Thankfulness vs. Desire
It felt a little funny not to post yesterday about what I am thankful for. I very much enjoyed my 30 day thankfulness project and the fact that, even on less than easy or “bad” days (of which there were only two), I was still able to find things for which to be thankful.
In the college essay I shared yesterday, there is a point where I discussed that the greatest obstacle to adopting a life of simplicity is desire.
Segal states that we, ourselves, are “the primary obstacle that stands in the way of a politics dictated not to expanded incomes but to expanding the opportunities for simple living” (213). Choosing voluntary simplicity requires a shift in how we think and perceive personal wants and personal needs. Simple livers often cannot, on the surface, be distinguished from those who live in poverty. Many people would not be willing to accept such a lifestyle, “don’t want to give up what [they] have” (Segal 25), and “[i]ndeed, most of [them] want even more” (Segal 25).
I was thinking quite a bit today about desire in contrast to thankfulness. I know that there are quite a few things about our lifestyle that others cannot understand or imagine adopting in their own lives. Considering giving up the car is a big one, but there is so much more. Our food choices, not having a television, cloth diapering, the size of our house, and the size of our family income (which is by choice) are all things that have been questioned by family members at one time or another. I know none of my pre-Nora friends, family, or acquaintances actually thought we’d stick with cloth diapering (save for maybe Laura). After visiting, most of my family members think it would be crazy for us to live in our current house with more than one child, though I think it could be managed just fine. It’s funny how things work. Before I lived in this house, I, too, lamented the small space and all of the things we had to sell or give away to move here. Now I walk down the street and wonder what one would do with the square-footage in most of the houses here.
It’s all relative. Since moving to Nantucket, I’ve learned a lot about how much I enjoy having time with Nora, being short distances from beaches and living mostly on my own schedule. I do still want things, don’t get me wrong, but I think I have gained a much better understanding of the difference between want and need, and I am better able to recognize the benefits of a lifestyle centered around people and experiences rather than things. Every day I don’t go out and apply for a full-time job, I am choosing lifestyle over things. I am very thankful for having become this way.
I am also thankful for all that we do have; all that we are free to choose. I think sometimes, people lose the world perspective and instead see their own life in comparison to their peers. Do I have the same things as the Browns down the street. Am I as happy in my marriage as or with my job or my kids as so-and-so from college or church or work. It’s easy to look at your life in a bubble, forgetting that relative to the majority of the world, even our woes are something many people would beg for.
I am guilty of that. I see my college and high school friends buying houses and think about how we may never own a home if we stay here. I get annoyed at the fact that I can’t go crazy at the grocery store if I want…and oh boy, do I want. Where we are financially, making due but not getting ahead, feels frustrating a lot of the time.
When you don’t see extreme situations in person, it’s easy to forget how easy we have it.
Today, I was reminded of the extremes. I saw two news stories which really resonated with me. The first was a 60 Minutes piece about children living in poverty in America. Apparently, there are more than 16 million of them, the most since 1962, and many of them are homeless; living in cars, because the shelters are full. The family featured was most certainly heartbreaking, but also amazing at the same time. I don’t know if I could find a better example of thankfulness than 15-year-old Ariel, who had an unbelievably optimistic outlook on her life. The second was a New York Times article about women’s rights and customs in Afghanistan, specifically regarding rape and, as this article details, the fact that women who report rape are often jailed and/or forced to marry their rapists. Arial is right to be optimistic and thankful for what she has. We all should be thankful in contrast to such horror.
The desire Segal describes and the consumerism that most Americans are taught to celebrate are sickening in light of such news stories and similar happenings around the world. Yet, these stories make little differences in American’s lives. We see them, we talk briefly about the atrocity of such situations, we might even donate money or food, and the best of us will volunteer our time to try to make a difference. But beyond that, the news story is quickly forgotten and we do little to change our own lives or truly reflect on how lucky we are for the things we do have, the people in our lives, and the rights and freedom in our country. We even have a government which encourages individuals to amass wealth and material goods, rather than supporting their neighbors so all can live a healthier and happier life.
When I think about why I’m not very excited about Christmas anymore, it’s because the non-religious/mainstream version of the holiday represents exactly that: striving for more and more stuff, under the delusion that with it comes happiness. I wish more people would stop and look around them to see how much they already have, and realize that happiness doesn’t come from boxes under a tree bought with borrowed money. I wish they would be willing to make concessions in their lifestyle that would benefit others as well as themselves. I wish we, as a nation, desired less and gave thanks more. And I wish that I knew how to make changes like that happen.
It’s been interesting reading your recent posts. You’ve given me a lot to think about in the upcoming holidays. I also want to praise your inciteful, well-written college paper. One question: What is the purpose of the websites you are designing for the consumer on the internet? What do they promote? Or, are you selective about what you choose to design for income?
That’s a great question, Donna. I haven’t built any commercial shopping sites, and I would be choosy about doing so. For example, in the future, I hope to have an online store for Papoose, but I see that as different from mainstream shopping (Babies R Us or Motherhood) because the products will be more necessity than want, will be environmentally friendly, organic, and/or made locally where possible, and also because they will help to support parents in living a more simple life. For example, cloth diapers that are a greeener and more economical choice; baby carriers instead of strollers; nursing products which support mothers in breastfeeding successfully rather than formula feeding; wooden high chairs that grow with the child to eventually become an adult’s chair. I would never sell cribs, for example, because I feel like they are unnecessary (not bad just not a need). All of these things fit into the box of simple living. I would most certainly use this same sort of analysis when deciding what customers I take on; I would never help someone to sell a product or service that I don’t support — I can’t imagine how desperate we would have to be financially for that to happen.
