My life began, like all humans, as a simpleton. I was a child. Then a kid. It was all pretty simple (a good thing since I was a simpleton) until junior high, but that was a million miles away when I was a child. Junior high was only complicated because of relationships – and girls. 😉 Things didn’t complicate it so much because as long as I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb among my peers, I was pretty good. Besides, we were middle-class and so were most of the kids I knew.
I didn’t grow up really making a distinction between the economic prowess of somebody’s parents. In grade school my best friend, Terry lived right across the street from the school in a very modest little frame house. I knew his family wasn’t as well off as mine, but it had no impact on my relationship with him, or how I viewed him. It never crossed my mind that my family was somehow better, smarter, more clever, or anything else.
But let’s not start with the past…let’s jump to the present. My son recently turned 42, which prompted me to think about the span between my 42 and my current age, 65. Leaning Toward Wisdom began when I was 42. Twenty-three years is a long time.
At 42 I was, like my son, hitting the prime of my professional life. But my life was also growing increasingly complicated. My son was turning 19…so we were in the throes of kids entering college. Junior high kids cost more than elementary school kids. High school kids cost even more. And college kids may cost the most because of college costs…but our kids worked, too…so I’m not sure. Oh, and add the cost of sports during high school and I’d guess it’s likely a toss-up between high school and college expenses. At least for us. But I haven’t analyzed it. No matter, financially things naturally grow increasingly more complicated as the kid’s age. And as we parents age.
Enter a bigger house, a nicer neighborhood – all demanding more money upfront and more money ongoing. Enter more cars, more insurance, more maintenance…more complexity.
As kids grow up and enter adulthood life grows more complicated because lives are growing more independent. This is exactly what we want as parents, but it’s not a simple or easy thing. Especially when your son tells you he’s going to leave and move to another state. But you do what you have to do, say what you must, and grind your way through the sadness, sorrow, and worry. Then sometime later, he comes back home and your spirits soar, you feel like you can breathe again and if you’re like I was, you dive as fully into being present for your kids like never before (and it’s not like I wasn’t before, but now it was different).
These are complicated years as you attempt to help your kids navigate the unchartered waters of their own lives, in search of their own independence – something we had always tried to help them pursue, especially from high school forward. Birds leaving the nest is a great thing – a terrific achievement. Watching them – admiring them – figure it out was always worthwhile, even during the biggest challenges. We were in it together with a united purpose – preparing them for life in the real world. Preparing them to stand on their own, exercising wisdom to figure it out – and to do it all while putting God first.
Those weren’t easy years except financially. We were fortunate to have a good income and mostly we didn’t fret about money. But we weren’t foolish or stupid either. As I’ve said before, cash-flowing life was our way of life so we were never tempted to live beyond our means. Did we buy some things foolishly? Of course. Did we make some financial mistakes? Yes, I did – most notably trusting a business deal that cost us $50,000 due to my idiocy – something I’ll never quite get over thanks to the betrayal of a friend. But these things happen and I mostly got past it, thanks in large part to the fact that such an amount – while large – didn’t impact our lives. There were times in our life when $100 would have made a big difference. So I was thankful we had it to lose without much consequence. Financially at least!
But life consists of more than money and things. Complexity comes in other ways. Figuring out where you fit in the world, who you want to go through this world with – these can be complexities with further reaching consequences than money. Money problems can be more easily solved by making more or spending less or doing both at the same time. I don’t minimize those problems though because my wife and I have known struggles. We’ve made big sacrifices to climb our way out of problems. Even though most or much of life has been fairly good financially, it hasn’t been that way 100% of the time. And I’m thankful for the lessons learned in the struggle. Money problems – at least in our experience – have been more easily addressed with straightforward, heavy disciplined, pragmatic tactics. Humans are a whole lot more complicated.
A more modest lifestyle means financially, so I’m going to start there even though I’ve just admitted that humans can create more complexity than money. Truth is, both of them can be difficult to figure out.
When I say “financially” I also mean stuff, possessions, because possessions were money before they were possessions.
When I was a kid selling stereo gear I’d spend money with the thought, “What did I have to sell (I worked on straight commission) to buy this?”
