Sunday, January 24, 2010

Is the Simple Life "Too Much Work"?

This has been bugging me lately. I can't tell you the number of times I've gotten "Oh, but that sounds like so much work!" when I describe something I do to take back responsibility for my own affairs. And it happens when I'm talking about the simplest of things, like making my own laundry detergent or brewing a batch of chai tea.

Chai involves peeling and chopping some ginger and dumping it in a pot of simmering water along with whole cloves, cardamom seeds, and crushed cinnamon bark. You walk away for 15 minutes, come back and take it off the heat, add the tea, let it steep for five minutes. Add milk, add sugar, gently heat. That's it.

Laundry detergent involves melting a bar of laundry soap in water on the stove, adding it to a five-gallon bucket, adding borax, washing soda, and water and stirring. That's it.

For these people, apparently, it's far less "work" to hop in their cars, drive themselves to a coffee shop, find a spot, go in, stand in line and order their drink, forking over their four dollars in the process. Or to get in their car, drive to the store, find a spot, go in, grab a jug of detergent, pay, leave and drive back home. I don't get it.

So I've been thinking about this. When people say "That sounds like so much work" what's really going on? What's really meant by that? Are people so averse to work that even the tiniest effort is seen as "too much"? Have people just become lazy? Or is something else going on?

I suspect it's less about effort and laziness than it is about perceived time pressures and the fact that for most people for most of each day they don't actually own their own time. They spend their days working for "The Man" and only have a few hours left at the end of the day that they can call their own. Who would want to spend that precious time working to make a pot of tea? Why not just hit the drive-through so you can flop on the couch and enjoy your own time?

When you don't work for "The Man" and you take responsibility for your own time then work becomes not work, but living. None of the things I do to be self-reliant ever feels like work to me. Yet all of the things I do for myself have economic value. They save me money that I don't need to go out and earn in the larger economy. The services I provide for myself represent thousands of hours per year that I don't need to spend working for someone else. And when I do those things for myself they just don't feel like work at all.

It's the "chop wood, carry water" thing. When I do the work myself I am present and involved, actively and reciprocally engaged. That's called "living". When I leave it to someone else (or to a machine) the thing, whatever it is, becomes just a commodity and I not only fail to appreciate it but I become diminished as well. Growing my own food or brewing tea involves me in the material world. I get such pleasure when I make chai, combining roots, seeds, buds, bark, leaves and sometimes twigs to make a delicious drink. I appreciate the amazing gifts of nature and the synergy that results from this particular combination of plants and plant parts. I even get emotional sometimes when I'm making chai. Would that ever happen in the Starbucks drive-through? I don't think so.

When people think that the simple life would be too much work, they're thinking from within a dysfunctional paradigm. I doubt that for much of our long history we even had a concept of "work". We simply lived. It's only in our recent history, once we created these things called "jobs", that life became oddly compartmentalized and we created the idea of "work". Work separated from the rest of life. How messed up is that?

If people were relieved of their time pressures and owned their own time again I don't think I'd be hearing "That's too much work" anymore. And if people quit working and began living again, I have a feeling there would actually be far more innovation, inspiration, and creativity being expressed. So much of our human potential seems to get wasted these days, but I believe human culture can flourish again if we can just, once and for all, break out of this mad consumer paradigm.


  1. When your living is your work from home, when you are contented with very little, when the sweater you wear took you 300 hours to spin and knit and every item you create has personal value, then you know that you are in the right place. Priceless comes to mind.
    Great post.

  2. You're so right Anne--you can't put a price on these things. I think even more than being bothered by the people who say something is "too much work", what really gets me are the people who say, "Well my time is worth $60/hour--why would I do that myself when I can hire someone for $10/hour?" and life just gets reduced to dollars and cents and a series of transactions. It's a whole dysfunctional mindset that prevents people from experiencing some of the greatest joys this life has to offer.

    A 300-hour sweater or a 1000-hour quilt will never make sense/cents to these people.

  3. Melanie it's actually been thousands of years that most people don't own their time any more: sweat shops labor, slavery in cotton fields, forced labor to pay king taxes & church taxes, or pyramides buildings & the great wall, and so on.

    You are very rich to have the luxury to own your time and life.
    Don't forget that most people on this planet simply can't afford a piece land that is clean (pollution is widespread), fertile (climate change) AND large enough to sustain themselves.

  4. Paris, yes, even though my income is in the bottom tenth in the US, it's in the top tenth worldwide. I live a very privileged life. Even in my tiny house with my very minimal needs I am totally surrounded by and immersed in privilege. Poor as I am by US standards, here I live on incredibly fertile soils--and nobody has tried to take that away from me.

    I support the efforts of Ecology Action and other groups trying to devise sustainable and intensive methods of agriculture that will enable families to feed themselves on very small plots of land. Our problems are only going to get much worse and we desperately need to abolish corporate agriculture and cash-cropping and get back to sustainability.

    While understanding the place of privilege I occupy, I also recognize that it comes with responsibility. I want to use the luxury of owning my own time to help bring about change.