In a postmodern trend to list anything for publication, I am adding ten attitudes and behaviours that could (hopefully) be endorsed by John Woolman to avoid superfluities.
1. Door Crashers
I am not buying things to stock up or just because it was such a good deal. The perpetual sale policy is clearly not here to serve my needs, but to maximize sales and profit of the manufacturers and distributors. If I limit myself to the essentials in life, I can buy something when I actually need it, even if it is not on sale at the time.
I have regularly observed in my own household that I found items that I bought months or years ago as a bargain, without ever using them.
I do not advocate the use of single servings. “Not shopping to stock up” does mean not to shop according to the credo “you never know what it could be useful for”. On the other hand, it also means that I buy basic food and other things in quantities that I use within a reasonable time. And of course I’m also thinking, whether I, for example, need several specialized types of flour in the kitchen cabinet, or if I can make do with one kind of flour instead. My experience shows that most things can be produced with all-purpose flour even if the recipes call for refined specialties!
2. Buying More
I strive for a replacement for an item only when it’s all used up or the functional capacity can no longer be restored. We are fortunate to live in a society where everything is available almost any time. We live near the shopping centers and have the means to get there.
I think it is important to value the last drop in a bottle. Too often we feel the small remainder is no longer worth its while, or it is not enough for what I need, or with whatever argument we persuade ourselves to prematurely consume more. Thus we all become drivers in this consumerist and growth-seeking throwaway society.
It occurred to me, for example, that it is not a disaster when I squeeze the last bit of toothpaste from the tube on a Saturday night. There are indeed simple alternatives to commercial toothpaste to do oral care for a day or two. But it is a big challenge to my habits and my convenience.
3. New Acquisitions
If I really feel I am in need of something, I research first what item suits my needs best. This is a process that takes time. As a next step, I compare the prices and conditions of different providers. After I have found a satisfactory offer, I would be waiting one day or a week for smaller stuff, with larger purchases a month or more, before I decide to buy and execute the purchase. It has struck me again and again that have thus exposed ostensible needs which then made the purchase obsolete.
Once I wanted to buy a weather station to observe and monitor the local climate data over time. That seemed very appropriate, as we wanted to self-sufficiently grow our vegetables in a subarctic climate zone in northern Canada. The research lasted several weeks (using dial-up Internet) and in the end I had the perfect system to meet our needs. At a price tag of about $ 2,000. In the meantime, we have learned to pay attention to the signs of nature and to interpret them properly. The garden evolved wonderfully and we covered our need for fresh foods in most years. The killing frosts during the growing season, which occasionally hampered our efforts, could have indeed be predicted more accurately, but could have not be prevented with a sophisticated weather station.
The first ten years of my adult life I have intentionally lived without a car. I have set up my life in such a way that I was able to satisfy my transportation needs in Switzerland and Europe with public transport even though I have lived in remote areas. After immigrating to Canada with a young family it seemed no longer possible to do so. Therefore we lived with a car for fifteen years. At first with one, then with two – because we could not set it up differently. But then the doubts came back, also questioning the size of the vehicles. We have then first reduced the size of car: to 3 instead of 8 cylinders.
It took another five years before I was able to ride myself of my last car (despite the fact that it was the most economical car which was available in Canada at the time). What really helped me make the switch in the end to move again on foot, by bicycle, and by public transport was the realization that I was affluent enough to be able to rent a car anytime if it seemed impossible otherwise. My experience has shown that this scenario has occurred just three times in five years!
Today, it annoys us again and again how much habitat is wasted by urban sprawl. The blame is put on migrants and other external factors. But few think about how much living space we use ourselves and how far this is determined by our needs.
Housing, the need for protection from the elements and a home is a basic human need. I have chosen, at different stages of my life, to forego a permanent residence. A few years ago, I was curious to find out what I really needed to satisfy my personal needs for protection and home. This mental exercise became an interesting experiment in craftsmanship. In the end it turned out that a well-planned space of 2.5 to 6 meters [8 by 20 feet](15 m2/160 sq ft) is enough for me to live independently.
On the other hand, I also experienced that I feel very comfortable in community. Various ways of communal living take up less space and resources than a more individualistic lifestyle with plenty of privacy and yard space. In addition, a collective life can simplify and enrich individual lives through synergies as well as mutual devotion and exchange.