My first job selling hi-fi equipment paid me 10% of the gross sale amount on loudspeakers. So if I sold a pair of $300 speakers, I’d earn $30. Pretty good. Actually, it was great. But you didn’t sell a $300 pair of speakers every day. On my day off one week, I entered the shop to collect my paycheck. They happened to be busy and maybe short-staffed. I don’t remember, but I do remember being asked by the manager if I’d help this couple. Sure. Minutes later I was ringing up a complete system that included a $500 pair of speakers. Cha-ching! I made more on my day off than any other day I could remember up to that point. Co-workers were very unhappy with me. 😉
Knowing how many hours I had to put in, and how many shoppers I had to serve in order to make $30 or $50 or any amount, gave me a perspective as I plopped down $5 for an album. Or $10 for two albums. It always seemed weirdly strange to me how long it took me to make a dollar versus how quickly I could spend it. Plus, there was always something to having money in your pocket. I’d grown up watching old men pull huge wads of bills wrapped in a rubber band…and wondering why they carried so much cash. Later I’d learn they had money, some didn’t trust banks – they had survived The Great Depression – and they were negotiators really at a moment’s notice to buy something at a deep discount. Well, I had some money, trusted banks and was rarely on the prowl for something I could buy at a deep discount. Turns out many of those old men made as much money flipping stuff they could buy cheap because they had the cash. “I’ll give you $500 cash right now,” is the kind of lingo I’d hear growing up. Tempting to the seller, when the old man peels off 5 hundred dollar bills. Never mind that I always thought it was counterproductive though for the seller to see that you had way more than five of them in your pocket. But that never seemed to matter.
As I look around at my stuff – pre-purge – and see the 1500 or so books with prices of $5-25 each and figure an average price of $10…I think of how much effort was required to earn $22,500 – the investment made into those books. Books that I simply boxed up, carted to the local library, and donated. By the way, a few weekends ago they had a sale. Hardcover books were all $1.
Only I can judge if the $22,500 was worth it. Yes, it was. But only because I had the money to invest in the books and only because I read them. They outlived their usefulness for me. I was done. Finished with them. It was time for somebody else to find value in them. I could only realize that when I understood that holding onto them was now a burden, not a blessing. Time to let go. So I did.
I didn’t amass that many books overnight. Or even in the course of a single year. I accumulated them bit by bit, a book or two at a time. Sometimes more at one time. The collection grew as most unmanaged stuff does.
A more modest collection of books was now my goal. About four shelves worth. Modesty with books – for now – looks like a few shelves versus many bookshelves. It looks like less than 100 books versus 1,500 books. I really love the books I’m keeping. I didn’t love all the books I parted with, else I’d have kept them. Modest living isn’t about parting with things I love, but it’s about letting go of things I don’t love. Or things I’m indifferent toward.
An important fact, for me, is that my current pursuit of modest living is less about necessity and more about desire. But both are in play really because I know as we grow older things are going to continue to change. I should insert a word here in our discussion because it’s critical to the process – burden.
Burden is a two-sided issue. There is the burden on us and the burden we potentially could be to others. Let’s start with the burden on us.
BreakTheTwitch.com defines minimalism like this…
Minimalism is defined as a design or style in which the simplest and fewest elements are used to create the maximum effect.
Minimalism really had a start in the art and design world in the 1960’s. Physical minimalism has grown to encompass a lifestyle of seeing how little you can get by with. Hence, a backpack kind of mentality where everything you own is reduced to what you can carry with you. Not everybody approaches it that way. You can find as many varieties of minimalism as most anything else. To each his own.
I’m not really interested in seeing how little I can own, or how much I can get rid of, but I’m very interested in unburdening myself of stuff. That includes possessions, but it’s not restricted to that. It also includes things that may preoccupy me, or things I may fret about. It includes relationships that are harmful, toxic or unproductive. It includes pursuits that have proven unfruitful or unfulfilling. It’s an approach that I began to describe to best represent how such things were impacting me – burdensome. I was highly motivated to unburden myself of things that didn’t have high utility or high value.
Some might criticize such an approach as too lofty, too restrictive or too picky. I don’t care because it’s my life and I know what I’m aiming for – and why. The why is critical. It begins with spiritual health, then moves to mental or emotional health, and lastly physical health. Those are the priorities and include the spiritual life, my relationship life (mostly, with my wife and family), and my physical life, which encompasses my physical surroundings and my actual physical health. All three areas intersect. None of them is isolated from the others. For example, the only way to practice spiritual life is to put it into action. As the scriptures show us, words without actions are meaningless.
