“Simplify, Simplify”

By | September 20, 2011

“Don’t miss the truth for a stupid sideshow.  Don’t confuse the cup with the contents it holds” —Vigilantes of Love, “Drunk On The Tears”

I read once that it was an old Native American saying that you should never own more than you can swim across a river with.  Maybe not absolutely practicable, but an interesting idea to ponder.  That writer went on to say that for every new thing you bring into your life, you should get rid of two things.

What is it about the human heart that makes us want to acquire things?  What made our ancestors way back when decide that their security came from not who they were or what they knew, but from the things they had?

I would suggest that it might not be so far back as we might think.  Perhaps this urge began around the time of the first Sears catalog.  That’s the first desire I remember for toys as a child.  Looking through the Christmas catalog from Sears and just wanting, wanting those perfect little scenes that the photographers had set up before me.  Cause let’s be honest, it wasn’t even just the toys that we wanted- it was the whole playing set-up.  Kinda like the way that the cereal on the front of the box, with its cut fruit and glossy flakes, is never quite what the real product looks like.  Isn’t that a metaphor for all of us?  Even when you get the right toy, the right clothes, or the right car—it doesn’t feel quite as glamorous as it looked in the catalog, does it?  I’ve been there, and I’ll bet you have too.

“But this site is about parenting, and about getting outside with our kids.  Where did this anti-consumption sermon come from all of a sudden?”  I hear you saying.  And that would be true if it wasn’t for the fact that our kids do what they see us do.  If I show my daughter that being outdoors is simply a chance to justify buying expensive North Face backpacks and the trendy bike-du-jour, then that is what she’ll learn.  But if I am careful to teach her that the real joy comes from being able to be out in the woods, and the peace it gives us, and that the backpack or bike is just a tool towards this end, then I have done her a service.  (I wish I could say I am always doing the latter).  If going to the beach is just about flying the $100 kite you bought at REI, you’re missing the point, I think.  Now, that’s not to denigrate your kite.  It may be wonderful fun, and if it is, good for you, but it is all too easy to miss “the forest for the trees.”

There was a young woman, once, who taught me a great lesson.  A mentor of mine.  It wasn’t even a momentous conversation, but simple conversation.  We were talking about stereo components I think, and I mentioned how I needed to get some sort of something.  “You need to?” she said, “Or you WANT to?”  At the time I don’t think I saw the distinction.  But ever since, that has stuck with me.  What do I need, and what do I just want?

Because the crazy thing about possessions, the real counter-intuitive thing about them, is that in the end, they own us.  Think about it.  If you have an expensive car, you have to keep it nice.  Wax it, whatever.  But as your car gets older, you don’t feel as much responsibility toward it.  Don’t cringe as much if it gets a scratch.

And then there’s the idea of “worth.”  I’d give away __________, I don’t really use it.  But it’s worth $___!  This is obviously true on one level.  None of us have the money to simply discard things that cost lots of money in some twisted act of “simplicity.”  But at some point you have to see that something that cost X dollars 10 years ago but now just takes up a bunch of space in your garage isn’t adding to your life, it’s simply reminding you regularly that you are merely the caretaker of your belongings.  Not a very empowering thought.

Books can be a good place to start practicing these ideas.  They are also an area where your kids can “play along.”  If your child is anything like mine, he or she probably acquires books from every direction.  And yes, kids are lucky to have books to read—there are many who don’t have any.  So go through your own books (there is this great service—almost like Netflix for books—called the public library…) and keep things you’ll realistically read again, or will honestly read in the future—and get rid of those that are just taking up space!  Your kids will naturally ask what you’re doing.  Tell them!

You are on this earth for more than dusting shelves and straightening belongings.  There’s a great big “ocean”  out there—and you and your kids deserve the joy it can bring you.  It’s better than any picture in a catalog…

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