Veg*n Cooking and Other Random Musings: On the Joy of Simple Living

Saturday, June 28, 2008

On the Joy of Simple Living

I’ve been thinking for awhile about lifestyle changes and all the little things people are doing everyday to lighten their burden on the Earth, to be better stewards of the planet and everything and everyone on it. There are many reasons we all do the things we do; we tackle problems from different angles, and there are many positive aspects of our actions that we might not often stop to think about. But I, still trying to find joy in the benign, everyday experience, have thought about it quite a bit lately.

To me, even if suddenly issues like peak oil and climate change were no longer a problem, I would still continue to live the way I do and continue to try to live better with less, to me it doesn’t seem right that just because I live in an affluent nation I should be able to consume so much more than my fair share of the world’s resources. Let’s go out on a limb even further and say that global hunger and inequality were suddenly eradicated overnight, I would still live this way as I feel a wonderful sense of calm, freedom and homeostasis with the world around me.

Let me explain further. There is a concept Barry Schwartz talks about in the book The Paradox of Choice. It basically states that choice is a positive thing, to an extent, but it can get to the point where there is so much choice that even the simplest decision is suddenly not so simple. And if one is a conscious consumer of either products or information, there is even more anxiety that goes into decisions such as “what type of cereal should I buy? I have 75 different choices?!” or even more difficult “what source of news should I trust?” Living simply reduces a lot of these choices, though one’s choice of media is no simple decision no matter what, but when you buy locally, say at the farmer’s market, there is a variety of choice, but it is still limited in many ways. You won’t find lemons at the farmer’s market in Missouri, nor will you find 5 different kinds of them! If you subscribe to a CSA as we do, well, you get what they give you, and that makes things pretty easy.

But living simply goes far beyond consumerism; it has a lot to do with what you don’t do. Giving up our car was perhaps the most liberating thing I’ve ever done. Getting somewhere on my own accord is such a rewarding feeling. I know I am doing my part to reduce the negative aspects of gasoline. Not to mention, I don’t make useless trips, and thus get useless stuff, I have to think twice before I go somewhere as my ability to get there depends on the bus schedule, the weather, and if I feel like walking. At first this was tough, but then I began to appreciate having to figure out other things to do with my time. I began to do things like watch the birds in the neighborhood, even though they are just ‘lowly’ house sparrows, starlings, robins, cardinals, etc, and let me tell you, they are truly fascinating. Some of my favorite things to do now include taking a walk to the garden after dinner or reading a good book on a Friday night with the windows open and a nice cool breeze, not very exciting, but truly enjoyable and peaceful activities.

I spend time growing my own food, attempting to play music, learning about the people I care about, spending time with my animals, cooking, really very basic things.

I know so many people who feel overwhelmed by the ‘hustle and bustle’ of life, and I feel truly bad for them. We only have one life, and there is so much around us that we miss, small gestures from kind neighbors, baby squirrels making their way around one’s neighborhood, these small things are truly what matter in the end. We often complain about how we ‘have no time’ and for many this is a valid complaint. However, I often feel like we spend an awful lot of time talking about how little time we have, and we have to remember that we choose how to spend what little free time we do have. It feels wonderful to slow down, spend more time preparing meals, reading, enjoying nature, good friends, family, and neighbors.

Why am I waxing poetic like this? I guess it’s that I’ve seen a lot of signs of changes in our world to come, things that could be very bad like potential wars or climate catastrophes, possibly economic depression or collapse. But I also see signs of a change in the conception of reality for many people, close friends and family are coming around in ways I never thought possible, and I’m constantly amazed at the caring and resourceful people all over the world doing their little part. Not to mention, living in fear or with intense anxiety over a future out of one’s control can leave one feeling helpless and hopeless and cause many people to either just give up or become paralyzed with fear.

I live simply for many reasons, but I’ve found that as I’ve simplified my life, I’ve also limited the things to be anxious about but expanded the things I can get joy out of because I now appreciate things I used to take for granted. I’m truly happy, and I think many others too find immense personal satisfaction and joy in doing what they think is right: living simply, doing more with less, and having an identity defined by much more than the stuff they own or the size of their paycheck, or even how they earn that paycheck. I am much more than an Institutional Research Analyst.

