We came across a wishing well the other day. I was given one penny, one wish, and a little over one minute to decide how to use it. A minute is very little time when it comes to determining one’s happiness; I take wishing wells seriously.
My mind dashed to the greats for inspiration. Cicero, who said that all he needed was a garden and a library. Einstein, who wished for a table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin. Thoreau; solitude, and perhaps a single gentle rain. Sandburg; a little love, and a voice to speak to in the day end. I grouped those on one side, along with Lao Tzu, Confucius, Diogenes, Jesus, Mohammad, William Morris, Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and my good friends Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Ernest Hemingway, in his earlier poor Paris days.
On the other side, I placed Wallis Simpson, the once Duchess of Windsor, who said: ‘You can never be too rich or too thin.’ With her, all who ever said the same about shoes, clothes, food, housing, and jewelry. So the advertising and marketing departments of every single private and public sector manufacturer of goods and provider of services since the Industrial Revolution.
Once upon a time, someone in France coined the expression ‘vivre d’amour et d’eau fraîche.’ To live simply and freely, ‘on love and fresh water alone.’ I look around, and the world today does not seem to work that way. ‘People no longer live by sun and moon, by wind and stars, but by some slyly contrived conventions known as clocks and calendars.’ Social conventions and expectations, promotions and clearance sales. Descartes, in his day, may have thought, but in this age, we own therefore we are.
In the last twenty-five years, the average person’s spending increased by at least 30%. Houses doubled in size and in number, as did cars, televisions, restaurant meals, clothes, electronics, and recreational expenditures. Today, 52% of Americans regularly spend more than they earn.
We live in a culture where ‘spending has become the ultimate social art,’ a frantic quest for ‘more, newer, better.’ But though more of us own more than ever before, most of us find ourselves with less. Less time for ourselves and those we care about. Less space in our closets and in our jeans. Less savings in our bank accounts and less happiness in our lives.
In this world, the poorest two billion people own less than 50 cents, combined, while the richest individual owns $79.2 billion, a seven-bedroom, twenty-four-bathroom, six-kitchen-and-fireplace home, three cars, one theater, exercise facilities, an Olympic swimming pool… and an island.
In this same world, half the global population does not own a single pair of shoes, while one individual by final count owned 16,400.
I wish there were a way to calculate how much happier twenty-four bathrooms and sixteen thousand four hundred pairs of shoes can make a person.
Before it became a marketing term synonymous with the spare minimalism of uncomfortable postmodern art, and equally uncomfortable postmodern furniture, simplicity was the ‘property, condition, or quality of being simple or un-combined.’ Old French simplicité meant ‘singleness of nature, unity, indivisibility.’ It was associated with beauty, purity, immutability.
The philosophy of simplicity permeates across time, religion, and space. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, gave up the superficial luxuries of royal life and found spiritual truth in the ‘Middle Way;’ meditative self-discipline in the simple life that exists between worldly indulgence and asceticism. Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order, exchanged his clothes with those of a beggar on a business trip to Rome and renounced his inheritance for a simple life harmonious with that of all creatures. The Ancient Greeks had their Cynics; the ancient Romans, their Stoics. The Europeans, their bohemians; the Americans, their naturalists. I learned simplicity from my father.
Simplicity is a deliberate choice, ‘to live our daily lives with some degree of conscious appreciation of the condition of the rest of the world.’ To voluntarily consume less, and find happiness beyond the material.
To live simply is to be straightforward. It is not to be simplistic or ignorant.
It is to be uncluttered, not ascetic or plain.
It is to be self-sufficient, not self-deprived.
It is, as George Sand said, ‘the most difficult thing to secure in this world; it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius.’
The Japanese have a beautiful expression for it, rooted in Zen Buddhism: wabi sabi. Loosely translated, wabi means elegant or rustic simplicity. Sabi means the beauty of age and wear. To practice wabi sabi is to celebrate beauty in what is natural, not what is perfect. Simple living, high thinking. It has been called ‘a quiet revolution.’
Back at the wishing well, my minute came and went, and mon chéri got impatient. Quick, happiness. My mind wandered one last time, to a six-year-old me cross-legged on the grass, sharing a baguette stuffed with pieces of chocolate with the three people who then made up my world. The best lunch I ever had.
I normally defer to the French when making any decision of consequence to my life, but as I stood by the wishing well, I knew I already had love and fresh water. So I turned to Keats instead; I wished for books, French wine, fruit, fine weather, and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know. Then I threw my penny in.