Virtual Simplicity

Excerpts from the on-line Voluntary Simplicity Study Circle

One of the articles in A Good Harvest (IC#42)
Originally published in Fall 1995 on page 5
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

Since our on-line voluntary simplicity study circle began in April, we’ve been wanting to pass along some of the innovative ideas flying between computer screens near and far. At last count, IC reader Martin Tracy, our volunteer postmaster, reported 90 subscribers, with one or two new requests every day.

These people share a common interest in IN CONTEXT, voluntary simplicity, and communicating on-line. Their philosophies, anecdotes, techniques, quandaries, and concerns have sparked conversation among IC staff in recent weeks (yes, some of us are "lurkers" and we even contribute sometimes) and we’d like to share a selection with you. Topics have ranged from the mundane to the esoteric, with discussions about the information revolution, gift giving, and the social pressure of materialism.

The idea for the study circle came from IC reader Tracy Springberry of Spokane, WA. She asked if we could provide a forum for herself and others who are unable to connect with people in their area to talk about ways of living more in keeping with their values. As evidenced by this sampling from the on-line study circle, our readers are the experts in this arena.

Following is one string of conversation:

My personal struggle with voluntary simplicity is trying to figure out if it’s a state of mind or a state of trappings. Is it correct to say, "I think I live simply, therefore I do?" Every now and then I go through a purging stage; old books get exchanged, old clothes recycled, and gazingus pins recognized and discarded. It makes me feel good, but then I realize there are still boxes of "things" to deal with. And what about those "things" that give pleasure? I like collecting stamps because their art and history fascinate me. I don’t collect them as an investment or to accumulate, but to appreciate. Is this form of collecting consistent with a VS lifestyle?

– Steve Clements
La Grande, OR

[Ed. Note: Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, in Your Money or Your Life, use the term "gazingus pins" to describe useless objects of consumption that are (unsuccessfully) used as a means of inner fulfillment.]

I think VS must first be a state of mind. It sounds like you are there to me. The beauty of VS is that YOU decide what trappings are important to you. The truly unnecessary stuff seems to just fall away once you accept a VS mindset. Bicycles and cycling are my interest and I spend a fair amount on them within my VS budget, but I have consciously and proactively chosen to do so and they give me a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction. Sounds like stamps do that for you.

– David Heitmiller
Seattle, WA

Hi Steve! I also go through a periodic purging stage. For me, the object is to eliminate possessions until I am surrounded by only those things that bring me pleasure and beauty. It is hardest to rid myself of possessions which are part of stories I tell about myself: college books, which say "I’m smart, I’ve been to college," Army uniforms which say "I’m a real man, I’m a Vietnam vet," etc.

For some years I was convinced that if I gave up all my costumes, masks, and stories, there would be nothing left. Finally, one month I accidentally went through everything. And nothing happened.

So if collecting stamps brings you pleasure, collect more! IMHO [computerese for "in my humble opinion"], simplicity has to do with inner harmony, and editing possessions is only a tool to achieve this.

– Martin Tracy
Los Angeles, CA

Agreed! I constantly am counteracting the misnomer that VS means austerity, poverty, and deprivation. It’s getting rid of all the clutter and chaff so that we can really appreciate the important, beautiful, and fulfilling.

– David Heitmiller
Seattle, WA

People do seem to overreact to the concept of VS (out of defensiveness?). In the black-and-white view, if you are rejecting the values of our dominant culture, that must mean you want to "turn back the clock" and eke out a marginal living in a squalid little hut somewhere.

On the other hand, though, I think that VS does have to involve an element of austerity, poverty, and deprivation. Once we get used to it, it may no longer seem that way to us, but to outsiders, VS must certainly seem austere. And deprived, too (relative to others in our industrial society, not relative to the world average, of course). Part of becoming non-materialistic is learning to want something but not go out and buy it because of that want. With enough practice at this, the wants themselves begin to fade.

If we say that VS is just about simplicity, beauty, and freedom from clutter, then we run the risk of turning it from a movement with an ethical foundation into a mere lifestyle choice. The style section of the Sunday newspaper could run articles on VS, and interior decorators could recommend "the VS look" to their wealthy clients.

We have to acknowledge that VS does involve deprivation, or at least the feeling of deprivation, before the beauty and simplicity that comes with that deprivation become evident. Given the state of the world, however, even if VS made life uglier and more complicated, I still feel we’d have an ethical responsibility to pursue it.

I’d say that VS is both a state of mind and a practical state of non-materialistic "living lightly." To me, the latter is the more important, the part of VS that satisfies the ethical mandate we’re under. But the state of mind is that crucial part of VS that makes it all worthwhile, that transforms our deprivation into simplicity and beauty.

This brings me to an interest of mine: how do we teach and encourage others to adopt VS? I’d make a broad generalization about two different populations.

First, there are the poor and lower middle-class (whatever that term means anymore) who are striving to get their piece of the (illusory) pie, who would say they are living in "involuntary simplicity" and argue that VS is elitist.

Second are the relatively well-off folks who’ve grown up with (or gotten used to having) "everything." These folks will have acquired habitual "needs" for comfort and ease, and probably won’t believe that they could be happy while leading a non-materialistic, non-affluent life. Anyone have any ideas?

– David Flanagan
Athens, GA

I think our personal examples are the strongest means of promotion. If you really live it, and are happy, it comes through to people even in casual conversations.

For those folks leading lives of involuntary simplicity, it certainly is a different story. Somehow we need to get the message across that yes, you need to get a level of basic needs met, but more stuff beyond that does not equal more happiness. A tough message, if you have never had even the basics. The more of us who get into VS, however, the more time we have to give back and to help those who need to be brought up from involuntary simplicity.

– David Heitmiller
Living simply in Seattle!

One of the nice things I remember from my "collecting" days is the great opportunity it provides for sharing and swapping with fellow aficionados. This is very much part of a VS attitude.

I also find that by making more things myself, I can afford to be generous. I brew beer and wine, and it costs me only pennies to provide visitors with a drink. When I make pickles and chutneys there is usually plenty to spare for gifts to friends, and they are always appreciated.

(Well, maybe not that last batch of dandelion wine …)

– Toni Scott
Buckinghampshire, UK

Toni’s comments on brewing and canning bring to mind the idea that VS can entail the purchase of useful things, like tools and canning supplies. Trappings that are useful because you, yourself, add the value.

Owning some things – things that can be shared or used to produce something else – is, to me, an acceptable form of VS. I think that’s why the philosophy of VS is so attractive to me. It represents independence of thought and action, while encouraging cooperation and community.

– Steve Clements
La Grande, OR

I see this discussion focusing on the "stuff" end of life. And certainly we seem to be killing our environment with all of our "stuff." Yet how much is the problem really a matter of "stuff?" If as a society we gave as much attention to our relationships as we do to our houses and cars we would probably have a lot less of a problem on our hands.

So for me the crux of VS is learning to live a life of Quality. This doesn’t mean buying top of the line instead of bargain basement. What it means to me is to put the Quality of life at the forefront of my decision making.

Will this decision enhance my relationship with my wife or my sons? Will this decision bring me into a better relationship with my community or my environment?

For me, VS is more of feeling than an intellectual thought or idea. I’m still struggling to learn more about VS at a deep level as well as practice it.

– Steve Kimple
Salem, OR

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