t know what to believe, but I just don’t believe it anymore.”
(Actually – I think we saw some of this happen with the last election.)
Elgin seems to think that we are now becoming divided against ourselves on this. Wanting to change – but still being held to that false view of the “American Dream.” Here’s how he summarizes the polls on the change toward simplicity.
About 75 percent to 80 percent of the public say, ”We’re going to need to make major changes if we’re going to live sustainably on Earth.” I find it very significant that such a large fraction of the overall public recognizes that, like it or not, there are great changes ahead. Next, about 60 percent of U.S. adults say, “Not only do we need to change, we want to change.” Still, this is largely rhetoric as most are sympathetic but disengaged — still waiting for the starting gun to go off.
Then, about 25 percent are actually doing something by changing the way they live — perhaps by not taking the job promotion that would require them to move somewhere; maybe one of the partners in the relationship will stop working or take a lower-paying job that’s closer to home. These are the so-called “downshifters” that are disengaging from the rat race of our consumer society.
Finally, about 10 percent of U.S. adults are “upshifters” that have gone even further and are pioneering a new way of life that is more sustainable, satisfying and soulful. They’re making a whole-pattern shift in their lives that grows out of an ecological awareness and the sense that “I’m here as more than just a consumer to be entertained; I’m here as a soulful being who wants to grow. I want to have meaningful work, a meaningful life with my family, a meaningful connection with my community, and a meaningful sense of spiritual development.” That 10 percent is about 20 million people, and it’s almost two-to-one women to men.
I believe that most of us here today really want to be in that 10% — and many of us are there. But it’s not easy. We do need help and we do need support. AND we need to realize that it takes a while and NOT see ourselves as somehow inherently better or superior than other folks.
So if we are going to support one another in this journey, we probably need to consider some common guidelines or principles.
Now – the leaders in this loosely bound “movement” warn us that there are not simple rules to follow.
Voluntary Simplicity is not a list of rules. It is a consciousness, an awareness.
And many recommend that we do not go “cold turkey” when trying to make these significant changes in living. That seems to bring additional frustration. Also, what works well for one household may be too difficult for another to adopt for varying reasons. There are multiple paths to just simply living. And – even though folks agree that there are NO rules for everyone – there is an abundance of “help” for you out there. So much so – that it overwhelmed me. Here I was – trying to prepare a sermon on simplicity, and becoming stressed out over whether I should give you Elgin’s principles for Voluntary Simplicity, or share some of St. James’ ways for simplifying, or provide you with tips from Jensen’s Simplicity Survival Guide, or give you Pierce’s recipe for simplicity, or one of several 9, 10, or 12 step programs to simplicity — dang, this was just getting too complicated. And to be honest with you – after you read through tons of these – they can get pretty boring.
SO – I decided to not give you ANY of those specific lists. You go read them. You can get them on the web and check out the books from the library. Instead – I’ll just share with you the WWJD of Just Living Simply. No, not “What Would Jesus Do?” — I wouldn’t want to try to second-guess that. But I can tell you – “What Would Jane Do.” Not that I’m a “just living simple” saint. I’m far from it. But I’ve been able to do the hokie pokie and turn myself around regarding some areas of my life. And I can share with you a few of the things that have helped me to get started on this journey to simplicity. So here are Five “Plain Jane” suggestions:
Plain Jane suggestion #1 – Get rid of clothes you seldom wear – including those jeans that you think “might fit again” one day. I was motivated to begin this simplification journey after I heard Will MacIntosh speak here at UU some time ago. He made the point of telling us of how he did an inventory of his shirts and was appalled at how many he had. I came home, took one look at my packed closet, and made a determination that I was not going to keep loads of clothes that I wasn’t wearing. I cleared it out then and have “attempted” to make sure that I remove clothes if I add clothes. I’ve also found that if I need or even want a new item of clothing, I can usually find it at the Goodwill store. So I take bags of clothes to them and buy my “new” or “new to Jane” clothes from them. I also buy mostly black clothes. Someone told me I looked good in black – that’s why I decided to become a minister for my post-Georgia Southern career. It was either that or an undertaker. But seriously, I wear mostly black clothes and perhaps accent with some color. That way, I can also reduce my shoes – and this is especially helpful when I’m packing to go somewhere.
Plain Jane suggestion #2 – If you have a large yard like I do, give some of it back to God. She’ll take good care of it. I did this after my divorce when I realized that all the yard work would now be mine to do. Well, now I have Greg – but I still let God keep her part.
Plain Jane suggestion #3 – Make a commitment about your diet that is meaningful to you and that you can actually KEEP. In the summer of 2003, while at Meadville Lombard, I felt motivated to make a change in my diet. Actually, my increasing awareness of ethical concerns related to meat products plus my desire for healthier living and maintaining some discipline in my diet increased my desire to become a vegetarian. However, I was aware that giving up meat “cold turkey” would be especially difficult for me. SO – I kept the “cold turkey” as well as other poultry and fish. And I’ve been able to maintain that commitment. Since overdosing on turkey on Thanksgiving, I’ve even been able to give that up and stick to fish and other means of getting my protein. But it’s not easy. And after Relinda’s talk a couple of Sundays ago, I’ve realized that perhaps just giving up these products is not enough. What we really need to do is to continue to work on changing the farming and food producing practices. Each of us can do our part in whatever way we can. But you can begin with a commitment that you can keep.
Plain Jane suggestion #4 – If you need something or really want something that Wal-Mart sells – and that may be difficult to find somewhere else – it’s okay, you can go to Wal-Mart occasionally. Actually, I thought I was doing a pretty good job of rationalizing this suggestion when I told Greg, “Hey – the fundamentalists called for a two day boycott of Wal-Mart because of their adding sexual orientation to their non-discrimination policy and their agreement to extend spousal benefits to the partners of their gay employees.” Then Greg said – “WHAT benefits?” And I said, “Well – if they HAD benefits, they would extend them to partners of gay employees.” My point here is not just Wal-Mart specific. Basically, I’m saying that we should give ourselves a little “slack” sometimes – and also realize that while we try to buy locally and from companies that have policies more in line with our principles, we can also share our desires with large corporations and hopefully have them move in a better direction. I bought some “free range” eggs from Bilo the other day. Some companies are figuring out that many of us are willing to pay extra for these items – and money talks.
Well, – I promised I would just give you FIVE of these Plain Jane Suggestions – so I’ll end with this one.
Plain Jane Suggestion # 5 – Have yourself a merry “little” Christmas. Unplug the Christmas machine. After all, the Christmas story is about a little baby that was born in a barn with only the basic necessities of warmth, nourishment, and love. Just Simply Living! There are lots of alternatives on the web related to simplifying the season. The Adbuster group that sponsors the “Buy Nothing” day every year on the Friday after Thanksgiving has suggested that we might go so far as to have a “Buy Nothing” Christmas. You may not want to go that far. But certainly we can bring more peace and tranquility to this stressful time of year. Now if you really enjoy sending out loads of Christmas cards and shopping for all your friends and relatives – then go for it! But if it adds more stress to your life, turn yourself around, give yourself a break and have a simpler holiday – giving time and love and lots of free hugs.
“When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be out delight, ‘til by turning, turning we come round right.”