I can only hope that if our world is forced to live a more humble way of life in the future that it can resemble something similar to the scene in my neighborhood last night. It was a gorgeous night; folks were out on their porches, cooling off and enjoying the weather; families were gathering to chat in the parking lots; a group of kids from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds were playing a rudimentary game of soccer in the parking lot; kids on bikes, a common nighthawk screeching and diving for bugs, you get the picture. It was a wonderful scene and it again illustrates how rich and beautiful a simple life can be.

I must also make note of the amazing sense of community the internet has fostered. It seems that many feel isolated in their physical communities. Not many people share our interests or values; we are vested in different things. Some of us, as we move through different levels of understanding about the world around us, begin to become distanced from those that used to be close to us, as we no longer see reality in the same ways. The common ground upon which we once stood is no longer there. Our neighbors are more like strangers. But what we’ve forged here in the blogosphere, though not real in the physical sense, has all the aspects of a functioning community, and I can’t speak for others, but you all have taught me so much, enriched my life, and given me a sense of belonging that is hard to feel when you are ‘out of the mainstream’. I think, given the specialized, self interested nature of many of our Western societies, like minded people may not be found next door, they may be across the world, but so long as we are there for each other, continue to teach each other, to continue to help each other through the troubles we all face, personal or as a whole, we have a common interest and common goals that bind us in ways our physical communities used to. That is not to discount our physical communities – anyone from Columbia, Missouri who reads this blog and is interested in what we stand for or have to say, please contact us; we would love to connect with more like minded people – but until things change, by choice or necessity, at least we have something, and as humble and minimal as it is, it is something to be thankful for.

So what do you guys think? In your journey to live a more ethical, sustainable, and socially just life, have you experienced any unexpected positive outcomes? Has living simply made your relationships easier, more satisfying or a nightmare? What has the blogging community brought to your life? To your sense of belongingness and ability to influence those around you? Do you see positive change on the horizon or more of the same? What keeps you all plugging away, doing what you can to make the world a better place?


Lisa (Show Me Vegan) said...

I was recently telling a friend about the research behind more choices= more dissatifaction with the ulimate choice. Drives me crazy to have to spend 15 minutes staring at panty hose packs to figure out which one out of 100 varieties is what I need. A silly example, but this is how consumer crazy our country has gone.

Anyway, the blogging community means a lot to me as a vegan in a part of the country that's not vegan friendly. It helped me make the change, and helps me stay optimistic that my part of the world can change for the better.

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

Lisa - So true. Often times, even when we do finally come to a decision on something, from simple things, like which pantyhose will work for me, or where to send one's child to day care, we are never quite satisfied. We often wonder, did I make the right decision? Was choice "x" better than the one I chose? So your example, in my opinion, is not silly at all, I mean, I think it shows how much anxiety is in our daily lives. If it is this tough to buy pantyhose or cereal, the decision on what news source to trust or whom to entrust your savings is overwhelming.

I can't remember who came up with the concept, it may have actually been discussed in Schwartz's book as well, but it was suggested that we learn to 'satisfice'. Basically, find something that is sufficient to our needs and deem it satisfactory on that basis. This keeps us from second guessing our decisions all the time and it makes us feel alright with 'good enough'.

So true, I can very much understand since we both live in Missouri. The blogging community has made me feel like much less of a 'freak' for the way I choose to eat and live my life. The people here help you with your struggles and I agree, it's also very hopeful, we see people from many other 'unfriendly' parts of the country and the world managing day-by-day just as we are.

callina said...

Great post, and I couldn't agree more. Since I've started simplifying my lifestyle, I've changed a lot. I was in San Francisco a few days ago, and even though it is a great city, I realized I'm just not a city person anymore! I used to LOVE big cities. Now I get tense, stressed and claustrophobic, even from just being on a crowded bus, or waiting in a huge line in a busy restaurant. Not only that, but as I observed many of the locals, I felt sorry for them--they're constantly plugging away at the Blackberries, talking on their cell phones, going a mile a minute. I'm happy for them if they're happy with that lifestyle, and no offense to anyone who enjoys the hustle and bustle of a city, but I'm so glad that my life isn't like that.

