A Simpler Life

I am among those who believe that the current recession, while painful, is a necessary correction, one that will help lead toward a more sustainable culture, a stronger economy, and importantly, more contentment and happiness.

The foundation of the American experiment is dug deep in the hearts of its people. It is built on an indomitable work ethic, uncommon generosity and the collective pursuit of the common good. Its antithesis is indolence, personal indulgence and selfishness. The virtuous cycle of the former is the well-spring of our greatness, while the vicious cycle of the latter is a recipe for any civilization’s imminent ruin.

Our apparent willingness to trade our hard-won values for a quick road to the “high life” can now be recognized as the worst kind of “deal with the devil.” In the classic Faust legend, he was at least attempting to trade for knowledge; our bargain was only for money and stuff but just like Faust, we ended up losing things far more precious than what can be easily summed.

Of course, the temptation of an easier way has probably always lured people away from their core principles. The American character was hewn to shape in the making of a country. Somewhere, deep in our memory, is the passion and tenacity of the people, who created entire civilized communities out of raw wilderness; who cleared fields of stumps and stone; who built houses, barns, churches, meeting halls and whole towns with bare hands and mutual effort. In the process, they did more work in less time than it took slaves to build the Roman Empire. The intrigue of the American story is the nuanced mystery of what it is that brings about the best of humanity.

Still, the devolution of values has always been a constant possibility and real worry of leaders and wise men through the ages. What John Adams wrote to his brother-in-law at the turn of the 19th century would have been a timely warning for the beginning of the 21st century:

“I am no enemy to elegance, but I say no man has a right to think of elegance till he has secured substance; nor then, to seek more of it than he can afford.”

Later, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1819, Adams sounded despairing, as if trends had not gone his way.

“Will you tell me how to prevent luxury from becoming effeminacy, intoxication, extravagance and folly?”

In a few short months, we’ve learned a lot about the link between “extravagance and folly.” The happy illusion that the lifestyle and amentities of your choice could be had without effort did, in fact, intoxicate enough people to cripple the economy when the bitter scheme of it unraveled. We therefore have sobering evidence that Adams’ admonition about living within one’s means and “substance before elegance” is the correct mantra for a better way of thinking, acting and living. It’s a more sustainable approach that is available and applicable at all levels, individually and collectively. Taken together, it’s a prescription for a simpler life; for less grasping for more, and more accepting of less.

Wealth, after all, is not a measurement of asset accumulation, but is instead only an irritating, artificial gap between what you have and what you want. This is how some people who have much become poor, and people with very little can become rich. Learning to satisfy one’s needs and desires with less money and effort is the surest and fastest route to real wealth.

There’s nothing new here. Sages and religious leaders have been banging this drum for ages. It’s just an old truth about how to best live that is now hitting us hard once again as we witness the brutal consequences of ignoring those timeless lessons. This time, I believe the correction will stick (at least for a generation or so) because the change is needed and shifting toward frugality and self-reliance actually comes pretty naturally. There is more of Thoreau than Trump in our collective psyche.

Frugality parallels humility in the same way that ostentation parallels conceit and narcissism. The simpler life makes elegance and wealth a choice instead of a purchase. It democratizes “the pursuit of happiness.”

This brings me back to my uncle Clyde, who I wrote about in my last blog. Clyde never made more than $16K/year, but he was never poor and never deprived. (When I was young, I thought he was rich because of the big tips he left at restaurants.) When he retired, the house he could afford was too small, so he became an owner-builder, took courses in plumbing and electrical work and, with the help of a friend from his Chicago church, built an addition to make the home more adequate to his needs. What he built wasn’t fancy or elegant, but it had substance. It had exactly the qualities that mattered to Clyde and his wife. He built it himself.

I think one of the very best things that could come out of this recession is people reconnecting with the process of homebuilding. Actually, it’s the “turnkey” alternative that’s pretty unnatural. Historically, people have usually had a bigger influence on the making of their “nest.” Given the cost and the compromises, it doesn’t always make sense to simply buy a home complete and entire unto itself without personal intervention at some part of the construction or finishing stages. Over the years, we have worked with many owner-builders and those are some of our finest homes and best experiences. Their personal involvement always makes things better, less expensive and much, much more personalized to their needs and desires.

In the coming years, I see a trend where people are going to be rightfully wary of big mortgages on big houses with lots of superficial glitz and little substance at the core. To get it done right, in a way they can afford, I think many more people will be willing to get involved and manage the process directly, build more incrementally, and control the quality completely.

Best reaction to a recession? Opt out; start building!

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