There was a time when the world was a quieter place. There were fewer sounds, no cars, planes, trains, televisions, radios, telephones, complex machines. People heard each other, the calls of animals, the wind, the rustling of water. Life was stiller, slower and in most ways more difficult. The very things that so often annoy us, cause us to feel stressed and steal the silence that we often desire also make our lives easier than those of our ancestors. The conundrum that we face in the modern world is how to keep a balance between simplicity and over consumption. It is the tightrope that we walk in our pursuit of happiness and comfort.
I live in a southern climate. I might be happy to eschew using a great deal of energy in the winter because the days are mostly mild and even on an abnormally cold day a heavy coat and a pile of blankets make the chill go away. The summer presents me with a far greater challenge when temperatures linger in the mid nineties for weeks at a time. It is so hot that I take refuge in my air conditioned home and car during the middle of the day. The thought of being without the cool air is almost untenable and yet there was a time in the not so distant past when I lived through nineteen summers without air conditioning and never felt beset upon.
It was a normal and accepted way of life back then. We simply adjusted to our circumstances and carried on the way people had done for thousands of years before us. We led simpler lives that were still more modern than those that our grandparents had known. It never occurred to us that we may have been disadvantaged. We coped with what we had.
Somehow in spite of the multitude of improvements in American life our society seems to be more dissatisfied than ever. We tend to believe that we should all have more and more and more when just maybe we have reached a tipping point at which we should consider cutting back on some of the things that we do and take for granted. We often argue that each successive generation should do better than the last but what if that idea is flawed? What if our real goal should be to find ways to enjoy the best of our modern inventiveness without being so obsessed with accumulating wealth and things? Is it possible to live the good life while also being more frugal in our use of resources and capital? These are our modern day questions. Our dilemma is in finding the answers that will benefit the most people in the world, a gargantuan task at the very least.
I believe in the concept of liberty and as such I mostly disdain the idea of forcing a particular lifestyle on people. I prefer that we each decide on our own how to partake of the world’s benefits. Still I would like to encourage everyone to find their own personal ways of stepping back just a bit and considering how they might simplify and thereby save for the future. By that I mean in terms of both money and our precious resources. Small measures taken collectively often lead to great gains. Our ancestors knew this well and they pulled themselves out of a major depression and two world wars with determined effort and a great deal of patience.
When I describe the world of my youth it sounds absolutely antiquated. My family had one car, one phone, one television. Computers and cell phones were but dreams of inventive souls. Travel was by car for most people other than the wealthiest among us who had the means to fly from place to place. Eating out was a rare luxury. The books that we read mostly came from the library. I only knew one person who had a swimming pool in her backyard. The rest of us went to the city pool on hot afternoons. Air conditioning was a luxury that was only beginning to come into vogue and even then it was in the form of a unit set in a window. Homes usually had a single bathroom often shared by as many as six or seven people. Children bunked together in rooms. Most of us had two pairs of shoes, one for special occasions and the other to be worn for daily activities. We exercised by running and walking and riding our bicycles. It was a happy time and it never occurred to us that one day people would look back on how we lived and think it quaint and wonder how we were able to endure such seeming want.
The average household of old would appear to be more like a state of poverty today. We have improved things considerably but what have we lost in the process? Our desires seem almost insatiable. Our complaints would confound those who lived in another era. They would wonder at the luxuries of even an average person and ask why we still feel as though we need even more.
We argue over the state of our planet ad infinitum. Why would we risk being wrong? The simple answer is to always think about the consequences of our actions. Our golden rule should be to leave every place better than we found it. If that means recycling, planting trees, composting garbage, picking up trash, adjusting our thermostats, buying only what we really need, turning off lights, or finding our own ways of using less energy why would we complain? These are actions that our ancestors took for granted. It doesn’t matter who is wrong or right when it comes to climate change. We should all still want to be kinder to our world.
We probably will never receive the entire cake of benefits but we are certainly capable of sharing pieces of it with our fellow men and women. We will never be able to achieve perfection but surely we will find more contentment in working together just as our ancestors once did. They raised barns as a community and made certain that people experiencing hard times were cared for. My grandfather told countless stories of people coming together to insure that all members of the community were safe and secure and happy. It was understood that this was behavior expected of everyone. They had so much less than we have today but they willingly gave whatever they were able in times of need.
Sometimes it seems as though we have closed ourselves off inside our modern day castles. We have everything that we need inside and we may have anything that we want delivered to our front doors. We isolate and insulate ourselves from the problems outside our domains, often not even knowing the names of our neighbors or what challenges they are enduring. We come and go and rarely think of the difficulties that are ongoing all around us. We turn off bad news and idealize existence and quibble over issues that should have compromised solutions. We have lost our way on so many levels when we need look no farther than the examples of the past to know what to do.
Thoreau admonished us to simplify, simplify, simplify. Mother Theresa showed us how to share. Our grandparents demonstrated courage and a willingness to adapt to changing situations. Marshall rightly urged us to help our struggling European neighbors after World War II. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us how to open our hearts to differences. The lessons to be learned tell us how to live without the worry and strife that exists in so many corners of our world today. If each person were to change just one way of doing things for the better perhaps we might all wake up to brighter days. It’s time to cease all of the grumbling and work together. Shall we begin?