James 2:16 “and one of you say unto them, Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled; and yet ye give them not the things needful to the body; what doth it profit?”
It doesn’t profit anything. So spiritual living – like all other living – begins in our head when we make up our minds. But it moves forward by driving our behavior. Else, it’s worthless.
Emotional and mental health is largely in our heads, but it may be physical. Chemicals in our body do impact it. Bigtime. How we think and how we feel are urgent in every area of life. Both internal and external conditions impact it. So we have to be careful what we think and how we think – and we have to also guard our minds by who and what surrounds us.
Stimuli are all around us. Cell phones. Weather. People. Activities. To-do-lists. TV. Words. Pictures. Look around. Listen. Think. What do you feel? What things in life are making you feel the way you do? What are you thinking? Why are you thinking the way you do? Again, we’re bombarded every second with a stimulus that impacts our thinking. That thinking is what generates our feelings.
Sometimes our physical surroundings help generate a stillness in us. Other times, it creates chaos in our feelings. Or something in the middle somewhere.
I’ve tried for the past four years to get in deeper touch with these. All of these. It’s not easy work. Or for the faint of heart who lack the courage to face reality.
Four years is a long slog, but I know people who have slogged much, much longer. Hiking down the dark trail of a challenging time hoping you’ll eventually find a clearing – a place where you can get your bearings and recognize where you are – is exhausting, but you have to keep going. Going back isn’t the best option when your ideal outcome is somewhere ahead. You just don’t yet know where. Or how long it’ll take to get there.
Joshua Becker is a minimalist and expert on the practice of minimalism. He’s also the author of the blog, Becoming Minimalist – and the book, The Minimalist Home: A Room-by-Room Guide to a Decluttered, Refocused Life. I was reviewing one of his articles, excerpted from that book – Love The Home You Live In.
Joshua provokes thoughts about how we might employ simplicity and a more modest lifestyle. He asks a great question.
What if the problem is that we’re living in the homes that advertisers and retailers want us to have instead of the homes that deep down we really want and need?
I know from years of experience that by getting rid of the excess stuff in every room, you can transform your home so that you feel not only free from the stress of so much clutter around you, but also free to live a life focused on what you want to do with your limited years on this planet.
I can attest he’s right because it’s been my experience too – so far.
Modest living versus minimalism – is there a difference? I’m not sure. I’ve looked around online and found many discussions about people searching for a more appropriate description of how they’re trying to approach people. Like me, it seems there are quite a lot of folks looking for a simpler, easier way to live. They’re committed to ridding themselves of unnecessary stuff, but like me, they really don’t think of themselves as minimalists. Somebody suggested the description “spartan,” but that denotes lacking luxury or comfort so people quickly shot that down. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m inclined to lean into the moniker “minimalist.” I just think there can be varying levels of it, like most other things. For example, a minimalist might be an International traveler who enjoys carrying every possession in a single backpack or duffle bag. Or a minimalist might be a person living in a tiny home with possessions that are all high utility. Or a minimalist might be a person living in a large, elegant home with luxurious possessions devoid of abundance and clutter. If the backpacker is a 10 and the hi-end luxury homeowner is a 1 on the minimalism scale, I’m likely a 5 or 6. Still a minimalist, but more middle of the road. I’ve dubbed it “practical minimalism,” which I know is relative, but it’s how I think about it. Probably because my wife and I are both extremely practical people. So I’m sticking with that description.
Modest living is practical minimalism. We’re ridding ourselves of things we don’t use, don’t need and don’t love. What remains will, hopefully, be practical and modest. That means they’ll be high-utility and fewer in number. But we’ll love them. Else, they won’t make the long haul cut.
According to Joshua Becker, there are two big benefits of a minimalist home.
1) A minimized home is a better place to come home to. Without all the clutter, you’ll find that your home is more relaxing and less stressful. With fewer things competing for your attention, you’ll appreciate more and make better use of what you have. You’ll be able to focus more on the people and activities in the home that bring you joy. I know some people fear that minimizing their home will make it feel cold and impersonal, but I assure you, through minimizing, you’ll feel more at home than ever. It will be a place you anticipate returning to at the end of every day or relaxing in for a weekend.
