The Simpler Life

A simpler life has many definitions. Maybe it means less cares or stresses, fewer responsibilities, no money worries, retirement, or maybe it’s a vision of how life used to be.

Watching To Kill a Mockingbird one night jogged my memory of many years ago.

120130181522-mockingbird-3-super-169The film is set in the Depression and everyone is struggling.  It reminds me of my own childhood.  I didn’t grow up in the South, but the small town setting and unassuming lifestyle awakens memories I can relate to.   I knew families that lived hand to mouth; they weren’t thinking about tomorrow, they were dealing with today.  We weren’t poor like that, but money was short.  These were simpler times, but I was just a kid, what did I know?

Back then we had less of everything, except love and our dreams.  It wasn’t a dream of being rich, it was more about being content and growing up with choices, for a good life. Simpler is not an economic state; in my mind, it refers to a more basic and focused.  I believe it means being closer to a person’s core interests and values.

Let me take you back to the Jurassic period, the days of my youth.  Families in my neighborhood usually had only one car, which was handy since their ranch houses had only one garage. In those days, most mothers stayed home (Good or bad, that was the dynamic then). Vacations were packing the family in the car and traveling to see relatives. There was one phone and it was on the wall somewhere near the kitchen. New clothes arrived at Christmas and to start school. An allowance was earned doing chores and supplemented by mowing yards or turning in pop bottles. One television set, and only in the late 1960s was it in color. Matinees were rare, movies were at the drive-in. Toys were Christmas and birthdays only. A bicycle was my prized possession. Playing outside with friends was how I entertained myself. Give a kid some string, or a box or point them to a tree.

Certainly, my life was simpler. You could not ask a kid today to live like that, there are child abuse laws.  But as an adult, could we?  Did our parents have simpler lives, or did they just get by with less?

hqdefaultAnother image from my youth is an episode of the Andy Griffith Show, where the businessman gets stranded for the weekend, his car breaks down and he must wait till Wally can look at it.  He stays the weekend at Andy’s house, not quite understanding their simple ways and easy satisfaction with life.  Sitting on the porch talking, going downtown for a bottle of pop, cutting the peeling off an apple in one piece.  I can relate to this because spending time during each summer with my grandparents was very close to being in Mayberry.  When you went to visit relatives, you sat on the porch and talked, maybe you got out the ice cream maker and cranked away.  We literally went downtown for a soda and then for a drive in the car.  Yes, that was a big evening.

Most every kid looked at the big Sears catalog or saw kids on television with things we couldn’t live without. The dreams of age ten are huge. Perhaps a BB gun or that stingray bike with the high handlebars.  We were already becoming consumers.

These were the 1960s, and consumerism was well underway. The economy grew by exporting, but also convincing Americans to buy another pot, one chicken was not enough.  Start with kids, show them that bigger, faster and more, is better.

Advertisers developed new methods to convince us we were deprived by not having that new Pontiac or avocado refrigerator or cordless shaver. We needed things we didn’t even know we lacked.

We became convinced that the key to a better life was in buying material objects. You bought your way to the American Dream. If you had a new Mastercard, you could charge your way to happiness.  George Carlin had yet to be concerned about all of our stuff.

A bigger house, another car, better golf clubs, a TV in every room, etc. etc. As the standard of living rose, so did the number of hours worked and blood pressure. There was college to pay for and braces for the younger kids.

At some point, the Joness moved in next door and suddenly we were in a race. They had a greener lawn. We realized the house needed a paint job or siding, the driveway replaced, new windows and the kitchen remodeled. Suddenly the house is not large enough, then it’s too large and too many stairs. We refinanced to get a lower rate but added years.

The merry-go-round spins and spins, faster and faster. It’s like we are in a dream within a dream, and the dream we are chasing is the American Dream. We’re brought up to need the Dream, the illusive “better life,” and to be prepared to do whatever to achieve it.  That goal is part of our lexicon.

I think we are too busy chasing the Dream to know if we accidentally drove over it, in our new 2020 SUV, with the premium package and alloy wheels.  Do we ever achieve it or are we always in pursuit mode?

