I imagine that all middle-class lifestyle choices are subject to scrutiny, looked upon with a degree of cynicism. For educated, relatively wealthy people the ability to choose how they live is one of life’s privileges. For that choice to be a deliberate move to shun commercialism and excess in a world which works hard to provide those very things can be seen as faddish – a bit of a fashion thing like being an eco-warrior or vegetarian might be for some people.
I read an article online which discussed the idea that “Simple Living” is a privilege for those who can afford to make that choice (http://www.grist.org/article/chin/). Okay, so it’s a few years old, but I have to admit it was the first time I had thought about it in that way and it made me feel a bit unsure, a bit like it’s a fad that makes light of real poverty. I know we aren’t really striving for simple living strictly, rather a personalised version which is more about balance and making the most of our time and resources. Still, simplicity in terms of what we own and buy, and our relationship to all things commercial is a part of it. In the article, Elizabeth Chin writes about a boy called Davy who has never been to Toys R Us. Other people mistakenly see this as a sign of his protected status yet it is actually a sign of his deprivation. “Simplifying, for the wealthy, has become a task, a burden, an end in itself. (When I say “the wealthy,” I mean nearly every citizen of every wealthy nation.) For so many people in wealthy worlds, simplifying has also become an industry which, ironically, turns out an array of alluring products: toxin-free paint so wholesome it’s known as “milk”; clothing woven from hemp fibres; even the fat, glossy magazine Real Simple…………While the wealthy struggle to shovel out from under their possessions and prepossessions, the poor must struggle on a daily basis to acquire much of anything of value”
So have I conned myself? Is my simple life really complicated and commercial? Is it an affront to people who can’t afford the basics?
I guess there are only so many things I can do about this. Firstly, I can devote some time to thinking about it. Well I have, and this is how it seems to me…
I can’t change who I am – my background, my parents, my education and my career and, of course, I wouldn’t want to. I was born into a family which was devoted to encouraging and supporting me. I was born into a society which provided education, up to a point, and a family who paid for it to continue. I was self motivated enough to get a good job and work my way up and out into my own business. I can now make a choice about how I live. I could continue to live as I did before, over-consuming and in debt. Or I could decide to take a bit more responsibility and control. I’m struggling to see a way round this. I’m irresponsible if I live to excess but choosing to live more simply is equally fraught with political incorrectness.
Well to start with I don’t buy “milk paint” or “hemp clothes”, and I don’t have a subscription to “Real Simple”. I’m not planning to give up my comfortable house and take my children to live in a cabin to prove a point. What would be the point? The problem is that articles like that make assumptions. They assume that people striving to live simply are wealthy, and while I agree that relatively speaking we are, we are not like the people described by; “The elegant simplicity on display at holiday time in that wealthy neighborhood — a single lighted candle, perhaps, in each of a stately home’s windows — neatly encapsulated the way wealth aspires to spurn its own involvement in hyper-consumption”. We are genuinely trying not to be hyper-consumers and our simple life isn’t trying to cover anything up.
Any lifestyle comes packed with ready made criticism. Even Elizabeth says “Changing the world is a pretty tall order.” She has chosen to write a book about Davy and donate the proceeds to an educational charity. (Charity – there’s a topic for another debate another day…). I guess we could feel endlessly guilty about whether we’re doing enough, but at the end of the day we’re doing something that makes sense to us and hopefully gives us and our kids a full and happy life. I guess it’s a start.