Now I enjoy nature more. I'm going camping with Andrew next week, and I'm so excited! Anyone who knows me is probably shocked because a year or two ago, I would have outright refused to go camping!

My attitudes have definitely shifted, and I'm constantly looking for ways to simplify even more. I want to get rid of my cell phone, I can't wait until I don't have cable (I get it now because it's included in my rent, and it's the DEVIL!), and I can't wait to be more self-sufficient with food.

I think I've come a long way, but I can still get suckered in to consumerism and all those choices--although I think the difference is now, a trip to Target isn't just another everyday errand; it's a treat, and I've definitely been making fewer trips and thinking about "do I really need this?" each time I want to buy something.

I'm also really thankful I found your blog--it's really nice to find people who share this view about the "simple life." Bonus points for being in Columbia, I'm hoping we'll get the chance to meet soon after I move back!

Alice (in Veganland) said...

Whenever I go to a clothes store I'm so overwhelmed that I cannot buy anything. I have to go twice! I think about it and then come back.
But what I really find overwhelming are the choices in life. I read about it in a book called "Liquid Modernity", by Zygmunt Bauman. He says we are often unhappy because we have too many possible roles in life, and of course we cannot have everything, which causes us anxiety. Well, he explained it better of course ;-)

The blogging community is very important to me because I'm far away from friends and family, and I'm not completely integrated here. This is my way of interacting with people with the same interests!

Cookiemouse said...

Jennifer, you are so right. When we are spoiled for choice it just adds to the confusion. A simple life is a good life. Consumption does not bring happiness. Once we have what we need it is better to enjoy the time we have to share with each other.

Anonymous said...

Amen sister! We so often confuse the nuances of choice with control over our lives or destinies...silly, silly humans. Choice is empowering, but so much depends on what it is we are chosing.

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

Callina - Thank you very much. I used to think I could never live in the country, and now, when I go home to St. Louis, a much bigger city than Columbia, I feel overwhelmed. I always think "How did I avoid going insane here?! Where the hell are the trees?"

You and I would get along smashingly. I hate going to crowded places, seriously. It makes me feel like you do. I think I know what a rat in a cage must feel like, cause I just can't wait to get out of those places.

I agree, if you are happy with that lifestyle great, but I almost have a hard time understanding how one could enjoy it. Fathers who work 80 hours a week and miss their childrens lives, how can that be at all rewarding, stuff does not replace relationships. You know, the other day Brett and I were walking around Shelter Gardens, and there was a guy walking, talking on his ear piece phone in the garden! He can't even relax while relaxing! If I lost my phone tomorrow, I would not be upset in the least.

You know what I think is so interesting? Why, just because we live in a city, do we have to live 'life in the fast lane'? Is it not possible to 'slow down' and still live comfortably in the city? I ask these as rhetorical questions as that is what Brett and I are trying to do, though I know many people would argue that Columbia isn't really a 'city'.

Camping! I don't know how I'd do with that, but I would be williing to try it!

It's shocking the amount of change one can go through in just a few years. My family is speechless, and when I look back on how I used to be, it's hard to believe that, well, I'm the same person!

We all still have a long way to go, we all do. It's easy to get caught up in convenience, novelty, or whatever, I think all people in affluent nations are succeptible to that. You have changed a lot and still see you have a ways to go, you see where you have grown and where you need to go, give yourself much deserved kudos for being able to see that. You ask yourself the questions you know you need to ask and you make the right decisions, I am proud of you, Brett, myself, and everyone I've met trying to live a better life.

I am glad you found me too, when I started going to your blog and saw how much we had in common, and that you were coming back to Columbia, I thought that was really cool.

Alice - Hahahaha! I feel your pain. It doesn't help that I'm really short (5'1) and even the 'petite' (short people) pants are a little too long for me. And there is no such thing as 'regular' anymore. There have been times I have looked at a piece of clothing and truly not known how one would possibly go about getting it on!