6. Work and Leisure
In the current day and age, we live mainly in a leisure society. This means that life is divided into a world of work and a world of leisure. The one world has little to do with the other, in each of them apply its own rules. But many people realize that they cannot be successful in the work world without the relaxation that they enjoy or look for in the leisure world. In return, they will hopefully be compensated generously enough at work so they can afford leisure and recreation.
For me, this separation of work and life is out of question. I strive for a unity thereof, but I do not always succeed.
As a self-employed farmer and in the monastery I have experienced such a state most closely. In paid employment, it is very difficult to realize. This shows me that wage labour mainly meets the needs of the employer; the human needs of the employee are secondary. This form of prostitution is pushed so far today that wages are increasingly no longer living wages.
Modernization has freed many people from everyday chores. Earlier, it was understood that I had to use elbow grease to prepare a meal, to stay warm, to make clothes, and to satisfy most of the basic needs. Today much is automated. But I enjoy baking bread, for example, because then I do not have to frantically look for a (often consumerist) substitute occupation to fill my spare time.
7. Wealth and Money
Simplicity and humility are good companions. Simply because I have many opportunities I do not have to exploit them all. Because not everything that is possible, or to which I have a right, makes sense and is satisfying a personal, human need.
For example I can put my savings ‘to work’ and earn interest or dividends. Enjoying wealth is a controversial topic today, because most of what I can readily do with money has invisibly been earned through burdened effort of less privileged people.
I aim to reduce my dealings with money more and more by trying to avoid my dependence on valuing things in monetary terms. How much is my labour worth? I have no answer for that. I only know that I have to earn a modest sum of cash to offset the cost of living as a member of today’s society.
I also understand the principle that service to others should not be a commodity: Therefore, it makes more sense to provide services for free. In a network of relationships (instead of a network of transactions) a reciprocity based on needs will arise. Today, I engage in service for the needs of others, preferably the underprivileged. But I have confidence that I will find support when I am in need in the future.
8. Awareness and Habit
Habit is something enormously reassuring for people. But I doubt that it has much affinity with the divine. All our conventional notions and symbols of the divine, for example, the light, the rushing wind, etc. have nothing static, nothing intrinsically at rest. There is something moving.
Therefore, I first want to be aware of all my decisions that I want or need to make, no matter how small a decision. Then I want to know or find out if I choose the right means to an end. Just because it is suggested to me that Coke is an excellent thirst quencher, I do need it to satisfy my thirst, because for that purpose creatures on earth are given water. Or, as another example, if I feel lonely at home, I turn on the television or radio. It would seem a more appropriate response to contact a fellow human being .
Whenever it is convenient to do something out of habit, I want to be aware of it. Occasionally, I want to make the effort to question those habits and to examine them critically. The same way I’ve done it with the almost ten years of use of my private vehicles.
9. The Courage to be Unique
Radicalism looks back to the roots and lets fashion be fashion. Human beings are created in God’s image, all the same, but with unique possibilities. Therefore, for me there is no “right way ” or a universal recipe book for how to live out simplicity.
John Woolman captured in his diary what motivated him and how he acted. There are examples that touch me strangely: When invited, I do neither mind drinking water from a crystal glass nor a plastic cup. On the other hand, it becomes for me nearly impossible to dine out in light of the enormous discrepancy between the price tag on the card and the wages of many, often brown-skinned people who toil in the background.
I live in another time and another world, and I am called to act in a unique, but not an arbitrary or selfish way. My radicalism results solely from the fact that my decisions are based on different criteria than the drivers of capitalist consumer society that seem accepted as the norm today. I am not seeking asceticism or to save my soul, and I ‘m not looking to rid myself of guilt through suffering and privation. And I am not looking to optimize my life in order to be successful and to prevent disease and aging.
I want to consciously live a simple life because it is a way to fulfill God’s will, to foster a more equitable life for all. There are various historical role models, such as Jesus, Francis of Assisi, or Mahatma Gandhi that can encourage me in this endeavour. And I have no patience to wait for a metaphysical Savior or Redeemer.
10. Your Experiences
What is important and crucial for you to avoid superfluities? How do you actually go about it? How radical could and should we be today?
I cordially invite you to share your thoughts with the readers in the comment box below.