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Is the simple life possible in America?

A blog reader named Forest just posted a comment to this blog.  I’d like to know if anyone has an answer for him.  He said,   “I have read your article, and although there is not much to disagree with, there is on the other hand, not much substance to it either. I have been sea…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes
A blog reader named Forest just posted a comment to this blog.  I’d like to know if anyone has an answer for him.  He said,
“I have read your article, and although there is not much to disagree
with, there is on the other hand, not much substance to it either. I
have been searching on the web for years on how to really live a simple
life without a lot of money, and I am convinced that it can not be
done. Any family that has attempted to live a “simple life” has the
resources to do so, i.e. lots of money. So my conclusion is that a
simple life is nothing more than a paradox.”
It’s a fair and provocative question:  Is the simple life possible in America? Certainly there is much that makes it difficult.  There’s our consumer culture and the way we max out our credit cards, living beyond our means.  Everyone seems to do it.  What do you think – can one swim upstream against the current?
The simplest lifestyle Karen and I ever lived was right after we were married.  We moved to Indonesia and our total budget was less than $300/month.  And after a year we moved to the Dominican Republic where our rent was $220/month and we got around on a motor scooter.  Having kids did begin to make life complicated, though the first, Talia, was born in the D.R. where medical care was cheap, and Leah, the last one, was born when we were so poor we had to go on Medicare. 
In 1985, when we moved to Falls Church, VA, we got the cheapest rent we could find for a two bedroom apartment . We had $175 left over each month to pay insurance and food, laundry and gas for the rest of the month.  It was amazing how we did it!  Karen would wash Talia’s cloth diapers by hand in the bathtub and drape them around the apartment to dry.  I asked her about those tight times and she said, “You know, I really don’t remember it being that awful. I do know we never had orange juice or chips!  Or soda!  Just basics. I could do it again.” 
In any case, some people are living simply by choice.  Look at the Simple Way.  And many of AIM’s missionaries manage to get by on very little.  A lot of it depends on where and how you live.  Some web sites to help,  here and here.   I believe the coming economic earthquake that I write about in the blog after this one will force it on most of us.
So, does anyone have an answer for Forest?

Comments (12)

  • Shane Claiborne comes from a family with money, and the Simple Way gets a lot of money yearly in donations. Most of us do not have either of these benefits.

  • I think it is possible far more simply than most suburbanites choose to live. But it depends on how ‘simple’ a life you want to live, and how you define it. Does ‘Simple’ mean off-grid? Or having less of an impact on the environment? Or just feeling like you have more time? Most people can’t image leaving the house without a cell phone anymore. But that is $50 a month per person that we never used to pay, because we used to plan our travels (to the grocery store, restaurants, movies) and keep our families informed.

    I think that no matter where you are, you can live simply, but you have to make an effort to do so. I had a professor in college who made that effort. He built himself a little cabin, heated only by wood. His hot water is from a solar water heater on the roof. He has two acres of land on which he grows all sorts of fruits and vegetables, and his wife is an expert at canning. Well into April and May, they are still eating food from their garden the previous year. He grows apple trees and has perfected the art of making hard cider. He has a small ‘Sugar Shack’ on the property so for three weeks a year, he makes his own maple syrup and sells it to the local co-op. They also ‘Eat Local’ which means they won’t eat anything grown or raised outside a 50 mile radius. During the summer, they take their harvest to the Farmer’s Market and barter for the goodies they don’t grow. They don’t own a TV or cell phones. He has electricity in the house, but they have no modern appliances. No microwave, no dishwasher, no hair dryer, no computers. The only truly modern convenience they cannot shake is their car. Their lives are not full of electronic ‘stuff’ which greatly reduces the strain on their wallet.

    My professor and his wife live simply, and they don’t make any more money than an average couple. And here in New Hampshire, there are many more like them, though not everyone takes it that far. Some stop shy of eating local, and some surpass that and have installed composting toilets. I still think it depends on what you want to get out ‘The Simple Life.’

  • I can definitely sympathize with Forest. The good news: I am certain it can be done. The bad news: it will probably be hard.

    But, “hard” is a relative term. There was a lesson I took from the world of ultralight backpacking, and I’ll frame it with this case study: you can get a lighter, niftier, newer, more expensive tent, but the lightest tent in the world is the one that you just don’t bring.

    Inflate the lesson to the scale of American life, and the grander moral is this: the quickest and truest route to simplicity is to examine what directives society has given you regarding *the things you need*. Then, stop believing them.

    Like I said, “hard” is relative.

    As a parting shot, EVERYONE interested in simplicity should check out this really, really great series of essays written by a guy who truly did all this: http://www.december.com/simple/live/

  • it’s worth saying, also, that simplicity for simplicity’s sake is idolatry (in my opinion). if i am freeing up my resources to be more generous, that’s one thing; however, if I am being “simple” just to make other Christians feel selfish and greedy, then I’ve failed. it sounds absurd, but I know people who can’t separate the two. In fact, that was I sought to live after I graduated from college – being simple just to be “different” because I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed in with the rest of the suburbanites. Simplicity, however, without community is a lonely place to be. You need to find a group that will embrace your simple values and spur you on.

  • Forest –

    Simple is defined as understandable, uncomplicated and without pretension. God values your pursuit to live this way. In fact, the Bible says, “The Lord preserves the simple; I was brought low, and He helped and saved me” (Psalm 116:6).

    I would suggest abandoning your internet search. God has a specific path for you. Ask Him to show you what in your life needs to be reduced or removed. Some things will be obvious, others will be a process and there will definitely be some acts of faith.