2) A minimized home is a better place to go out from. After you minimize, you’ll be buying less stuff and spending less on repairs and maintenance, leaving you with more cash in your bank account—what I call a “minimalism dividend”—that you can use for other purposes. Even more important, because you’ll be spending less time and energy cleaning, organizing, and taking care of your possessions, you’ll have more time and energy left over for dreaming and planning for the future. With these extra resources, you’ll be better prepared to go out into the world, whether it’s for a day’s work, an evening’s entertainment, or a life-changing adventure.
You may disagree with his conclusions, but we’re pursuing a more modest lifestyle because we believe in what we’re doing. It’s the right decision for us.
Daily I’m growing more excited about ending this chapter of our lives and beginning the next one, a much more modest lifestyle. I know it’s the beginning chapter of the encore series of chapters, but I could have fully embraced it earlier in life. I just didn’t have the wisdom to pursue it. Or the knowledge. Today, I have the insights, experience, knowledge, and wisdom. Mostly, I have the determination – I’ve made up my mind. So has my wife.
When I mention the terms minimalism or modesty people automatically think of less and they think “less is less,” rather than “less is more.” Or even considering that less could be more. I’m finding out, so far, that it definitely is more. More simple. More enjoyable. More liberating. More joyful.
More time is one thing I’m looking forward to – and more freedom from homeowner to-do lists. The other night Rhonda and I were winding down the day at our usual late hour after a day’s work, followed by her diving into yard work and other chores. Lately, our lives have been pretty topsy turvy. I remarked that we’ve not been able to sit down to eat a meal together except for the rare times we go out to eat. “I’m looking forward to the next chapter where we get home and the only thing to do is whatever we want to do — and sometimes, doing it together.” Yes, I was being somewhat snarky, but I was also being 100% truthful. I’m anticipating early evening wind downs versus late night wind downs. The added bandwidth in our lives is exciting to think about. For days I’ve been imagining what we might pursue. Who knows? We’ll figure it out.
Modesty’s enemy is our desire to be impressive. We’re ashamed to drive 15-year-old cars because we’re worried about what others might think. Never mind that it’s paid for, runs fine, and gets us reliably from place to place. We pull into a parking spot slump-shouldered and fearful we’ll be spotted. And people will think less of us. So we buy more. More car than is necessary for us, but quite necessary so others will think more highly of us.
Or we shut out the noise in our head – and the real or imagined scorn of others – and we pursue what will bring us more peace and joy. There are many advantages of growing older, among them the reality that you just don’t care that much about the approval of others. Or their disdain either. 😉
My view may not be the best, or for you, but it is what it is. After 4 decades plus of marriage and the realization that it’s us – just the two of us – who are in control of our life together, we can build the life we most want or we can compromise. So far, we’ve both decided we’re not going to compromise. Instead, we’re chasing a more modest lifestyle because it’s liberating, joyful, and extremely practical.
We’re doing this for us, and for our family, too.
It’s important for us to provide as much value as possible for ourselves and our families. Our desires extend out from there, but those are the people who matter the most.
Rhonda and I are in complete agreement on how life works – and how it ought to work. That is, she and I are a family, the family that must be a priority. We love our tribe – the other 8 members of it. Those other 8 people represent two other families, each one takes priority within their own smaller circle. That’s how it is and how it should be. We wouldn’t have it any other way. We trained our kids to be independent and focus on their own families. There’d be disappointment if it didn’t happen. As grandparents, we have our place in the tribe, but within our tribe are 3 smaller tribes where the focus should not be on us.
The pursuit of a more modest lifestyle is important for us to fulfill the role we most want moving forward. We’re most important to each other and we’re lesser important to the rest of the tribe. And as time moves on we’re going to grow increasingly less important, rightfully so. It happens with all of us and only the most selfish older folks don’t understand what’s going on. The last thing we want is to grow older and become burdensome to anybody, especially to our family. A big part of our encore chapter is focused on remaining self-sufficient and then some for the rest of our lives.
That’s our new motto. Okay, it’s my new motto. But I’m pretty sure Rhonda will embrace it…’cause she already has by her actions.