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Value Added

This morning was an errand-running, back-and-forthing, radio-in-the-car-listening kind of morning. Part of the time was spent listening to an interview with the “The Minimalists.” Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Milburn are currently on a mini-tour through Alberta to promote their book called Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life. It’s a familiar enough riches to rags kind of story. A couple of young, single, fabulously wealthy young men gradually discover that money and stuff can’t buy fulfillment and happiness and they decide to downsize. They flee the trappings of corporate America for the mountains of Montana where they live simply, write books, start a website and a small indie publishing house, and do all kinds of other things to spread the gospel of simple and intentional living. Wonderful stuff.

Today, however, was not the morning for me to hear the clarion call to simplicity and minimal living. Today is a day when I am feeling less than enthusiastic about the merits of smaller and less. 

By many (although by no means all) standards, our family already lives a relatively “minimal” life. We have a small house, we walk and ride our bikes when possible, we don’t carry much debt, we give a decent amount of money away, we buy clothes second-hand, we try to keep our “footprint” small, we (sometimes) buy fair trade, etc. We’re not exactly poster children for austerity, but certainly by Alberta standards—where the trucks, the houses, and the belt buckles are all just a bit bigger—we are not living large.

But sometimes I want to. There are times when it just seems like we’re always on top of each other, when I’ve tripped over the kids’ shoes in the small entryway one too many times, when I’m fruitlessly hunting around for a place to put my laptop and books so we can set the kitchen table for dinner, when I’ve banged my shin on the bed frame in our small bedroom for the third time in a day, when the neighbours we share a wall with are yelling at each other again, when I’m hanging my wet hockey or soccer gear up in a tiny little corner of our laundry room and consistently either, a) bashing my head on the shelf along the wall; or b) getting tangled up in the laundry hanging on the line that runs from one wall to the other…Well, you get the point. The point is that there are times when living small and simple doesn’t seem very romantic or inspiring—times when even the usually reliable last bastion of smug, self-congratulatory feelings of virtuousness proves elusive. There are times when it’s just annoying.

I know I’m not supposed to say this. I know that I’m not supposed to like stuff as much as I do. I know that Jesus taught and embraced a lifestyle of simplicity and detachment from the trappings of the world. I know that Mennonites have historically championed the values of simplicity, sustainability, responsible stewardship, contentment with less, etc., etc. I know all this. But I’m not Jesus. I’m probably not even a very good Mennonite. Sometimes I just want that big house or that exotic trip (Brazil 2014, anyone? World Cup tour!), or that new motorcycle, or that new pair of skis, or that $200 hockey stick, or that gas-guzzling, jacked up monster truck with flames emblazoned across the side and a quarter-million dollar RV in tow…

Um, well, that last part isn’t really true. I’m getting a bit carried away, clearly…

At any rate, near the end of the interview with “The Minimalists” today, the radio host asked them if they thought they would still be embracing this lifestyle in ten or twenty years. When they had a family, for example. Or once the bloom had come off the minimalist rose—once living simply was a bit less fashionable than it is at present. “I don’t know,” one of them said. “I think it would just depend on what my values were. I assume that my values will evolve and change over time. The main thing is to be aware of this and to just always be true to your values.”

Right, be true to my values.

Wait, what?

My values? But isn’t the point of writing a book and going on the radio at least in part an attempt to get your readers/listeners to change their values? To consider different values? Better values? Values that are more ethical or true or beneficial or consistent or sustainable or something? Aren’t you kind of saying that the world would be a better, happier, more fair and equitable place if everyone embraced the values of minimalism? Surely it can’t just be about me and whatever I happen to value at this or that stage of my life. Surely, the answer can’t just be as flighty and trivially vacuous as “being true to myself and my values.”

The thing is, sometimes my values can get a bit screwy. Sometimes I value the wrong things. Or, I value the right things, wrongly. Sometimes it is precisely my values that need to be rejected or at the very least, modified, rearticulated, or better informed.  When I am valuing pleasure and comfort too highly, my values need to be challenged. When I am valuing consumption and acquisition too eagerly, my values need to be corrected. When I am valuing stuff and fleeting experiences at the expense of depth and human relationships, my values need to be steered back on course. When I am anchoring too much of my hope and fulfillment in the present, I need to be reminded of the longer, truer view.

No, my values are not nearly reliable enough a foundation upon which to base a life. It is only by embracing a value and a source of value that transcends, defines, corrects, and reorients my own values that I will come to anything resembling a sure foundation upon which to ground a good and true way of being in this world.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I have some of the same thoughts, but for me it’s more wanting things for my children, wife, and also to show people that I’ve “made it” – whatever that stupid phrase means, why I need to prove anything to anyone is still beyond me intellectually, but emotionally it’s still there. There’s still the desire to “show” people I’m someone, but as I said, intellectually I know that’s a silly notion. To prove I’ve ‘made it’ by the stuff I’ve accumulated it’s a pretty backwards notion given all my other values. As you mention Ryan, often times our values are conflicted or we have a hard time discerning our true values compared to those imposed notions of success, desire, want or similar. Glad to know I have a fellow pilgrim in this sometimes confusing life in the physical.

    June 11, 2013
    • I really resonate with this. It’s one thing to embrace a simple life, to whatever degree, for yourself. It’s quite another to do it on behalf of others—especially kids, whose categories for analyzing and reflecting upon how to relate to stuff is still very much in formation.

      And I feel the same way re: proving that I’ve “made it.” I can articulate a hundred different reasons (some of them even good ones!) for not buying into and participating in this myth. But at the end of the day, I want others to see me in a certain light. Our categories for evaluating success are so impoverished, but it’s really hard not to more or less completely buy into them.

      Yes, you certainly have a fellow pilgrim :).

      June 11, 2013
  2. mike #

    ….”I know all this. But I’m not Jesus”….hahahahahaha… Outstanding post!, I love the raw honesty.

    June 12, 2013

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