    God wants us all in. That may mean eliminating your car, switching jobs, or changing your eating habits. The steps I take will be different from yours. Move as He leads. Rely on Him. His word promises to sustain and guide us. You can do it!

  • Consider the Amish

    Consider the Waller’s in the documentary “A journey home” by Franklin films.

    Consider the simple way, http://www.thesmipleway.org

    It’s possible. You just have to be willing to abandon most of American culture and ammenities.

  • I came from a very wealthy family (I see now) and “simplicity” was something I definitely talked about but didn’t live. It wasn’t until I did The World Race – where I was forced to live simply – that any of my habits changed. For most of the world, a major leap is the only way to create a simple life. Wading into the shallow end of simplicity won’t help in my opinion. Just my two thoughts 🙂

  • This is definitely a question that intrigues me. I think Dan is right. I’m not sure if filling my life with agriculture instead of whatever it’s filled with now necessarily glorifies God more, but then things are different in the UK than in the states.

    To me simplicity is about prioritizing the things that are important, and de-prioritizing everything else. So if social time with my friends/family/church is important, that doesn’t necessarily mean I need solar panels (not that there’s anything wrong with solar panels!) See what I mean?

    Another thing that is important to me is that as far as possible, everything I consume and the “trade” that I do in buying everyday things does not harm others. This could mean spending more than I normally would on “things” like food, clothing etc but knowing that I have not participated in the exploitation of the people who produced them.

    I think it would be possible to cut ourselves off completely from consumer culture, live off the land and without many of the complications in life and still miss the point. To me the aim should be to live a life that is rich towards God whatever our circumstances or our resources are and to be single-minded in pursuing that. The question is how!

  • There are 3 very important scriptures. Jesus said “come to me all those who are heavy burdened and I will give you rest” and “The love of money is the route of all evil” and Ecclesiastes 5 v 10 ” whover loves money never has money enough whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income”

    A simple life to me is accepting all you have as a gift from God, no matter how rich or poor, accept that God is in full control and He could change it with one word. If you are searching for a different life you need to ask why.

    If life is too busy then ask Jesus what you are doing that you shouldnt. Doing His perfect will is not a heavy burden.His burden is light. When life gets too stressful I sit before God and He starts showing me things I am doing that arent His will and I should never have picked them up as a responsibilty.

    Life is all about obedience to Him. Jesus only went where His Father told Him too, He did not visit every town and He did not raise everyone from the dead or heal every sick person in the area, He only did what He was asked of by the Father.

    Is wanting a simple way of life Gods will? If God is asking you to do this then let Him lead the way.Many people do not understand easy living in terms of the spiritual. If you are FOLLOWING Jesus then He will always go before you and prepare the way.Or is wanting a simple life YOUR desire?

    I spend many days in Wales by the sea, I love it and have so wanted to move to a quiet village there but God wants me here in the city. But IN my obedience to Him by remaining in the city He has blessed me beyond words. My home has a feel of a country cottage with a view of a thatched roof summer house and farm house over the road from me! Looking out of my windows makes me feel like I am living in a village but I am in the city!

    I have found that if I lay down my life for Him I will find it!Those that Hunger and thirst for RIGHTEOUSNESS will be filled, maybe going on a quest to remove every wrong thing, from thoughts, words, actions, motives etc from our lives is where are heart should be, walking in the Light helps us see so much more clearly on where we should be going.

  • Wow…those are some seriously great responses.

    I think that the simple life is living intentionally in community with people and finding your niche in it. I have known both the simple life and the crazy/hectic life, and I often drift back and forth at times. The times when I have been lulled into crazy/hectic life is when I’ve bought the lie that I have to do everything, that if I don’t do something there is no one to replace me, and that I need to be everything to everybody.

    I agree with the previous posts that living simply is different for everyone. The romantic ideal of living off the land and off the grid is just not practical anymore. It was a way of living that worked in a past era, and our era is very different. There was an even simpler era before that one where people didn’t bath except once a year, and I don’t think anyone wants a revival of that. There’s nothing wrong with solar panels or gardening, it’s just that lusting after the past can be its own god.

    The real truth is to find out who you were made to be by God, and be that person. That is the real leap…because the world has a million others things that it thinks you should be. I’ve been told that I could really succeed at a number of career ladders…but that’s not what I was made for. And my attempts to climb said ladders have always ended in frustration, busyness and disappointment. I could be all things to all people, and completely miss the point.

    The point is to find that niche and enjoy it. Be happy with it. Don’t try to be the things that you’re not. Living simply is being happy and content with the role and niche and purpose you were built for and doing it to the best of your ability. I am really good at making videos and communicating stories for businesses and people…so living simply for me is not getting rid of my computer, it’s saying no to the things I am not good at. Living simply for me is only picking up commitments that I am gifted at and meet God’s purpose for my life.

    The simple life is learning to do what you do best, and leaving the rest to someone else in your community who does it best.

  • Well I’m just trying to go back on time I was born in Guatemala in a 12,000 people community very small schools the good jobs were with the government and my parents moved from almost the jungle small village pay about 30 $ a month he verily make to get by my mom fix and make clothes for other people make food to sell so we can eat different but we still have to much there was days when there was not a little piece of bread we still have something to wear know I would love to move to the mountains lonely I’m s happy person and I feel that I have to much but and the other hand I have kids to educate but living simple for me is spending most of my time with my family and work I have no stress the best thing for me it will be loose everything I just care about my health and environment. I don’t pay attention to my surrounding area

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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