Small is beautiful again, or at least it is becoming necessary. Thrift is reviving again, like it or not.
The deepening global recession and the mushrooming layoffs, bankruptcies and foreclosures have generated a rising wave of austerity and frugality. A recent government report revealed that Americans had steadily reduced their spending since the onset of the Great Recession.
Such data suggest a dramatic shift in consumer behavior. Business groups are worried that the austerity phenomenon may very well tip the nation into a depression. As the editors of “Business Week” ask, “Will frugality become the ‘new normal’ among Americans, as some people fear?”
Probably not. Historically, such periods of frugality don’t last very long. Once the economy recovers, most people revert to traditional patterns of carefree consumption. The spendthrift pattern of the last decade will probably rebound.
An old cycle is at work here. Throughout American history, the tension between accumulating goods and cultivating goodness has shaped our collective character. Americans over the years have assumed that nothing succeeds like excess, only to experience a calamitous fall from grace. Two former presidents acknowledged this cyclical pattern when John Adams asked Thomas Jefferson in 1819, “Will you tell me how to prevent luxury from becoming effeminacy, intoxication, extravagance, vice and folly?”
Adams’ question shimmers with relevance. Even before the housing bubble burst in 2007, there were growing indications that consumers were living on borrowed time. The elixir of easy money — heedless borrowing by homeowners and investment bankers — was a losing prescription long before 2008. Life in the fast lane had become a dead end for many people.
It is in this context that the forced frugality of recent years may harbor a silver lining. Some people have decided that simpler, more sustainable modes of living are preferable to their old habits of conspicuous consumption.
A simpler life may not appeal to the majority, but it has always been one of the nation’s most renewable civic resources. In times of economic distress, global war or energy crisis, people have tapped the rich reservoir of plain living and high thinking in the American experience. The resilient ideal of simpler living has repeatedly served the moral health of the nation and the spiritual health of its practitioners.
Why? Simpler living can often mean more abundant living. The balm of simplicity soothes frazzled lives. Pressures are reduced and the frenetic pace of life is slowed.
Simpler living also creates a greater sense of self-reliance and more opportunities for activities of intrinsic worth: family, faith, civic and social service, self-culture. To have all we want is said to be rich. But to be able to do without all that we desire is to enjoy true freedom.
A simpler life is anything but simple, however. It is difficult to achieve and even harder to maintain.
Yet simple living, for all its complexities and difficulties, remains an enticing path to a good life. It can be more than an anachronism, fad or eccentricity.
Living a simpler life does not mean living a destitute life. It entails a daily ordering of priorities so as to distinguish between the necessary and superfluous, the useful and wasteful, the beautiful and vulgar.
Knowing the difference between personal trappings and personal traps is the key to mastering the art of simpler living.
Simplicity is essentially a state of mind rather than a particular standard of living. Money or possessions or activities don’t corrupt our serenity, but the love of money, the craving of possessions and the prison of activities do.
Perhaps the painful recession will provoke at least some of us to reassess our priorities.
Life is fundamentally a series of choices. Although often buffeted by forces beyond our control, most of us have this one choice: We can keep yearning for more, or we can resolve to be content with less.
David E. Shi, a fellow at the Winter Park Institute, is president emeritus of Furman University and the author of “The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture”. He will be speaking at a free event at the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College on Tuesday, Oct. 18, at 7 p.m. More information is at www.rollins.edu/wpi