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087 - On Living Simply - Moral Letters for Modern Times

When traveling light you think carefully about what you really need and leave aside all those things that you might need. I think that is the reason I so love the practice.
Branches of a tree extended out over the shore of a lake
Photo by James Bellerjeau

There is nothing that gives me greater pleasure than embarking on a journey with nothing more than what I can carry about my person and in a backpack! There are now numerous websites devoted to traveling light, filled with one-bag travel adherents who have learned to love minimalism on the go. I can now travel two weeks for business or pleasure, Deuteros, with no more than the clothes on my back and an easy armful of items I can keep with me no matter how cramped my quarters. I make my way in every environment, be it hot or cold, wet or dry, formal dress or beach casual. No hobo with their possessions tied in a sack flung over one shoulder ever felt so free of burdens as they pointed their shoes down the next highway.

When traveling light you think carefully about what you really need and leave aside all those things that you might need. I think that is the reason I so love the practice. It is good practice for the greater concern we continually face: making distinctions about what is necessary to live a good life. If only this small practice while traveling left more permanent lessons once home again. But in my familiar places I find myself needing to remind myself over and over about what is important, lest I twist about in pursuit of possessions.

People will twist themselves into knots to avoid confronting a hard truth or to give themselves permission to believe something they desperately want to be true. Nowhere do we see this more than in the perennial question of possessions and wealth.

It is not just philosophers who have grappled with this question. The Bible addresses it frequently and generations of religious scholars have interpreted and re-interpreted its teachings ever since. In a document as rich and complex as the Bible, no doubt you will find support for many propositions. Just like philosophers tied themselves in syllogistic knots by defining propositions and then letting logic twist all meaning away, so too have theologians found the Bible to contain a multitude of paradoxes to say nothing of support for competing propositions.

Here I would give you a general caution, Deuteros, to never trust a researcher who starts with their conclusion and then scours their data for any means to support it. We struggle to put this advice into practice because often researchers take pains to be crystal clear about their results while remaining opaque about their motives. And this assumes they have a clear idea of their motives, which you must also not take as a given. Though you will find them less frequently, look for those researchers who first publish their hypotheses and make testable predictions. Then you may share their eagerness to experiment and check whether reality agrees.

But let me return to the Bible. Even though today we are far removed from being able to check any of the authors’ motivations, some I will take on good faith. Thus it is in the gospel of Matthew we are told that Jesus said

it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

This was in the context of Jesus answering a young rich man’s question about how he could achieve eternal life. Jesus’s advice was for him to sell his possessions to give to the poor, and then to follow Jesus’s teachings.

This prescription proved to be bitter medicine, as it has for striving people throughout the ages. Amidst much truth telling and honest acknowledgement among the faithful, there also followed a millennium of pretzel logic. Would there be a way to turn this simple advice entirely on its head? To say that riches and possessions here on earth were a sign of God’s favor, confirmation that one was living a virtuous life?

Indeed, there arose a host of pastors preaching so-called prosperity theology, which teaches exactly this. If spiritual and physical realities are interconnected, the thinking goes, and we are entitled to well-being, then material wealth can be seen as a blessing from God. The desire to believe this is so strong that adherents have managed to overlook a mountain of contradictory indications in the Bible and elsewhere.

The followers of conjoined spiritual and material wealth also seem unconcerned with the inherent contradiction that making regular donations to one’s church is apparently a primary vehicle meant to bring about God’s blessing. This will no doubt bring material wealth to some, but I fear it is only to the lucky church receiving the faithful’s donations. At this point I am reminded of American Pastor Creflo Dollar’s rather direct request to his congregants for $65 million so he could purchase a Gulfstream jet.

We do not need a Gulfstream jet to bring us great distances, Deuteros. Of course I am not speaking only of travel, although the lesson applies equally there. I believe there is nothing inherently wrong in our possessions, or in having possessions. The harm comes from the harm we do to ourselves and others in pursuit of possessions.

Having proven ourselves to be untrustworthy stewards of our most valuable possession, that of our well-ordered minds following reason, let us leave aside most external things so that we can learn to appreciate simple things. If it takes a trip away from the comforts of home to remind us that we are not our things and that we can be happy with but few things, I say dust off your passport, load up your backpack, and head out your door!

Be well.

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