Whatever Happened to "Simplify, Simplify?"

May 2, 2004
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


from Walden Henry David Thoreau

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and have close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or, if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

… Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be at two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail…. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.

…A man is rich in proportion to the things which he can afford to let alone.

from The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don' t Need Juliet Schor

The most striking feature of household spending in modern America is its sheer volume. The typical middle-to-upper-middle-class household occupies more than two thousand square feet of floor space, owns at least two cars, a couple of couches, numerous chairs, beds, and tables, a washer and dryer, more than two televisions, a VCR, and has cable. The kitchen contains a conventional oven, a microwave, a food processor, and so many pots, pans, dishes, cups and glasses, storage containers, kitchen utensils, and pieces of flatware that they aren' t even counted. Elsewhere in the house are a personal computer and printer, telephones, an answering machine, a calculator, a stereo or CD player, musical instruments, and many pieces of art – in addition to paintings and reproductions, there are decorated items such as vases, plates and statuettes, photographs in frames, and knickknacks. In the bathroom are a hair dryer, a scale, perhaps an electric toothbrush or shaver, and cabinets overflowing with towels, shampoos, conditioners, face creams, and other cosmetics. The closets are stuffed with clothes and shoes of all types: dresses, suits, pants, shirts, sweaters, coats, hats, boots, sneakers, flats, pumps, walking shoes, patent leathers, and loafers. And don' t forget the jewelry. In addition to watches, the diamond ring, and other high-value items, there' s usually a large collection of costume jewelry…

The family room is filled with books, videos, tapes, CDs, magazines, and more photos and knickknacks. The floors are covered with rugs or carpet, and throughout the house are scattered other pieces of furniture… Stored in the garage or basement is all the sports equipment, such as bicycles and skis, as well as luggage and totes, lawn and garden tools, and broken appliances….

THE SERMON "Whatever Happened to ‘Simplify, Simplify?"
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

When I was a kid I used to spend hours looking at photographs of people who lived in what I called "olden times." I was most interested in depictions of suffering and crisis: images of war, of deportation, of struggles to survive. This was more than morbid curiosity, I think. It was a kind of exercise in osmosis; I felt if I looked long enough at these images of people enduring hardship I might somehow learn their secrets. Above all, I wanted to absorb from them a sense of shared humanity so that if I ever found myself in a similar crisis, I would be able to call into myself a measure of their dignity and strength. Somehow I felt guilty about the tremendous physical comfort of my own life – we never worried about having enough to eat, or having shoes that fit, or shelter to keep out the cold. Neither did my family and I have to worry about storm troopers knocking down the door and hustling us away in the night. This had happened to other family members in olden times and not-so-olden times, so I suppose I had a vague kind of anxiety that the same thing could happen to us, even in the Promised Land of America.

Here' s what just about obsessed me about the images I concentrated on for such long minutes, hunched over National Geographics and Time-Life series books down in our large play room: people, whole families, leaving places forever and equipped with all of their worldly belongings in one small satchel, or a rucksack carried on the back. In one photo I will probably never forget, an entire village was being expelled from their home – such as you will remember happened to the people of Anatevka in "Fiddler on the Roof" – and the photograph, taken from some distance away, showed the whole lot of them sadly walking along with all their possessions, some pushing them in wheelbarrows, some carrying them around their necks on strings or in bundles. In the middle of the throng was a cart being pulled by horses, and atop the cart there was a bed, and in the bed was a very frail old man or woman all tucked in and warmly covered with bedclothes. In a bed on top of a cart, being pulled by horses.

Boy, did that get to me.

This preface is all my way of saying that I think it' s probably not the most effective approach to condemn Americans for our excessive materialism. We are a nation of immigrants, and I believe that therein lies our obsession with possessions and creature comforts. We are a nation of people who came from somewhere else, and I suspect that the ancestral memory of the privation in -- or the expulsion from -- another land (my own grandmother, for instance, never recovered from the trauma of her own crossing from Slovakia to Ellis Island) has a lot to do with how much Americans crave and covet material belongings. Possessions can represent security. For some, they are messages to the subconscious that say, "We are staying here. This is the land of milk and honey. Here we will have lots of stuff and put down deep roots and no one can make us leave, and we will never again head down the road with a rifle butt at our backs and holes in our shoes and one meager sack of belongings by our sides."

