December 4, 2013

Finding the balance between simplicity and excess

By Daniel Runnels–


Reduce, reuse, and recycle. The three R’s are well-known. You can even put a cute little symbol on a bumper sticker or product packaging to let it be known that you are into being green. To be sure, lots of us are really good at the third R – recycling is pretty easy these days. It just means putting your plastic bottle in the blue bin instead of the black one, or leaving glass and cardboard in a different container so that the recycling people pick it up on Thursday morning instead of the trash people on Wednesday morning. What about the first two R’s? Those are much harder. Part of being green means simply having fewer things, reducing the amount of stuff you have. This is largely contrary to the way we do life.


We get conflicting messages about having material wealth. President Obama constantly hails consumer spending as the answer to many of our countries problems – Just get out there and buy stuff! It will increase capital flow, banks will start lending again, companies will invest in new products and new hires, the nation’s deficit will plummet and all will be well – rarely a word about whether or not you actually need a third TV.


Pope Francis, on the other hand, recently outlined a fairly biting critique of global capitalism, a system that encourages over-consumption. His recent publication is not so terribly different from other church writings on economics, but it is made powerful by his decision to live humbly. Instead of taking residence in the apostolic palace, he stays in a modest guest room. He teaches by example.


There is something romantic about choosing to live humbly. I am reminded of a man I met a number of years ago during a summer I spent in southern France: Rogelio, a Mexican hombre who has lived just about everywhere. He was so cool! He spoke multiple languages, kind of looked like Tarzan, and had very few material possessions. He wore plain white t-shirts every day and kept all of his belongings in a small black duffle bag.


Rogelio was pretty inspiring for me. So care-free! And able to pick up and move across the world at the drop of a hat! Wow!


I have, at times, felt like I was living a Rogelio-like existence. The feeling of not being tied down by things is very freeing. I learned something though. If you don’t have anything, you don’t have anything to give.


My friend Rogelio doesn’t have a car, so he can’t take a friend to the airport when they need it. He doesn’t have a couch so he can’t give someone who is passing through town a place to sleep. He doesn’t have a kitchen so he can’t cook a meal for his buddies.


How can I reconcile these two opposing models? Living humbly is both green and idyllic, but I want to be able to bless people and honor them in tangible ways. A couple years ago I got some great advice from Manuel, a teacher at a school where I used to work. He suggested that one of the most important things is “not to be a slave to anything.” This is how I think I can square this circle. It isn’t healthy to feel bad about having and buying nice things. The problem is when these things start to occupy an outsized importance in your life. If I make sure that the things I have enhance my life and put me in a position to honor others, I think I reach the correct balance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *