Wednesday, February 10, 2016


“It is desirable that a man be clad so simply that he can lay his hands on himself in the dark, and that he live in all respects so compactly and preparedly, that, if an enemy take the town, he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed without anxiety.”  Henry David Thoreau

In the earliest days of humankind, our needs were pretty simple. Shelter from extreme weather elements; food and water to nourish the body; coverings to protect the body. In turn, the mechanisms for meeting these needs were likewise pretty simple: a rock cave, or a hut made of branches; abundant plant life, and implements to kill animal life, for food; animal skins and hair, or grasses, for coverings. Life was simple and in sync with one’s surroundings. But as we sought to make our life easier, paradoxically life became harder as we increased our sense of “needs,” thereby causing human beings to compete for resources to fulfill those expanded needs.

Today, there are many people subsisting on not much more than those original fundamental needs. Rarely is it by personal choice, but by the consequences of institutional decisions. People are huddled into tents in refugee camps, or hiding in bombed out homes, due to decisions of war. Others are struggling to provide for themselves due to adverse weather conditions, corruption by rotating politicians, or institutional structures that cater to only a portion of the populace, leaving the plight of these unfortunates near-invisible and unattended to.

That people in these kind of circumstances survive at all is often a near miracle. But in its own way, these most unfortunate remind us how basic life really is. How little is truly needed to exist, to survive, to potentially live happy lives. They show us that the creature comforts we think are so necessary really are not. Our blurring of “needs” versus “nice to have” creates a highly skewed perspective of life, and is the cause of so much unhappiness and dissatisfaction in the world. That dissatisfaction in turn leads to much questionable conduct – individually or collectively – as we pursue methods for meeting our expanded needs. Our moral judgments, our interrelationship actions, our career choices, our lifestyle pursuits all become colored by this continual push to “better” our lives.

There is nothing inherently wrong with achieving success with money, fame, and position. No reason not to enjoy a less burdensome and more comfortable way of getting through our demanding days. No cause to forgo the opportunities for beauty and joy available in this world. Yet we have MBA business programs, and religious movements advocating “prosperity theology,” that focus on achieving wealth as its own end. But how much is enough for us? Problems occur when we become blinded to the harm we cause ourselves and others in our desperate chase after our objects of wealth. Problems happen when nice-to-haves gradually become must-haves, even though they are not really “musts.” Problems arise when we lose the ability to appreciate the half-full glass of what we have, lost in a half-empty view of what is missing. Problems emerge when one’s sense of entitlement overshadows a recognition and appreciation for all those beings who contributed to making our good fortune possible. Perceived individualism notwithstanding, we do not accomplish anything solely on our own.

All steps forward entail some steps backward to properly chart our way. I have had to reset my life a number of times, resets not without pain and difficulty. Each reset involved a transitional return to a more basic existence, starting over once again, living a simpler life of reduced needs – times I describe as our “back to the laundromat” moments. In each case I have been reminded how simple life’s needs really are, thereby moderating our incessant demands for more. As we are able to accumulate our “things,” we appreciate them in their moment, but we also know that they are not needed to protect us, or define us, or trap us into a position we cannot freely walk away from. In that recognition is true freedom, an openness to unbounded creativity and joy. We may not choose to live physically in Thoreau’s simple cabin in the woods, but we would do well to create such a simple space to house our mind. Knowing what is truly enough is enough to know.

“There is no greater calamity than desire, no greater curse than greed. Know that enough is enough, and you will always have enough.” Lao Tzu, Tao te Ching, verse 46, Brian Brown Walker translation

©  2016   Randy Bell