The events of our lives often present us with the starkest intellectual and ethical contrasts. After finishing Jeff Shinabarger’s More or Less: Choosing a Lifestyle of Excessive Generosity, I adjourned to the bedroom to join my wife Kate who was watching “House Hunters” on HGTV. After a few minutes, the next program came on, entitled “Outrageous Baths.” For the next half hour, before we switched channels due to architectural overload, we feasted on presentations of bathrooms the size of one bedroom apartments with gold-plated showers, amethyst floors and ceilings, panoramic views, one hundred square foot Jacuzzis, and opulent appointments, including televisions, surround sound, refrigerators, and heated towel racks. Several of the bathrooms had fixtures, purchased for over $50,000 each and at least two boasted a financial outlay of over a million dollars. Their owners waxed exuberantly over the joys of such opulence. Paraphrasing the exclamations of one owner, he felt empowered, ready for success, and fifteen years younger after taking a shower, surrounded by gold-plated walls and fixtures. All this took place in a bathroom, larger than many studio apartments, whose construction costs easily passed a million dollars.
I enjoy comfort and a pleasant domestic environment. This morning, I’m sitting in a southwest, leather reclining chair, with big oak arms on which I place my books and coffee. When I purchased it, I went for quality and while it was on sale, I still spent $1,000 on a recliner where I would spent a few hours each day, writing, reading, planning, and communicating over the phone and internet. I don’t feel any guilt over this purchase. The comfort is necessary for me to do good work. But, I realize that even though I am far from affluent by USA standards, the lifestyle represented by my recliner chair and my ability to work at home on a regularly basis is the envy of most of the world. Living in a high rise in Chevy Chase/Friendship Heights, Maryland, with twenty-four hour concierge services and two hundred restaurants and ten coffee houses in walking distance is unheard of in most of the world.
Even though we recently downsized and watch our family’s spending, we are part of the world’s 1%, according to Jeff Shinabarger’s statistics. My wife and I look for clothes and furnishings on sale, but we have the luxury of taking holidays at the beach, going to local bookstores, and ordering books on Amazon.com. It is a good and comfortable life, unavailable – and in some cases, undesirable – to most of the peoples of the planet.
Jeff Shinabarger advocates a turn to simplicity among the planet’s 1%. He sees this as an act of spiritual generosity, a commitment to the world’s impoverished hundreds of millions, and as a pathway to following Christ. His words convict even those of us who live modest lifestyles as they ask, “What is enough?” A recent Princeton University study noted that while a certain level of economic security contributes to our happiness, persons who make over $75,000 a year (I would estimate $100,000 in more expensive urban areas) experience no more happiness than their fellow USA citizens whose income is only $75,000. According to a Washington Post article, “people have a threshold of financial security and material well-being and once they’ve reached it, there are diminishing returns on salaries exceeding that amount. Financial security is certainly an aspect of happiness. That is — paying mortgage or rent, utilities, food, and then whatever is left over for savings–but beyond that, money has little bearing on our outlook and overall happiness.” This statement reminds me of something many Depression era persons asserted, “We weren’t poor; we just didn’t have any money.” Money doesn’t buy happiness, although a minimal level of income, housing, education, work, and accessibility is necessary for contentment and the sense that we are providing for our families.
Spirituality involves a level of lifestyle simplicity that is often lost in the quest for “more.” Jesus tells us to consider the lilies and the birds of the air and compares their beauty to the opulence of Solomon. The Shakers sing, “It’s a gift to be simple.” Buddhists speak of “right livelihood” and today we speak of spiritual sustainability. Often our quest for “more” gets in the way of the experiences of calm, peace, and contentment we seek. Moreover, sustaining the “necessities” of upper middle-class lifestyle often get in the way of why we are working to begin with – to fulfill our vocation, contribute to the well-being of others, and be with friends and family. In our busyness, we often forget a wise saying from Rabbi Harold Kushner, “few people on their death beds regret missing a meeting.”
Shinabarger’s book raises a plethora of questions. While I can’t address them all, I want to talk about time, interdependence, and a sacrificial lifestyle of generosity. Much of our consumption requires time: we may need to work long hours and our quest for the latest fashion or best bargain may lead us to “shop till we drop.” A primary spiritual question involves: How will we spend the time of our lives? In Jesus’ message about lilies and birds of the air, he reminds us not to be anxious and counsels us to trust that God will provide for our deepest needs. We don’t need to be on duty all the time. We can work hard, commit ourselves to important causes, and also have time for relationships, spiritual practices, self-care, and social involvement. The key question regarding time is: Do our activities bring us joy as we look at our lives as a whole? While not every aspect of our work and domestic lives is inherently joyful, do we seek a lifestyle that provides us with a sense of spaciousness, the ability to simply play with children and loved ones, and rejoice in simple things such as flowing the flight of geese across the sky or observing a grasshopper on a summer day?
Shinabarger reminds us that we are all connected. Do you recall the phrase “live simply, so that others may simply live?” Our lifestyles contribute to the joys and sorrows of others. In an interdependent world, what we do matters to the planet Earth and to our earthly companions, both human and non-human. This being the case, it is imperative to recognize that our simpler lifestyles alone are not enough; they must be complemented by political involvement to change governmental, economic, and business practices and structures that contribute to poverty and planetary destruction.
Finally, we must see sacrifice and generosity as interconnected. John Wesley once preached, “Having first, gained all you can, and secondly, saved all you can, then give all you can.” Shinabarger might amend Wesley’s words to “gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” In both cases, social responsibility, sacrifice, and generosity is essential to faithful living. Despite the USA penchant for absolute property and gun rights, the Biblical tradition asserts that God is the ultimate owner and that our care for our brothers and sisters is as important as our own security. In fact, we are responding to Christ in our treatment of the vulnerable other. Sacrifice is not burdensome when it is for the greater good: think of the “sacrifices” we make for spouses, partners, children, and grandchildren. They enrich us and open our hearts. In an interdependent universe there is no “other.” In fact, we find peace, as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead says, when our interest widens from self-concern to the well-being of the larger whole; we gain in spiritual size and stature.
Shinabarger provides us with a “good word.” While we may modify his approach in terms of our own life situation, he challenges us to be persons of spiritual stature and embrace a holy consumerism that balances self-concern with care for others and this good Earth.