Your Authentic Life: What ‘Living Simply’ Means to Me

Check out this post by Marlena Fiol author of Nothing Bad Between Us

My Mennonite Missionary Father in front of his Home in Paraguay

It’s the ‘in’ thing:
Less (smaller) is better.

As I’ve written about elsewhere, my good Mennonite missionary father was anti-materialist and anti-consumerist to an extreme. He firmly believed that God only asked for him to be obedient and humble in doing His will. God would take care of the rest. And he and my mother lived their lives accordingly.

Ach, we don’t need curtains. Just hang old sheets up over the windows,” Dad said to my mother when she suggested that the Sears catalogue had some curtains for sale at a deeply discounted price.

They bought their clothes at a used-clothing store where the proceeds went toward Mennonite missionary work around the world. They consumed food from the expired-items carts in grocery stores, believing that not doing so was a sinful waste.

My father was obsessed with being frugal. “Daot’s nich tum dien Buck offtscheile — that’s not for cooling off your tummy,” he’d often say to in our native Low-German if we held the fridge door open too long when we were kids.

He seems to have been a man ahead of his time. All you have to do is Google “Living Simply” to see that it has become an obsession. I doubt that many people today really choose the frugal lifestyle my father lived. But the obsessive writing and thinking about it suggest a longing for the joy and freedom that ‘living simply’ seems to hold out as an implicit promise.

Judging from the many online posts about the topic, a simple life for most people means relinquishing the capitalist worldview of accumulation and consumption. For example, “The 100 Thing Challenge” is a movement aimed at whittling down personal possessions to one hundred items. Or the “Tiny House” movement, which involves choosing to live in a small — ideally mortgage-free and off the grid — dwelling, like my father’s home in the photo above.

These movements may be a reaction to the over-the-top materialism and conspicuous consumption that is killing our planet. In fact, some people believe that the current pandemic is mother earth gently reprimanding us for overindulgent and mindless abuse of the planet. As we’ve been forced to stop and shelter in place, our water and air have become cleaner than they’ve been in a long while.

For others, these movements have religious and moral underpinnings. That was clearly the case for my father. Living simply is a basic and fundamental tenet of the Mennonite faith to which he strictly adhered.

The assumption underlying many of these environmental and moral arguments, is that owning less stuff may lead to a more equitable society and a healthier planet.

I agree.

Even in my progressive little town of Eugene, Oregon, I see far too many homeless people camped out on the sides of streets and in our parks, while I shelter comfortably in place within the safety of my home. And among other mindless abuses of my planet, I have flown far too many miles in my lifetime for both work and pleasure, contributing to the horrid footprint on our environment.

So, for moral and environmental reasons, it seems imperative that I become more conscious and intentional about how many resources I consume, and more important, how I use them so as to not negatively impact my world and those less fortunate than I.

But here’s the thing:

The majority of posts about living simply are not about social equity or about saving the environment.

The most prevalent underlying argument is that having less money and stuff leads to a happier life.

Clare of Assisi (1194–1253) and many other wise people have argued — consistent with the way they lived their lives — that less stuff invariably leaves room for more soul. Getting rid of material things frees us from the things that clutter our hearts. This leads to more freedom. More joy.

That’s an outside-in approach: Achieve simplicity in your external world and you will find the simplicity of peace in your inner world. This appears to be true for ascetics who’ve already achieved inner simplicity. But for most of us who are still struggling to find and maintain that place of inner peace and simplicity, I think the approach is backwards and not likely to work.

In fact, people living in poverty with fewer belongings are not likely to be happier. And earning more money or owning more stuff does not lead to less happiness. It turns out that even the long-held premise that having more money cannot lead to happiness has been debunked. Research suggests that having more money is, in fact, associated with greater happiness. And that what matters most is not how much I own, but rather that I am clear about my inner values and priorities, and that I spend my resources in a way that is aligned with those.

These findings describe an inside-out approach, which is consistent with my own experience: I must first find inner peace and simplicity, and then — from the inside out — align where I live, what I buy, and how much I accumulate with that inner truth. That is where happiness lies.

I believe that no matter how much I declutter my physical world, and no matter how much stuff I get rid of — if I do not live my life with clarity and confidence about what matters most to me and make intentional choices accordingly, I will not achieve inner peace and joy.

The side effect of finding inner simplicity and clarity is likely to be a decluttering of my physical space. But beginning from the outside, in order to achieve what I long for on the inside, is likely to lead only to greater frustration and even less inner peace.

Nothing Bad Between Us

A Mennonite Missionary’s Daughter Finds Healing in Her Brokenness

This story differs from similar accounts of childhood domination or abuse because it tells the story of the author’s seemingly paradoxical responses to the powerful forces in my life, but doesn’t leave it at that. It sheds light on the social and religious dynamics underlying these responses, giving readers insights into and understanding of her otherwise incomprehensible choices, as she found my way back into loving relationships with her parents and the Mennonite community.

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