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Commentary: Simple Gifts

By William Holston

Dallas, TX –

How much is enough? These days, many Americans are asking that question. I recently read an article about "Jack," an anonymous lawyer in Washington D.C., who blogs about voluntary simplicity. Jack described selling all of his non essential possessions, paying off his consumer debt, quitting his high pressure job and bicycling across America. He wrote: "Embracing simple living has completely changed my life. It has helped me challenge some deeply ingrained assumptions about the meaning of success and the essence of materialism."

Jack's not the only one. People all over the United States are using the downturn in the economy as an opportunity to reevaluate priorities. Debt driven consumerism's days may be numbered. Harvard Professor John Quelch writes "(W)atch out for a new brand of consumer..the middle-aged Simplifier...Out will go luxury purchases, conspicuous consumption, and a trophy culture."

My wife Jill and I fit that label. We comfortably raised our two sons in the 1600 hundred square foot house that we bought in 1986. We realize it's a mansion compared to how most of the world lives.

GK Chesterton once wrote: "There are two ways to get enough: one is to continue to accumulate more and more and the other is to desire less."

We're trying that. My car is reliable, old and paid for. We don't rush to buy the newest electronic gadgets. We replace our appliances, computers, and phones only when they need replacing. We don't have cable television.

By trying to simplify our time commitments, we're finding time for reading, walking, and having meals together. This summer we're reading a book together and discussing it over dinner. Instead of an expensive summer trip, we're doing some needed repairs to our home. I've discovered the fun in local free guided nature walks. Jill goes to the Library for books.

I once read, "Live simply so that others can simply live." By avoiding the pursuit of consumerism, we're able to afford to give more to worthy charities. Kurt Vonnegut once told a story about seeing Joseph Heller at a wealthy man's party. Vonnegut said, "Joe, doesn't it bother you that this guy makes more in a day than you ever made from Catch-22?" "No, not really," Heller said. "I have something that he doesn't have: I know the meaning of enough."

Simplification also involves getting rid of things. This summer I'm cleaning out my deceased parents' house. The house is filled with things that I'm just trying to dispose of. Is there any reason to keep a 53 year old tax return? This has motivated my wife and I to go through our house and recycle or donate things we don't need. If I didn't wear that shirt last year, it goes to Hope Cottage Resale. We can even designate the charity we favor.

The Shakers were known for creating beautiful furniture by utilizing simplicity as a value. This same virtue can guide our lives. The lyrics of the spare and beautiful Shaker hymn, "Simple Gifts," gives words that we attempt to live by.

'Tis the gift to be simple,
'tis the gift to be free,
'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.

That is the simple truth.

William Holston is an attorney in Dallas.

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