The business websites that I have done, include: work while I was still in higher ed for the MAT at Bard College, an incredibly noble program and not-for-profit, anyway; restaurants, which I think can fit into the guise of simple living if it’s taken in the context of enjoying experience and life over things (of course, they aren’t vegetarian or 100% locally sourced, but I’m willing to bend on that because I know they do try — Chris and I have had many discussions about restaurants and sustainable/ethical food politics) and because ultimately it’s food, not a material thing; and a baby rental site, which is the small business of a friend, and could be construed as supporting simple living because it helps people to travel here more sustainably (if they don’t need to bring a lot of things, hopefully they’ll leave their car on the mainland). Currently, I am building websites for a holistic healing start-up in NY, my friend Margarete who raises thousands of dollars for Cystic Fibrosis, and a women’s business owners professional association.
Right before reading your message I was on Facebook and getting slightly annoyed by a posting by an acquaintance lamenting how her family purchased a house 20 years ago for $127,000. Ten years ago house was worth about $274,000 and they refinanced. 6 years ago house was worth $325,000 and they refinanced again. Now, given the state of the economy, their house is worth $176,000 and she’s upset that she not longer has any equity in her home as they owe more than it’s worth. What I wanted to respond, but didn’t was – why did you refinance again and again for the full amount of what they we’re telling you it was worth? Why not just pay down the mortgage and SAVE your money for those things you might want – newer car, college savings, swimming pool… instead of grabbing a big load of cash fast? They could own their home free and clear now instead of having negative equity and big monthly payments…
Anyway, everyone has a different circumstance and maybe this person really did need that refinance money, but I think this speaks well to the whole needs vs. desires debate. Yes, you need a place to live. Do you need a 300K+ to do that, no. Owning a home isn’t the be all and end all – if you like where you live and it’s less expensive to rent than own, then it’s a no-brainer. Who cares if you rent on Nantucket for the next 20 years? If you’r living life the way you want to, and you’re reasonably satisfied, that’s all that matters. And when those parameters start to change, and you feel that they’re no longer working for you, then you’ll know it’s time to more into a different place.
You are definitely right, Laura, and I think you would be a great housing role model with the choices you have made. I’ll admit, the ownership versus renting thing is something that does bother me (more than it should). Part of it is because of that fact that we haven’t always had the best landlords or rentals. Our Milton house was great, but even it had its quirks. It would just be nice to be free to do what we want or to not have to sit around and wait for our landlords to step up and fix things. Our house right now is okay and I have gotten to the point where I can see more of the good than bad, but it’s not ideal (more than just cosmetic… currently I only have one stove burner that lights without a lighter and the landlord says, “Some day I guess I will just have to buy a new stove”). And, of course, owning a house, whether rightly or wrongly, is a status symbol and so we do experience some prejudice because of it.
Do you think owning a house and hopefully appreciating (for future sell) will help with Nora’s college education? (Other than college savings plans)
Possibly, but it is unlikely we would ever own a home through traditional means here on island. The median home price is over a million dollars. We may be able to qualify for some housing assistance programs, but those always have a price ceiling on the houses so that they will stay affordable.
love this post lady. you are always putting down in writing some of the thoughts floating around in my head, so much better than i ever could. and more importantly, not just talking it but walking the walk.
thanks for being so inspirational!
Thank you for such a kind comment, Jamie!
I stumbled on your blog because I follow the WSJ “Juggle” and saw it posted in a comment. I’ve long been a proponent of living simply, but am working on applying it more in my day to day vs. just conceptually. I’ve never been a big shopper – I work full time (but work from home), and with a 9 month old there just isn’t a lot of time to browse in stores. But it’s interesting because for my daughter’s first Christmas, I wanted to give her 3 gifts, and I could only come up with 2! I could have bought more toys, but she has all that she needs, and I’m even giving away a few new unopened toys to a charity toy drive. At the end of the day she won’t ever know those toys existed, but someone else who doesn’t have any toys and has a much harder life then my little Faith does, will be blessed by them. But your blog has given me a ton of perspective, and I really appreciate that. Since I work from home, and our family has 3 cars for 3 drivers, I recently after reading about your blog proposed to my husband that me and my mother-in-law, could share a car. Not sure if it will work, but I had never even considered it until I read your blog.
Thanks for the perspective! Good luck in your business as well. I nursed my daughter for 9 months, and recently stopped. But I’m so thankful for the 9 months we had, and maybe with the 2nd I’ll try a little harder to get to the 1 year point.
Hi Susan, Thank you for linking over from the Juggle and for leaving a comment! I’m glad to hear that my blog gave you something to think about — that’s the greatest compliment. You’re right about the Christmas gifts. We are very sparse with ours, intentionally, partially for the reason you mentioned. For Nora’s first Christmas (she was 3.5 months old), we gave her a nice wooden/organic cotton teether and a hand-me-down jumper I got from my boss at work. It seemed silly to go all out when she wasn’t going to remember it. We still keep things small because she is the only grandchild with 5 sets of grandparents and 3 sets of great grandparents. Even with only one gift from each she would have more than she needs, and I’ve learned that her grandparents rarely send just one thing!
Good luck with the car. I hope it works out for you! We loved going down to one car and now we’re enjoying the no-car experiment, too. It’s surprising how easy it is, at least given where we live.