COMMENTARY: Finding the simple pleasures in life

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c. 1996 Religion News Service

(Dale Hanson Bourke is the author of”Turn Toward the Wind”and the publisher of Religion News Service.)

(RNS)-For some it comes as an epiphany, a sudden realization that the stuff of life has outpaced the substance.

Others move toward it gradually, growing tired of the”shop ’til you drop”mentality that no longer seems satisfying.

Whatever the case, what started as an individual choice has become a national movement. Economists and sociologists agree that a fundamental shift is taking place in our consumer economy.

Materialism is out. Simplification is in.

Although it sends shivers down the spines of beleaguered retailers, the trend should warm the hearts of ministers, priests and rabbis. What is bad for the economy could be the best thing for our souls.”There are two ways to get enough,”the writer G.K. Chesterton pointed out early this century.”One is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.” During most of the 1980s and well into the ’90s we have made a valiant attempt at the former. Most Americans bought what they wanted, not just what they needed. Advertisers aimed at our insatiable appetites for newer, better, sexier and more opulent.

New houses featured bigger closets and attics to attract buyers who had outgrown their previous dwellings. Storage units grew in popularity, filling with the overflow of our lives.

And then something changed. It started with individuals who said,”Enough is enough.”Some were burned-out achievers who were tired of trying to keep up with the latest fashion trends. Others were environmentalists who saw what our garbage was doing to the world. And still others were people of faith who recognized that materialism was a threat to their souls.

Last summer a poll commissioned by the Merck Family Fund to measure patterns of consumption documented that 28 percent of Americans had voluntarily cut back on income to improve their lifestyle during the past five years.

The Trends Research Institute, headquartered in Rhinebeck, N.Y., cited simplicity as one of the top 10 trends of 1996.”We grew up with the illusion that you are going to find happiness with material accumulation,”said Gerald Celente, director of the institute.”And we’ve found out that this is just not true.” Which brings us back to Chesterton and the second option: to desire less.

In a society where shopping is considered a major recreational pastime, desiring less will take some coaching and hand-holding.

All of this simplifying is fueling a cottage industry of books, workshops and newsletters.”Your Money or Your Life”(Penguin) has sold 350,000 copies, despite the fact that the authors urge readers to get the volume from the library, not the bookstore.

So many new titles are being issued on the subject that some bookstores are marking out a”Simplifying”subsection for the genre, which was previously scattered among economics, self-help and philosophy.”Simple Living,”a newsletter based in Seattle, is rapidly adding subscribers, as is”The Tightwad Gazette,”published in Leeds, Maine.

So what do all of these pages of advice have to say? In some cases, they offer testimonials of former shopaholics. Most extol the virtues of living with less and enjoying it more.

Some offer practical advice on paying off loans, cutting back food bills, and learning to live with fewer clothes.

And many hint at something more transcendent, even spiritual.

In”The Freedom of Simplicity”(Harper), Richard Foster suggests that simplicity should be sought for its ability to enhance the spiritual, as well as a response to the poverty of much of the world.”Simplicity enables us to live lives of integrity in the face of the terrible realities of the global village,”he points out.

Janet Luhrs, editor and publisher of”Simple Living,”says in a recent issue,”Once you reduce your desires … you have time and space for a more peaceful, joyful life.” Peace and joy. Not bad replacements for the possessions spilling out of our closets. And not new concepts, either.

What is considered a current wave to pollsters is as old as the advice of Jesus to the rich young man in the Gospel of Luke:”Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” For those of us who have accumulated more earthly treasures than we can enjoy, it is a challenge worth accepting.


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