Posted by: scintillatingspeck | May 20, 2008

Is voluntary simplicity a middle-class luxury?

A few days ago, there was an article in the New York Times about a family that was choosing to give up most of their worldly possessions, get on the road, move to Vermont, and become organic homesteaders.  I read it with great interest and admiration, since I believe it takes conviction, boldness, and often great courage to reject the status quo, the trodden path, and strike off in a new direction that is more in line with one’s fundamental priorities and values.

My friend Nancy was also intrigued by this article, and sent me a link to it.  She noted that the Harris family has a blog, too.

A few days later, in response to my musing about what topics to blog about, she wrote:

How about voluntary simplicity, as a start?  It is a rich topic, and it seems to be back in vogue — which I recall it being during the last recession in the early 90s. Nothing people love more during a recession than thinking about how doing with less can be a choice, or a spiritual practice. Takes the sting out of it, I think. But one question that seems to come up for me is, does voluntary simplicity have to come out of the experience of abundance or having too many material possessions? In other words, do poor people feel any interest in it, or is voluntary simplicity a middle-class luxury?

I can always count on Nancy to spur my thinking.  I liked her questions, especially the one used as the title for this post.  So, Nancy and world, here are my thoughts on the matter.

Yes and no.

I think I get at part of what Nancy is driving at in her questions- that the term “voluntary simplicity” carries in it the concept of choice.  It carries the implication that one could choose to have lots of stuff, or not, and that one must be starting out with a great deal stuff but purging it in a great, epic purification ritual.  In that sense, it can come across as a sort of smug, self-righteous activity, one carried out by people who don’t even realize how lucky they are to live in such abundance, when others have little to nothing and never had any choice at all about the matter.  It can be hard to avoid the conclusion that practitioners of voluntary simplicity are perhaps somewhat blind to class issues and their own privilege, or that they consider themselves morally superior, or that they are irritatingly self-congratulatory. 

In the sense of having the ability to accumulate gargantuan piles of stuff, as well as living the middle class American dream of suburbia, driving, upward mobility, endless kid activities, and striving for prestige, only to turn around and reject it all – yes, in that sense, it is a middle-class luxury.

However, I think it would be unfair to many, including poor people, to limit our concept of voluntary simplicity in this way.

Why would it be unfair to poor people to claim that voluntary simplicity is not for them?  Even if it is not a person’s choice to be poor, they can still choose to live with mindfulness and integrity.  They can still critique the larger culture of consumption.  They can still live simply in dignity.  The concept of simplicity, in this sense, is not merely about getting rid of stuff or rejecting a previous lifestyle, but about coming to terms with one’s values.

Certainly there are stereotypes about the values of poor people and the values of middle-class people.  Apparently, over on the Harris family blog, labels are being lobbed freely, such as “hippy-dippy” and “ignorant romantics.”  I can relate to being labeled in this way.  I can’t relate so much to being poor, but I do relate to chafing at classism, which is ruthless in its destruction of dignity.

I think it’s unfair for people to judge those pursuing voluntary simplicity as blind, romantic fools with silly, faddish notions.  I mean, what is the alternative, exactly?  Toeing the line, being “sensible”?  Why should this be the standard for how to live one’s life?

From my own observations of middle-class American lives, there is an overwhelming hunger, a desperate need to stop the madness and live differently.  The madness is everywhere.  It isn’t hard to find.  There are far too many people who are desperately lonely, unfulfilled, addled with addictions, physically and/or mentally sick, agonizingly bored, stuck in a rut, spiritually bereft, and questioning what the point of it all is.  My own conclusion is that people are manifesting in their individual lives the sickness and insanity of an entire culture.  For this reason, I think voluntary simplicity is a profoundly sane and healthy path. 

Too often, however, such paths are co-opted by corporate culture, fragmenting their power.  Right now I am thinking of a magazine called Real Simple.  Maybe you’ve seen it.  The cover touts all kinds of ways you can simplify your life, and then you open the magazine and it turns out in order to simplify your life, you have to buy a lot of products.  A lot of green, eco-products.  See, all you have to do is buy the right stuff, and it’s so easy!  Just put it on your credit card!

