By Jim and Susan Vogt
Q: What do bottled water, home computers and cell phones have in
A: None of them were common a generation ago.
Today, most of us take these items for granted. And they do make life easier—much
of the time. However, with more choices and modern conveniences also come more complexity
and moral dilemmas. How can things so helpful be bad, we ask?
Bottled water was once a traveler’s safeguard against impure water.
But plain tap water in U.S. municipalities meets higher standards than bottled water
and eliminates the production and disposal wastes of throwaway bottles. Sure, water is
an improvement over soda to quench a thirst, but is it that difficult to put tap water
into a reusable container or take a water jug to a picnic?
Home computers—love ’em when they’re working, curse them
when they bring spam or a virus or crash. And that doesn’t include separating the
beneficial information from the pornography or marketing scams that computers bring into
Yes, a cell phone is a wonderful safety device when the car breaks down
on a lonely road. Yes, it helps family members keep in touch and saves extra trips to
the store. And yes, it causes car accidents, distracts from face-to-face conversation
and is annoying to bystanders.
Of course, these are only a sampling of modern conveniences that shape
our lifestyles. How did we function without DVD players, microwave ovens and the Internet,
much less iPods? Well, in some ways better and in some ways worse. Certainly, a lot of
paper was used on snail mail, and parents couldn’t always find their teenagers.
(Of course, calling a cell phone doesn’t verify where a teen is.) The point is
not that we should throw all modern conveniences into our overloaded landfills but that
we should wisely use modern technology and not just buy because we can.
Guard against greed
These are subjective and thorny lifestyle decisions. Jesus isn’t
posted at the checkout lane prompting us on the morality of our purchases. Yet, Jesus
does speak to us through Scripture. Let’s start there. He said, “Take care
to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist
of possessions” (Luke 12:15) and “Look at the birds in the sky; they do not
sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them”
(Matthew 6:26). And let’s not forget that disturbing passage about the rich young
man whom Jesus told, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give
to [the] poor” (Matthew 19:21).
How are we to take these challenging words of Jesus? To say they are only
historical metaphors that are unrealistic for life today seems intellectually dishonest.
Likewise, to quit our jobs, sell our possessions and move to Haiti (assuming we have
saved enough money for airfare) seems irresponsible. After all, we might have a family
to support, a job that contributes to the common good and people who depend on us.
We propose focusing on the spirit of Jesus’
words and keeping close enough to the materially poor to let them check our conscience
for rationalizations. We suggest:
■ Travel light through life. Free yourself and your household of
unnecessary possessions and clutter. We asked ourselves whether we really need cable
TV, two cars, three cell phones and four computers. We only owned one of these items
(a car) when we started our family and somehow were quite happy. We nixed cable TV, ditched
one car since we both work from home, will be down to one cell phone when our youngest
leaves home, and will lose two computers when our two young adults move out—soon,
we think. It’s good for the soul, the psyche and our pocketbooks to try living
■ Evaluate the impact of purchases on God’s creation. How much
of the earth’s resources are used in overpackaging items to make them look bigger
or better? A hybrid car may cost more but puts less stress on the earth’s resources.
Of course, driving less is even better, and walking makes workouts at the gym less necessary.
The trade-off is usually time. Walking or taking public transportation may give you time
to pray or just decompress—if you don’t miss your stop.
■ Resist advertising. Just because we can afford something, do we
need it? Be a savvy consumer. Realize that the purpose of marketing is to persuade us
that we will be happier if we part with our money. Remember the birds in the sky? True
happiness usually comes from the contentment of a life well-lived in harmony with God’s
design, not by accumulating the most toys.
■ Recover values like frugality. Frugality comes naturally to some
and is a stretch for others. It is not primarily a good in itself but rather a way to
save room for others at the table. To follow Jesus’ words to the rich young man,
consider that whatever we have, it is probably a little more than we need. Take one more
step to let go. At the same time, beware of becoming too proud of one’s “poorness”
lest you become self-righteous.
■ Buy for the future. Buying for the future may sound contradictory
to traveling light and moving toward a simpler lifestyle. Cheapness, however, is not
always a virtue. Sometimes buying a bike that will last or food that is more nutritious
may be more expensive in the short run but economical in the long. Quality and nondisposable
goods don’t have to be replaced as often, and sometimes beauty itself is worth
the price as it lifts both our souls and the income of the artisan.
The bottom line is that we have to get beyond thinking our worth is counted
by how much we consume. We must make our lifestyle consistent with the spirit of the
Gospels. When Jesus promised himself as “living water” (John 7:38), we don’t
think he had bottled water in mind!
What is your attitude about living more simply? What experiences
have shaped your attitude?
How can you travel more lightly through life? Are any of your possessions
weighing you down? Causing anxiety? Consuming you?
Make a commitment to simplify your life in one way this month, e.g.,
start to recycle, walk or bike instead of drive, sacrifice a luxury and donate
the savings, clean out a closet and give away the things you no longer need or
By Frank Frost
There comes a moment in Last Holiday when Georgia Byrd (Queen Latifah)
realizes there are some things that money can’t buy. The imperious and—until
now—uncaring hotel clerk Ms. Gunther (Susan Kellermann) has just asked, “Why
are you here with all these terrible people? You should be with someone you love.”
“All these terrible people” happen to be among the world’s
richest and most powerful. They are at a luxurious winter resort where Georgia has gone
after discovering that she has only three weeks to live.