Brett actually has to go shopping with me to force me to do it, and he hates shopping a lot too. You see, I will go into a store, look at one rack, not like something on it, and discount the whole store. I just want to be out of there! I have found second-hand shops to be far less intimidating and there isn't too much choice, or all the smells, lights, and sounds.

Thanks for the book recommendation, I will have to check it out, it sounds very interesting.

Cookiemouse - I couldn't agree more. Beyond the basics, I could care less, so long as I have my family, friends, and health. I used to care about stuff a lot and somewhere along the way realized I was a pretty empty and shallow person. There is that cliche 'you can't take stuff with ya', and I really try to abide by that. And too much choice just leads to anxiety and second guessing, essentially too much energy and time invested in decisions that don't matter.

Shellyfish - Well put! And I couldn't agree more that we humans are VERY silly. Sometimes the best choices are the things we choose not to have or do.

jessy said...

for me - living simply has definitely made me a happier person. i do find myself with more time, and i find myself relaxed more, too. it's refreshing. sometimes i feel kind of out of place though - i have a few friends who are like-minded, but some of them aren't quite on the "reduce, reuse, and recycling/green" bandwagon yet - i'll admit it can be frustrating at times. but i need to remember that you can't change people - people have to change themselves. all i can do is be a positive example and hope they catch on!

the internet has helped me feel more accepted and i've found many open & like-minded people in this community as well. it's so nice and i love sharing my views and being around this wealth of information, experiences, stories, etc. it's comforting knowing that others are trying hard to reduce their impact and living more simply while trying to reach out to others and impact them as well!

i agree with you too, Jennifer. when we've got a million choices we've got more opportunities to be dissatisfied. we then second guess ourselves and can be thrown into feelings of anxiety, doubt, confusion and sometimes even anger. it's very frustrating. i like reducing and living more simply - because i do have time to "stop and smell the roses". i can only hope that others find happiness in reducing as well. it teaches you to appreciate, slow down, and realize that stuff doesn't make you happier - slowing down and living life does.

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

Jessy - Thank you for your well thought out and wonderful response, it is much appreciated.

I couldn't agree more, you know, when I talk with others, not like myself, and describe what it is that we 'do' when not working, people seem to think it would be boring. I think the key is to enjoy the moment, not just always be waiting for what is going to happen next.

I also agree about feeling out of place. Those I used to be close to are now almost to strangers to me. We don't enjoy doing the same things anymore or even view reality similarly. It has been tough, the more you simplify your life, in this hectic world, the 'stranger' you become, which of course can lead to further alienation. I have a hard time with people now, haven't found too many like minded folks outside the internet.

You also bring up the VERY important point that we can't and shouldn't try to change people. We can live by example, but others have to go their own way, take their time, their own path, and do it themselves. If one hopes that any positive change will stick, it has to be done for personal reasons, not because someone told you it was the right thing to do.

The internet has helped me greatly in my transition as well. As you noted, when you begin to change, it can leave you alienated and distanced from those you used to have relationships with, the internet is a way to find folks to continue to struggle, complain, and be supportive with. It might not be ideal, but it's what we have right now.

And I thank you Jessy. I'm very happy I found your blog. You are a truly inspirational person with a good head on your shoulders and a huge heart. Your emphasis on reducing consumption and helping those in need is a constant reminder of WHY we continue to struggle to change things, and how we can learn so much from each other on our journey towards that change. So thank you Jessy, for just being you!

When you slow down and reduce your consumption, I think you begin to see how silly and frivolous many of the things one used to covet are - at least I did. You also see the negative consequences of our chasing the dream of stuff. Too many choices lead to anxiety, second guessing, constantly worried about how well you are 'keeping up with the Jones', anger, and all the like. I think that choice, to an extent, is vital for freedom and democracy, however, it comes to a point, where as Shelly noted, choice in this country has become a stand in for participatory democracy and even freedom. We can not marry whom we want to (gay marriage), some would like to be able to choose our methods of family planning for us, we are being spied upon by our own government, tracked by corporations, but dammit we have the choice to buy pretty much whatever we want.

If that's what freedom is - or at least has become, I want no part in it.

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