Here I separate virtue from ethics in this way: I have used ethics to refer to the good simplicity does “outside” (in the world), whereas virtue refers to the good that simplicity does “inside” (in the heart of the one who practices it). More than any other article I have written about simplicity this depends almost 100% on my personal experience throughout the past 6-7 years.
One of the things I’ve learned on my minimalist journey is how much laziness is responsible for our profligate living. There was a time where I bought more clothes simply because I didn’t like having to do laundry so often. There was also a time where I appreciated owning a lot of dishes because that meant I rarely had to wash the dirty ones. As sad as it is I would rather have bought new things than spend the time washing/maintaining what I already had. When you have few things, however, you are forced to keep them clean. While I was single and living simply I lived with one plate, one bowl, one cup, one fork, one spoon, one butter knife, and one paring knife. I had two pots (one small and one large), one skillet, one dutch-oven, one casserole dish, and one pan for baking. This forced me to wash my dishes immediately after they were used or else I had nothing on which to eat the next meal. It helped me overcome the laziness that once ran my life. Now that I’m married we have a few more dishes but I learned the lesson. It is better to wash what is dirty than to multiply dishes/clothes for the sake of convenience.
When you commit to living with less you begin to notice how much shopping has ceased to be a decision. Rather, it has become an impulse. A habit. You are constantly compelled to buy this or that and you do so without thinking about it. Even after I committed to living with less I found that the impulse continued, just in a different way. Whereas before I bought all sorts of things I now saw “the error of my ways.” I began to ask myself what was important. I asked myself what I was called to do. When I knew that I was called to be a teacher of some sort I stopped buying things that did not support that calling. Practically that meant that I only bought books. But here’s what I mean when I said the impulse continued: I bought books faster than I could read them. If I found a valuable insight as I read I would check the footnote to discover from whence the quote came and I would immediately buy the book. I had a huge fear of missing out. I always felt like this next book would be “the one,” the key to wisdom, the answer to all of my questions. I averaged between $800-$1,000 a year on books alone. It seemed like I was buying books at least every two weeks, sometimes more often than that. And what happened? I still have unread books on my shelf. So this year I’m making a change. At the end of last year (2016) I took stock of about how many books I read in the year and I realized that I have more than that many books left unread at home. I quite literally have over a year’s worth of unread books. So I decided that this year I am not buying any books for myself. In fact, after I committed to buying no books for myself I thought, “Why stop there?” I decided that I would not buy anything for myself this year (bills and groceries excepted, of course). Not even a coffee at Starbucks, which I always count a luxury. And I’m learning about self-control. I’m learning how often the impulse to buy still rises up. But simplicity is changing me. It’s helping me learn to say “no” and over come the fear of missing out.
It may seem odd to think that it takes courage to live a simple life but it’s true. And I don’t think you can appreciate how much courage it takes until you’ve tried it. Because as often as people applaud the idea of living simply it turns out that most people don’t like it very much. For some reason they feel judged just being around you. If you decide to live differently they feel that you are somehow implying that you are better or more enlightened. And (in my experience) they usually respond in at least one of two ways, and usually both. 1. They try to convince you not to live simply. They come up with every reason why you need a television, why you need two cars, why you need more dishes, why you need knick-knacks on your walls and on your shelves, and why you need more clothes. 2. They ridicule you. Words like “naive” and “impractical” are often used. They can’t imagine living with less, not to mention how someone could possibly be happier living that way. So, in the face of all of this, courage is necessary. In the face of ridicule and the many arguments trying to convince you that you need more you will have to be able to stand your ground and say no. And the pressure is incredible. I never realized how much it matters to other people that I be “like them” until I decided that I didn’t want to be. People have even gone so far as to offer to buy things for me. Whether that was because they thought simple living was just a mask for involuntary poverty or because they can’t stand the existence of something different, I don’t know. Either way, people often try to force you to assimilate and they are offended when you resist. If living simply has taught me about work-ethic and self-control it has taught me ten times more about courage.
Though I have only focused upon these three virtues I’m sure that others could be named. And whereas people applaud work-ethic, self-control, and courage they often live lives which mitigate against the development of those virtues. They choose the convenient way, even if it means spending more money. They give in to the impulse to buy-buy-buy because it feels good. And they are often afraid to stand out. By no means is minimalism the only way to develop these virtues but our rituals make us who we are. And the discipline of simplicity certainly helps develop the virtues necessary to be simply human.
©M. Benfield 2017