Georgia hails from a poor New Orleans neighborhood where she has watched
her pennies and calories to live a responsible life on her department-store clerk’s
salary. A scrapbook she calls her
“Book of Possibilities” sums up her life and dreams. In it are photos of
food she cooks but won’t let herself eat, a famous chef she wishes to meet and
Sean (LL Cool J), a co-worker she dreams of marrying but is afraid to talk to. So when
she is diagnosed with brain tumors and imminent death, she sets out to blow her savings
on an over-the-top vacation.
At first glance, this might seem a materialistic response. But what transpires
is quite different. Her eye for beauty, respect for people, love for food and appetite
for life transform the people around her. Hotel guests are first attracted to her because
she appears powerful and wealthy. These include a congressman, her state’s senator
and Kragen (Timothy Hutton)—the owner of the store that employed her. By the time
Kragen tracks down the “truth” about her and unmasks her as a “nobody,” it
doesn’t matter. She has won them over by who she is at her core and what she teaches
them all—that your self-worth doesn’t depend on what you own.
Next time you watch Last Holiday, ASK YOURSELF:
In her running dialogue with God, what do you suppose Georgia Byrd
was saying at movie’s end? Which character, who experienced a change through
exposure to Georgia’s values, was your favorite? Why?
Where do you find your self-worth?
By Joan McKamey
Friends and family tease, “Bob, if you had a wife, she wouldn’t
let you do this.” But that doesn’t deter Bob Waldrop.
Bob’s voluntary simplicity, involvement in the Catholic Worker movement
and environmental efforts have roots in growing up on an Oklahoma farm, being a homeless
runaway in the 1960s and experiencing poverty in the 1980s. At 55, he says his lifestyle
“In 1997, I thought I might enter a religious order and went to Kansas
City, Missouri. That didn’t work out, but I got involved with the Holy Family Catholic
Worker House there,” he told Every Day Catholic. He is attracted to the
Catholic Worker movement by “the combination of the works of mercy with the works
of justice. We feed the hungry, but we also ask,
‘Why are there so many hungry people?’
and then we act to reduce the numbers of the hungry.” Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day,
Peter Maurin and the “Four Churchwomen”
martyrs in Central America inspire him, as do St. John Chrysostom, Matthew 25 and Mary’s
Bob founded the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House in Oklahoma City in
1999 and serves as its leader. He also heads the Oklahoma Food Cooperative and directs
music at Epiphany of the Lord Catholic Church. Why name the Catholic Worker House for
Oscar Romero? Because, Bob says, he “spoke boldly to the ruling authorities of
his day in defense of the poor and in favor of peace.”
So, just what does voluntary simplicity mean? “We get about 80% of
our household’s food directly from farmers or from our own gardens,” Bob
boasts. He enjoys the great gas mileage of his 1993 Geo Metro. He also takes the bus
when possible. He continues, “We recycle everything we can and compost household
organic food waste. We rarely buy new clothes; we shop at thrift stores. We don’t
have a dishwasher. We do have a clothes washer, but we hang our clothes out on the line
to dry—or inside on racks if the weather is bad.” He also did extensive work
on his home to improve energy conservation. He says, “I think the Church’s
teachings on the care of creation are very important. Social justice is also an important
aspect. One reason the poor have less is because the rich have more.”
Bob seems to take all this in stride. He attests, “The lifestyle
itself isn’t complicated. We have done everything gradually, and we integrate things
into our routine before going on to something else.”When asked what he gains from
these efforts, he answers, “Peace of mind, authenticity and faithfulness.”
When challenged by others about the impact of his choices, like the time
someone said, “So what if you drive a Geo Metro? My truck will eat up everything
you save,” Bob responds, “Catholic Workers are not required to be successful;
we are required to be faithful. Living this way helps us show others that it can be done.”
Having It All
By Jeanne Hunt
Bridget and Sean have just married. They unpack the wedding gifts and begin
to create their own little love nest. Like many newlyweds, they want a perfect life together,
so they begin by furnishing their home with state-of-the-art appliances, designer furniture
and everything needed to make their bungalow look like a magazine photograph. These beautiful
things were acquired on credit.
Many new families presume that a well-equipped, beautifully decorated home
is a necessity. The days of starting out with secondhand things and purchasing items
only when we can afford them is passé. Credit and comfort are “essentials” in
the first-world mentality. The millennial generation, those born after 1980, seem impatient
to gain a lifestyle that their parents had to work hard for. The result is a consumer
culture that is racking up debt at an alarming rate.
As followers of the gospel, we note a contradiction between the consumer
message and the message of Jesus. We are challenged to live simply and to not worry about
storing up treasures on this earth. We have our eyes on treasures that are invisible
to the eye. However, the contrast between what Jesus teaches and the way we live creates
a constant tension. Too often we buy into the mentality that we need this gadget, that
timesaving appliance or another pair of shoes. The reality is that we want rather than
need them because we have been convinced by marketers and the media that we deserve them
and cannot survive without them.
As we raise our children in this consumer society, we need to step back
and examine our values. What are we modeling by the consumer choices we make? Do we spend
money we do not have? Do we have too many things and even duplicates of things? Are there
possessions that actually possess us?
I suggest a great resolution for anyone wanting to lead a simple life with
gospel values: Give or throw away three things each day. The joy in this is that your
family will begin to think twice about what they need and what they want. As the closets
and cupboards get sorted and simplified, a new sense of order takes hold in the house.
This exercise restores a right order in a subtle way that is not an overwhelming task.
Your life will be slowly transformed into a lifestyle that better reflects gospel values.