An ethic of simplicity and moderation is taught by almost all religions. Most faith traditions make it their business to remind us that, in so many words, you can' t take it with you so don' t bother building up material treasure while you live. Greed, if you will recall, is one of the seven deadly sins in the medieval morality scheme. "Thou shall not covet" makes it into the Ten Commandments. So what has happened? Spending is the new national pastime. "Retail therapy" is more than just a wry joke for many. Consumer debt is at record levels,

…[and although the] average hours of work have risen about ten percent in the last twenty-five years…. somewhere between a quarter and thirty percent of households live paycheck to paycheck…. in 1995 only 55 percent of all American households indicated they had done any saving at all in the previous year. … The story of the eighties and nineties is that millions of Americans ended the period having more but feeling poorer. (Schor, p 18, p 20)

Henry David Thoreau built his little cabin by Walden Pond in 1845 for about $28.00. He lived in it for over two years with a bed, a little writing table and two chairs. One for himself and one for company. Part of how he was able to embrace such simplicity was his personal commitment to non-conformity (he was one of the Concord Transcendentalists – friends with Emerson and Alcott and Margaret Fuller -- all of whom championed spiritual self-reliance as a foundational religious commitment). Another, less-known, aspect of Henry' s experiment in extreme simplicity was the support he received from friends and family. It' s not so bad to be a hermit when you have a literary reason for being so, and when Auntie comes regularly through the woods to bring you pie.

Nevertheless, I wonder what Thoreau would have to say to us now?

Juliet Schor and other sociologists tell us that we are in an unprecedented time of spending as a nation. Since the 1970' s, which marked the beginning of a phenomenal rise in earnings among the rich and very rich, (p 12), the era of conspicuous consumption has been off and running. Since that time, Americans at all economic levels report that they never have enough money to afford the things they say they need, which are often things they really actually want. Part of this syndrome is that with regular increase in salary comes increase in spending, with the result that someone who was living from paycheck to paycheck on $30,000 a year finds to his or her shame that they still feel the squeeze even when making several times that amount per year.

To use an example of creeping consumerism from my own life that may resonate with yours, ten years ago I neither owned nor wished to own a cell phone. The other day I looked at my five-year-old Nokia model and considered that it must be time to upgrade it to a snazzier new model. Why? The old one doesn' t get great sound, or last very long on battery power, and it sometimes falls apart. More than that, though, it doesn' t look cool any more. So I found myself considering a $100 expenditure for coolness factor. By the way, Cingular counts on me to feel this way; it has built an upgrade into its service contracts, and the company makes me believe they are giving me a good deal by "discounting" a phone that probably costs $10 to manufacture for ten times that much. I' m a customer of theirs so I get a "deal." On a product that I never initially wanted.

I am most certainly not alone. "Data from 1973, 1991, and 1996 reveal that a variety of consumer items are seen as necessities by an increasing number of people…. [in other words], "the list of things we absolutely have to have is growing." (p 15) Things that would have been considered luxuries twenty years ago are now on the must-have list.

Some of this sense of urgent desire for products is created by advertising, as you may have suspected, but more of it is created by our "reference group" -- those people whose values and lifestyles are similar enough to our own that we tend to behave similarly as consumers. We are social animals and therefore we all have a reference group, and we all look -- either consciously or unconsciously – to that group when making many of our own consumer choices. When it comes to acquiring material belongings, in other words, we never outgrow peer pressure. Kids may clamor for the ridiculously-priced sneakers endorsed by the big sports stars, but adults are just as likely to feel that their cars, computer equipment and kitchen design must be top designer brands and very up-to-date to be acceptable.

Competitive spending has always been a feature of the upwardly mobile, but the bad news is that because of mass media, and exposure to what the rich possess, we are now all upwardly mobile. It takes tremendous effort and critical engagement to push back against the relentless message of "bigger-better-faster-more" that permeates our market culture.

Since this sermon is one in a series that deals with mythologies, it is important to realize that so much of what we buy can be considered part of a mythology that has been created for us by Madison Avenue or by peer or reference groups. Watch commercials critically sometime, if you haven' t already. When was the last time you used your car to drive to the edge of the Grand Canyon, or to four-wheel it through the woods on a camping trip? Is that vehicle really all about independence and nature? Or is it a contraption that gets you, on most days, down Route 53 and through the Dunkin Donuts drive-through for coffee, and the kids to their friends' houses? Is that diamond bracelet for Mother' s Day really the only way to say, "I love you?" I know of at least one jewelry company that would like you to believe that it is (and please, if you were planning on getting that bracelet, don' t let me stop you!). Henry Thoreau wrote that a man is rich in proportion to the things which he can afford to let alone. If we can spend some time bravely confronting our attitudes about the things we feel we have to own, we may find ourselves becoming richer in the Thoreauvian sense.

