Last week I wrote an article that was somewhat critical of the #simpleliving movement. Before you get to thinking that I’m just a hater, let me stop and say: I heart simplicity. I’m always encouraging myself and others to scale down belongings, declutter, and let go. The movement has been very helpful to me on a personal level. Stick with me—I’m going to break it down into 3 parts so we can examine the high points and the pitfalls of this trend: call it “the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
Many of us young moms are drawn to this movement when we have our first baby and are perhaps trying for the first time to run a household on a single income. I know I was. These life changes had a way of making me re-evaluate what is important. We begin to rewrite our old definition of “enough.”
Ben and I first got married 11.5 short years ago. Those first several years, we were living off a pretty low income and trying to pay off school loans. In our second year, I got pregnant with our firstborn. I remember poring over lists of “baby must-haves” and “new baby checklists.” Babies sounded awfully expensive. Fortunately my own mom put it all in perspective with this deep minimalist insight: “The only must-have for a new baby is a functioning boob. Oh, and I guess a car seat. The rest is fluff.”
On our 2-year anniversary, along came Daniel, and I started a new chapter of life as a stay-at-home mom. There is a huge learning curve to being a stay-at-home mom. Even for someone like me who grew up with the blessing of a stay-at-home mother, those first few years were difficult. I spent all my time trying to figure out how to keep house, do laundry efficiently, breastfeed successfully, make meals, budget, motivate myself in a day that had no outside structure, and not go crazy being home (alone).
We also moved a lot. Actually, let me rephrase that. In our 11.5 years of marriage, Ben and I have lived in 10 different homes. I have a love/hate relationship with moving. I love that it forces me to evaluate every object in my home and ask myself if it’s really worth boxing it and moving it to a new location. I hate how it requires so much time and energy. But each time, I was determined to travel lightly, and not waste my life organizing or storing items that were meaningless to us.
A few more years in, a close aging relative became ill, and I travelled to Pittsburgh to clean out his house. In the preceding years, he had grown more and more reclusive, and when we entered his home, it was clear to see mental illness at work. His house was crammed with worthless knickknacks, books, clothes and office supplies. The front
door, stairs, dining table, and kitchen sink were connected by narrow paths, piled high on either side with junk. Many of the items were in their original packaging, never opened. His last years of life were spent accumulating junk, sifting through junk, and trying to find lost junk.
He was a well-educated, gifted, intelligent man, and this was how he had ended—a shadow of himself, wandering around, ordering and sorting junk. Many of the legal pads scattered through the house had journal entries like this:
2/12 am. Smoked 2 cigarettes. Down from 4 yesterday. Spent 2 hours trying to find the gift I bought for Mary Lou. Where did I put it? I remember buying it. I hoped to go to the post office later today. Perhaps I already sent it. If I find it, I will go tomorrow.
I wept for the sad reality of these entries. How could a man so high in my esteem, have sunk to a life like this? It took us days to clean out the house. We rented an enormous dumpster, sold thousands of books by the pound, donated van-loads of items, and trashed the rest. I vowed to myself that I would never let possessions possess me like he had. I vowed that I would never allow things to displace people in my life.
Back at home, I noticed how much of my life was spent accumulating and maintaining things. I may not have spent hundreds of dollars on shopping sprees at our local mall, but I was a thrift store addict. I loved to find the name brand items for myself, our home, and our babies at a fraction of the cost. I loved the thrill of the treasure hunt.
Then, there was the maintenance: stain-treating baby clothes (necessary work, I know), organizing craft supplies, moving mementos from one storage closet to another to make more efficient use of our limited space. And I knew my friends and peers lived the same way. We may not have been packrats, but we haunted Craigslist furniture listings like a junkie looking for his next fix. We pored over pictures of organized closet systems on Pinterest, and brainstormed ways to pack away kids clothes in an accessible way.
Enter: the #simpleliving movement.
Its message presented a different goal altogether. Instead of always trying to get the most bang for your buck, they suggested not buying all the things. These blog posts and podcasts rang true for me—it encouraged me to ignore advertising. It told me to clear out excess in my home, to use what I have, to live at or below my means. It valued people and experiences over possessions, memories over mementos, beauty over fashion, comfort over affluence. It was the sound of sanity.
As children get older and more babies are born, things only multiply. But another aspect of clutter emerges: busy schedules.
If you’re anything like me, you find yourself pulled in a thousand different directions by competing interests. Our time and energy is limited and valuable to toddlers, husbands, employers, churches, schools, advertisers, social causes—the list goes on. There are endless demands and opportunities. It feels impossible to know who should takeprecedence over what. And yet, we know that the Christian life calls us to a singular focus.
Again, the #simpleliving movement provides a lonely voice of reason in this noisy world. It reminds us that our children should have childhoods. A novel concept, right? It tells us that the value of our lives lies not in how many activities we can cram into a 24-hour period, but in the meaningful moments made in those 24 hours. For the most part, children do not need specialized coaching, private tutoring, and accelerated tracks. Children need room to grow and explore under the watchful eye of their own parents.
To some extent, the #simpleliving movement came to my rescue. It broke down a lifestyle into bite-size chunks, and emphasized an attitude of contentment when the world was peddling possessions and achievements. It held up a quiet heart instead of full closets and calendars. It’s a constant tension—I haven’t perfected the art of simple living or discovered the secret to a manageable schedule, and I certainly haven’t finished my lessons in contentment. I still have a heart that grumbles and wants #allthethings and looks for meaning in all the wrong places. But the #simpleliving movement has provided much-needed sign posts along the way, pointing me (usually) in the right direction.
Next, we’ll take a look at where the #simpleliving movement goes bad.