What’s all this hype about “voluntary simplicity”? Duane Elgin’s 1981 book Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich put a name to something that had already been gaining momentum in the preceding decades. Elgin noticed a societal trend: a good number of people were more and more fed up with the overtly commercial culture that began to inform almost all aspects of their lives. The “fatted calf” was no longer saved for the special occasion; it was making its way to the butcher’s shop on a daily basis. Elgin noticed that a whole baggage of problems was accompanying this materialistic excess. To list some of the problems Elgin names: losing sight of what is truly most important (the interior life; friendships); the development of a culture of wastefulness, a drastic increase in environmental abuse (to sustain such a demand, something needs to give); and, closely related to the first one, an unhealthy craving for more stuff.
It is true that these are not new problems. Elements of all of these can be seen in earlier years. To solve this problem, Elgin proposes that we need to re-evaluate our truest values, and what our material excess is doing for us. Is it enhancing our quest to discover God, ourselves, and others? Is it enabling us to be more open to the spiritual dimension of our lives? Or, is it in fact the opposite that is happening?
Elgin’s findings are nothing new, either. Voluntary simplicity has been around for millennia, starting from the traditions of the Buddhist monks and Old Testament prophets (see Elijah’s “simple garments” in 2 Kings 1:7-8) and continuing in the West with the second and third century Christian monks and nuns. The principle working in all of these is the same: once we allow ourselves to be “obsessed” – or “possessed” – by material possessions, we start to lose track of the most important things in our lives, such as God and our neighbour.
Monks and nuns took vows. One of these was and still is the vow of poverty. Voluntary simplicity strongly borrows from this school of thought. Not only is there an invitation for the monk, nun, or hermit to a simple life, but for everyone. Everyone benefits from voluntary simplicity, if only we had the courage to try it and see for ourselves what it’s like.
What is “voluntary simplicity”, then? I suppose you have already figured it out for yourselves. It is not a complex matter. Voluntary simplicity is living with the bare minimum. It means having all you need for a healthy life, and not going overboard. It means realizing that life is not defined by what we have, but by who we are, what we do with our life, and by the human relationships that we have. It means reducing frivolous things that boggle us down.
For those who are familiar with the vow of poverty, voluntary simplicity is the lay person’s “vow of poverty”. It is a radical commitment to following Christ poor, a commitment that can be undertaken by both the believer and non-believer for its aim is to set us free from the bondage of unhealthy attachments to material things; you don’t have to be a believer to experience this freedom. Moreover, both single and married people can embrace this. It does not mean selling all we have, giving it to the poor, and living on the streets, however.
Within reason – and with a discerning heart – we can all enter upon this road by incorporating simple changes into our lives that are not too drastic. We can come to notice a shift in our approach to the created world even after these small changes. Once we “get the hang of it”, other changes are easier and bring even more spiritual fruit.
Here are a couple of simple examples that come to mind:
- Cell phones. Many of us need them for work and for daily tasks. That’s fine, but do we need to get the latest model every time a new one is released?
- Cars. If we live in a city that has decent public transport, how about taking the subway or bus instead of driving?
- Televisions. Do we need the biggest wide screen TV and the 300 channels?
- Noise. How about some silence here and there? We’re bombarded by stimuli as we go through the day. Setting some time aside for silence is also a way of simplicity; it is for many a prerequisite for entering into prayer.