Inching Toward Simplicity: Pragmatics and Prose

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Enforced Simplicity


For pragmatic reasons (see Prose below), my pragmatics section is short and to the point this week.

Peter Menzel’s Material World: A Global Family Portrait is a book worth viewing. Photographs from around the globe capture statistically “average” families and their possessions, a thought-provoking visual reflection on the material disparities in the world. Viewing these photos also led me to think of all those who fall below the statistical average in their already impoverished countries.


I skipped my blog last week, and need to summon extra energy for this week’s entry. But I feel compelled to write, to capture the swirl of emotion and disjointed thoughts that have arisen from an unexpected turn, voluntary simplicity thrown onto its ear.

The top floor of my mom and brother’s house, just 15 minutes away, is irrevocably charred from a sudden and voracious house fire. Both Mom and John escaped without harm, and even their little dachshund Lilly got out unscathed. But the house is unlivable at least for several months.

Here, suddenly, we have an ugly, involuntary simplicity. It is ugly because of the exhaustion that comes from restocking even the most basic of supplies, soap to prescription medication to stamps. It is ugly because of the mental strain of rethinking permanent living arrangements, wondering where to live in the interim, finding a place for Lilly (no pets at hotels or rentals), etc, etc. When will the shock of being even temporarily homeless wear off, when will the strain of reconfiguring every aspect of day-to-day life lift?

Before my family recomposed itself, started the long lists for the first trips to Walmart and the like, I gathered what I could to help my family have some basic comforts. Some basic “starter” outfits, toiletries, pens, pads, utensils, snacks and beverages. It felt important to add simple pleasures: books and magazines to leaf through, my mom’s perfume, family photos. We pulled mom’s rosary and a sentimentally valuable bracelet out of the ash and rubble. There was nothing retrievable from my brother’s room: he must start entirely from scratch.

Despite feeling overwhelmed, my Mom was quick to point out that she had an expanded sympathy for the Katrina survivors, who had little or no resources to fall back on. An insurance check should help cover some, but not all, of my family’s losses. But, even knowing this, the emotional aftermath feels unrelenting.

There are lessons here. The first for me: I have so much to give away. My mom and I are roughly the same size, so I gathered clothes and shoes, jacket, pocketbook, sleepwear that I will not miss. John is much larger than my husband, but still we managed socks and jacket, tons of toiletries leftover from business trips.

Another important lesson, one my family has missed during past tragedies like the loss of my father and the disabling mental illness of one member: ask for and accept help. A mention of the fire at a church consignment store where my mom replaced some of her wardrobe brought out immediate generosity in the form of a big discount. My embarrassing tears at work one day had my coworkers gathering around me, quick to offer solace, quick to go further and take up a collection for my family, complete strangers to them. Despite the loss we remain blessed in so many ways.

All of this leads to thoughts of those in the world who seem permanently devastated: the impoverished, the flood survivors, orphans of war and genocide—the people who, in addition to having have no economic resources, have no one to turn to. How little they live on, how much small sacrifices from each of us might make a difference for them. In Voluntary Simplicity, Duane Elgin writes that those who gravitate toward this practice tend to feel a compassionate concern for the world’s poor; a simpler life fosters a sense of kinship with people around the world and thus a concern for social justice and equity in the use of the world’s resources…Tend to involve themselves with compassionate causes…
My attitude toward intentional simplicity is deepening, extending beyond the desire to have less clutter, toward living with less so that others may have more. I know it is not that simple: it is important not to assume that cutting back on a handful of luxuries will change the world. There are politics to be aware of, injustices that must be corrected. But certainly the impulse is one in a good direction, one heightened by my own small personal taste of deprivation over the last two weeks.


At 3/12/2007 1:24 AM, Blogger Elderwoman said...

Katherine, thank you for writing about this. Just the story alone illustrates the fact that, despite the greed and competitiveness of our materialistic culture, compassion is alive and well in most people still. It is always heartening to see that confirmed.
But you have gone beyond the story, drawing out the lessons to be learned from it and showing how an orientation towards simplicity can take us way beyond the mere impulse to shed some clutter into a whole new way of being in the world.


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