How much more brave, then, to run the gauntlet of name-calling (hippy-dippy treehugger, goddamn liberal, commie pinko, etc.), to risk being judged by those who are too fearful to take such steps in their own lives, to remain diligently true to one’s vision of a happier, healthier life.

Maybe not everyone can be like the Harris family, whether for financial reasons, or fear, or just missing the point entirely.  But I think it is wise to learn to live without, regardless, before the “voluntary” part of it becomes completely irrelevant.  The Great Turning is upon us and the economic foreshocks are in plain view: foreclosures, credit crisis, inflation… do I have to say more?  You do see this, people, right?

Nancy, thanks for offering such a great topic.  And you, dear reader, what do you think?

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Responses

  1. That was very articulate and thoughtful! Sorry I don’t have any brain cells left tonight with which to compose a substantive response.

  2. i enjoyed thinking about what you wrote, jen. Made me think that voluntary simplicity has an opposite, which could be called ‘involuntary complexity’—perhaps the dominant syndrome of our overly loud, gadget-producing, escapist capitalist entertainment, consume as much as you can/there is never too much society–This numbing grinding complexity is as prevalent as the air we breathe and, for most, as hard to do without as oxygen….
    I think small groups living more simply but not in isolation–interacting with their neighbors/active in local discussions and politics, etc., will create momemtum and attraction to a different way of living—of being. Eventually, these calmer, healthier, more compassionate and more involved (without gadgets and tv, isnt there a heck of more time to engage?) people will be a beacon for the good life—maybe there will even be a r-e-a-l Real Simple lifestyle magazine===
    and furthermore, that is the cutest baby pic i have ever seen!

  3. Hiya Jen. It’s nice to see you sharing your passions and process with the world! You go girl!

    I’ve had similar thoughts as you express here around why it is mostly folks from the middle class who are attracted to intentional communities and cohousing. My theory is that it is easier to give up something you’ve already experienced, but are not yet addicted to.

    In other words, it is possible that folks from lower SES look at such communities and wonder why everyone is so willing to share lawnmowers and the like (that’s not the American Dream!) and folks from higher SES sort of have golden chains around their ankles and may feel it would be too difficult to let go of everything that has accumulated around them.

    So it’s folks like us, somewhere in the middle, who have gotten enough “stuff” to realize that it’s not going to be what really makes us happy, but not so much stuff that we can’t walk away from it.

    Now, given that the middle class will not be able to drive the Great Turning on their own, perhaps one of the central challenges of our age is to figure out how to make voluntary simplicity more attractive to those further out on either end of the economic spectrum.

    Anyway, more food for thought…

  4. Tom, you have a special dispensation for end-of-day fried brain cells, and I am happy that you commented at all.

    Gregg, I can see it now: you at the helm of a magazine called “No, Really, This Is Real Simple.”

    Daniel, I’m intrigued by the too high/too low SES theory… I do think it’s probably harder, though not impossible, for non-middle-class people to be attracted to voluntary simplicity and/or join an intentional community in America. In terms of making voluntary simplicity attractive, or put another way, marketing it, I am always most compelled by the happiness studies (showing that once you pass a certain threshold of material comfort, you don’t really gain more happiness with more money or stuff). The cultural tide, however, will probably respond more quickly to an economic downturn.

  5. I would love to live in cohousing, but can’t afford it — and never will be able to unless some gets built on the government subsidized co-op plan, where you pay $4000 down and then 1/3 your income each month.

    MJ
    visit my blog at http://butisitpc.wordpress.com

  6. Thanks for your comment, MJ. Are you making a comment about what I wrote, or about the fact that I live in cohousing? I don’t think I ever claimed that cohousing was the same as voluntary simplicity, nor have I claimed that cohousing is affordable. I’m not sure in what spirit your comment was intended.

    I think you should know, at the very least, that I don’t think cohousing is perfect, or The Answer, and that I’m often quite ambivalent about it, including the part about affordability issues.


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