 

The flip-side of the Dream, is financial fear.  And that is to be avoided.  As Americans, we spend a great deal of time worried about the financial future.  We work long hours, climb the ladder, angle for the promotion and sacrifice years of our life. You’re either gaining or falling back. That’s how the race works.

A growing number of Americans live in fear, of only being a step or two away from misery.  You can work hard, have a great portfolio, but still lose your jobs, develop a catastrophic illness, suffer the death of a family member, or have your savings wiped out by an unforeseen event.  Maybe we are not running after the Joneses, maybe we are running in front of an unidentified disaster or tragedy.  I have nightmares of being chased by two-headed wealth managers.

So, let’s be realistic. How much of our world can we control?  We might not smoke or spend time in the sun, but we could still get cancer.  A global recession could wipe out our job.  An automobile accident could kill a family member. A tornado could destroy our home.  Even with insurance, we might not be able to fit our life back together.  So, will our efforts ever be enough to eliminate all risk? No. We can save and create our own financial safety net, or as much of one as we can. Against catastrophes we can plan and take precautions. And that’s about it.  We can still live in fear, but it won’t do us any good. The great tumblers of the universe are turning, what will be our fate?

In To Kill a Mockingbird, America was coming through the Depression.  The Depression was a disaster for most of our country as unemployment hit 25 percent, industrial production fell and agriculture was hit hard by drought.  Since then, much has changed. Through the New Deal and the Great Society, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, deposit insurance, land conservative and other farm supports, financial protections and resources were created for Americans and vulnerable industries.  Those programs help, but are not intended as solutions.

In many ways, financial threats are as as significant as they ever were.  The Recession of a decade ago stripped millions of jobs and their homes.  Even in what people call a “hot economy,” more Americans are working more than one job, unprepared for retirement and within a paycheck or two from disaster.  How many Americans have put off retirement or have gone back to work after retiring? According to a survey in 2017, only 23 percent of baby boomers believed their savings would last to the end of their lives. More than 6 out of 10 seniors keep working for financial reasons.

This turning into a depressing blog. Sorry.

Life in my youth of the 1960s would be called simple by today’s standards of creature comforts and material items. Our expectations were narrow by comparison. When my grandfathers were the age I am now, I thought they were ancient. I never wanted to be old like that.  They did back-breaking work all of their lives, but lived to an old age. I recall one of them passed up a chance to get a color television because he felt the people on the screen looked unnatural, he was conditioned to see the world in black & white.  I wonder what their dreams were.  We never talked about it, but I’d like to know how they felt about their lives. Neither of them really had hobbies.  Having grown up in the Depression, hobbies were for people with time and money.

The 1960s in my example were far from perfect.  America needed an awakening on many fronts.  Consumerism led to economic freedom for many and increased standard of living, to a point.  Wages were much lower, but purchasing power on average was higher.  The Dream came slower to some, based on color or ethnicity or sex.

What does all of this mean?  Living a simpler life is complicated.  Our expectations have increased, and it’s tough financially and emotionally to meet them.  Is it possible to live more simply when the cost of living is so high, when our culture largely determines our expectations and when we strive for purpose and contribution?

 

I think of life as a teeter totter. Somewhere in between the ends of the long board is a pivot.  Is it right in the middle? It depends on the weight on the ends.  Imagine one end is fulfillment. The other end is cost. This is where the physics class that you hated in school comes into play.  If you don’t care about balance, you might be willing to sacrifice cost for more fulfillment.  Over the long term you might want more balance.  Remember, you can move the pivot towards one end or the other, but it changes the physics involved. It’s your life, you have some freedom to change it.

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A simpler life doesn’t mean easier or even less complicated.  You have the same amount of time.  Decades ago, life still had its complexities.  As people, we make things complicated.  Today, our time and energy goes in many directions, sometimes by choice, sometimes not. Not everyone wants a simpler life. I know people that are busy every hour of the day, and they love their lives.  Job, family, hobbies, education, social activities, community interests.  It works for them, even if they stretch the physical limitations of time. Maybe instead of simpler, the aim should be fulfilling.  Make every second fulfilling.  Once in a while, put the phone down and climb onto a teeter totter or inside of a large tire.


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