Juliet Schor suggests eight principles to embrace for those seeking to escape the new consumerism. The first is to control desire, emphasizing product durability rather than novelty. The second principle is to make exclusivity uncool. In other words, what if we regarded those overpriced sneakers as tacky and ostentatious rather than hip? Or the latest bells-and-whistles televisions? The third principle is controlling ourselves, putting voluntary restraints on competitive consumption. What I like about this principle is that it can be practiced as in family groups or as a community. For example, my family is talking about not exchanging Christmas gifts this year, and using some of the money we would have spent to share vacation time this summer. A group of friends may agree to meet for their weekly lunch in a less upscale restaurant, or to commit to a financial limit on outings in general. The local PTA might organize parents to turn off the TV one week a month, or to encourage a spending limit for birthday parties.

The fourth principle is learning to both share and borrow what we do have, which I think is more common in small towns than in urban centers, and we do some of this through church connections. We might ask ourselves, for instance, does everyone on the block need a riding lawnmower? Does everyone in the carpool need his or her own copy of the newspaper, or can we share? Learning to share and to borrow is not only a good way to control spending patterns, it can often provide a way to connect to neighbors and friends. Some friends might get together weekly to watch a cable program instead of all feeling they have to subscribe to HBO.

The fifth principle is to be an educated consumer and a very critical viewer of commercials and print advertisements, questioning what fantasy or mythology is really being pitched to us in the form of a product. As part of this exposure of fantasy-peddling, we are encouraged to learn about economic justice issues, which have been part of a Unitarian Universalist commitment for many years. When we buy a fashionable outfit, are we willing to consider the sweatshop laborers in some far-off nation who slaved to make it for us? Perhaps the outfit might seem less desirable if we were so willing. When we stay in hotels on vacation or for business, are we comfortable knowing that the housekeepers who perfect our rooms in our absence are holding down two or three jobs just to make ends meet at home? (See Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich) Perhaps we might stay one less night and leave half of what we would have spent on the room as a tip for the cleaning staff. (Another hotel strategy that saves human labor and is environmentally sound is to hang up towels to dry, requesting that they not be replace, washed and bleached every day).

The sixth principle is to realize that spending is addictive, and to avoid "retail therapy." I think this needs no further expounding upon.

The seventh principle is to de-commercialize rituals. Downsize the holidays. Make more, buy less, and simplify celebrations.

Principle eight is to consider how much we have to work to afford the items we are considering purchasing, and to really think through if it is worth it to us. Consider that working harder creates more stress in our lives, leading us to spend more to buy things we believe will relieve that stress.

The final and ninth principle is the need for coordinated intervention, and for Juliet Schor that means making real government incentives to curb our consumerism, which she proposed might come in the form of more luxury taxes. She also points out that the expenditures of advertising agencies are absorbed by taxpayers, as advertising costs are deductible from corporate profits. "If this write-off were revoked, it' s likely there would be fewer ads, which nearly everyone but Madison Avenue agrees would be a good thing." (p 165)

Can we really make a change? If we do, won' t that destroy our economy? No, not if we make changes gradually (see Schor' s epilogue for further discussion of this concern). What might more concern us is, what will happen to our souls and to our culture if we do not change?

I leave you with this poem by Mary Oliver, called What Was Once The Largest Shopping Center in Northern Ohio Was Built Where There Had Been a Pond I Used to Visit Every Summer Afternoon:

Loving the earth, seeing what has been done to it,
I grow sharp, I grow cold.

Where will the trilliums go, and the coltsfoot?
Where will the pond lilies go to continue living
their simple, penniless lives, lifting
their faces of gold?

Impossible to believe we need so much
as the world wants us to buy.
I have more clothes, lamps, dishes, paper clips
than I could possibly use before I die.

Oh, I would like to live in an empty house,
with vines for walls, and a carpet of grass.
No planks, no plastic, no fiberglass.

And I suppose sometime I will.
Old and cold I will lie apart
from all this buying and selling, with only
the beautiful earth in my heart.

Simplify, simplify. Amen.