Living with less is still living with need.
How big is your house? Ours is 1,100 square feet, and when we first moved in, I thought we'd lost our minds. The home was built in 1948, so we have three four-foot closets that barely fit Patrick's wardrobe, let alone mine—and I've always prided myself on not being "that girl" with thirty pairs of shoes and six feet of hanging clothes. Still, when we moved in, we realized pretty quickly that our expectations for "storage" in our home was way out of proportion with what actually existed. As soon as the previous owner was gone, and I took a look at the empty closets and teeny L-shaped kitchen, I felt like an imaginary clock started ticking. We'll only live in this tiny house for a few years, I thought. Then we'll move on.
Soon, though, our minds started changing. We started by doing a little purging. Those old ratty t-shirts? Sentimental, yes. Essential? No. Off to Goodwill. During the spring, we put away all our fall and winter clothes. During the fall, we put away all our spring and summer clothes. We added under-the-bed bins, subtracted unnecessary decor and pots and pans and additional auxiliary accouterments (see what I did there?). It helped streamline our life just a bit, and helped us get settled in what seemed like way too few square feet.
But can you imagine living in 420 square feet?
This weekend I read a New York Times article entitled Living With Less. A Lot Less, by Graham Hill, an entrepreneur who lives in a 420-sq. foot flat with a bed that comes out of the wall and some kind of expandable dining room table that seats 12. (Fact checkers: please get on that.) Still, dinner parties for 12 aside, he makes an interesting point.
Can living with less make us happier?
He argues the answer is yes, and I tend to agree. In fact, I immediately sent out a tweet that encouraged his work.
The idea of being able to fit all of my possessions into one automobile, or one suitcase, or one backpack feels freeing and exciting. And the truth is, there is SO much that we don't need, that we've been duped into thinking that we do. (I for one, am the girl currently obsessing over what countertops, appliances, and light fixtures to buy. Stainless Steel? White? Opaque? Oh my!) If I could throw six shirts, shampoo, and two pairs of pants in a bag, and hit the road for Indonesia...sure, I'd love to adopt that way of life.
But I started thinking more about what Graham was saying, and it made me question the whole idea. Living with less is still living with need.
Intuitively, we know that the best stuff in life isn’t stuff at all, and that relationships, experiences and meaningful work are the staples of a happy life.
He's absolutely right that the best stuff in life isn't stuff. And relationships are important for any full life. But in some ways, it seems that he's just swung the pendulum the other direction. At one point in life, he invested all he had in a large house with lots of possessions. At another point in life, he's investing all he has in experiences— racking up passport stamps and business ventures like badges of honor and fulfillment. This is the "life is not how many breaths you take, but how many moments take your breath away," philosophy that, taken to the extreme, would make each of us drug, sex, and self-addicts, living in 420-sq. ft. apartments and forgoing any and all responsibility for the sake of our own wild adventure.
Not that there's anything wrong with adventure. But at the end of the day, just like material goods, the adventure will not satisfy. Someday, your trip to Spain will be over. The relationship with Olga will end. You'll see the world and you will still want more.
"I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them... I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done, and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun." Ecclesiastes 2:4, 10-11.
Thousands of years ago, Solomon wrote the same things in the Bible that Graham Hill just wrote in the New York Times. There's a longing in each of us for meaning, for fulfillment. But we're not going to find it on this planet. Not in stuff. Not in experiences. DEFINITELY not in work. And not even in the best, most wholesome relationships.
If we turn to the world to fulfill a desire that is other-worldly, we will be left wanting.
There is a way to find fulfillment. But you won't find it in the pages of the New York Times, or the Ikea catalogue, or your passport.
It's found in a deep, personal, and committed relationship with your creator, God—who created you as his possession, to experience the grace of his son, for the adventure of an eternal life.
With that knowledge, I can enjoy my home, whatever the square footage. I can enjoy my trip across the globe, wherever it might take me. But I do not need it to provide my happiness. I do not need it to fulfill my life.
And that is real living.