One Story of Simplicity – Reimagining the Good Life

‘Living in this intentional community of people with varied abilities was the first step away from a gainful career and towards voluntary poverty.’

Othmar F. Arnold

My journey started more than fifty years ago in Switzerland. I was born the second child of four to parents who grew up still deeply embedded in the cultural fabric of a conservative Catholic society. The first fourteen years of my life I grew up comfortably and quite sheltered in a small town. My family was the perfect family: dad was working as an engineer (he was the first in his family to benefit from higher education, thus escaping the rural poverty of the peasant life or the hardship of the working class experienced by his forefathers). Mom stayed home after marriage, but before has mastered a professional qualification and has earned a living on her own (this was also a first in her family that had also very recent rural roots – her father was born into a migrant farm worker family with no possessions and very limited rights). They were very proud of their achievements and upward mobility in social class. They also had grand expectations for her children who were to be given all opportunities to make it to the top of modern society.

At age fourteen, I woke up from the dream. The construct of the perfect family vanished, and I started to question the personal and social realities around me. In high school, I was involved in discussion circles and activist groups that explored all major alternatives to the church mandated world order that still dominated our upbringing and education. Liberation theology was one of the movements I explored. We saw the historical Jesus as the proto socialist.

When I was eighteen, after finishing high school, I left the Roman Catholic church. The same year, I became a conscientious objector. After watching part of the TV mini series of “Holocaust” with Meryl Streep, I was no longer able to participate in the preparatory training to become a fighter pilot. I was also no longer able to enjoy the sportsmanship and laurels of a marksman. I wrote a lengthy defense ahead of my conscription into mandatory military service, pointing out the irreconcilable discrepancies between my personal beliefs and my civil duties.

My existential search also led me to abandon my childhood dream of becoming an archeologist. Instead, a calling to live “a different, greener life” became audible. But I had no idea and no support on how to go about this faint calling. I became convinced that I needed to care for the planet at the same time as I produced my own food. I opted for a plain life, became an organic farmer and helped establish a small farm coop, but never completely gave up the academic and professional interest in archeology. I was able to complement the livelihood from the mixed farm with cash income from contract work as a research assistant.

The dream of finding a stable land base for farming, and a place to raise a family away from the ongoing harassment and persecution by the Swiss authorities (linked to their claims related to my repudiation of military service) led me to immigrate to Canada in 1993.

We settled in the Yukon, but the farming dream was soon replaced by reality. I eventually found work as a wilderness guide, which was a blessing. I was able to work close with the manifestation of my spiritual centre that is also the place where I find the easiest connection to God – the glory of creation. Eventually, we established our family home near a small, predominantly First Nations community. I became involved as a volunteer in emergency services and community development initiatives. This involvement led me to return to university and pursue a nursing education. Now I shifted my direct focus of care from the land to the people.

Within nursing, my area of interest was never in the medical system. The influences of the social determinants of health, the inequalities and injustices, the degradation of our natural environment spoke much stronger to my heart and eventually formed the foundation for my research interest. I pursued graduate studies in conflict analysis and peace building as well as nursing.

But all these academic credentials and professional qualifications led me deeper into a postmodern world, away from the plain life, the simplicity, and the compassionate service that was the utopian vision I started my path on. After my separation, I also realized how much I missed the communal life that was part of the utopia. I was seeking a place where I would be able to integrate all these ideas and engaged in a L’Arche community.

Living in this intentional community of people with varied abilities was the first step away from a gainful career and towards voluntary poverty. Along that way, I also volunteered with Doctors without Borders/MSF to fulfill a promise for action made as a boy in response to the horrific pictures of starving children from the conflict in Biafra. After I got confirmation from MSF, I began to work on my logistics. I have decided not to maintain a physical residence. A mailing address should be sufficient to satisfy the needs of governments, banks, etc. Of course, that left me becoming dependent on friends and acquaintances for many practical things after I got back from the field. I believed it would be helpful to experience that relative insecurity and lack of control. It might be an essential part of the larger package of experiences that became inspired by Quakerism.

Living on less than $15,000 per year, the unofficial poverty line in Canada, has been quite liberating. One of the intended effects of a simpler life is that I am no longer liable to pay income tax, and thus have to financially support a country at war (not only through its involvement in military action in foreign countries, but conceptually at war with everything that resists the consumerist—capitalist agenda of the current government).

As a result, I am now living a more contemplative life, studying the meaning of oneness with God. The challenging part of this pilgrimage is to find appropriate ways to engage with the realities of the world, how to translate calling into action, how to live mysticism and resistance, and how to inspire others to find their own way to live a simpler life.


2 thoughts on “One Story of Simplicity – Reimagining the Good Life

  1. Othmar, I don’t know why I am drawn to you, but I am. I think it is because you do and have done what many of us only talk about because we lack the courage. I go backpacking but only to return to the ‘normal’ consumerist world and dutifully pay my taxes to avoid the hassles of conflict. I work hard to send my daughter to an elite private school so she can have an unsustainable lifestyle that I myself question the value of. I write to educate others on voluntarism but you educate others by example.

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