Thursday, April 23, 2009

Skinny Living

In a recent e-mail exchange between myself and a well-traveled friend now residing in Europe, I revealed just how little I actually knew of European culture. I had spoken admiringly about how most Europeans are content with smaller houses, few cars, a less avid a pursuit of grandiosity, and seemed generally content with a less luxuriant lifestyle. I was quickly corrected: “Ben, if they had the money and the means to pursue such things, they would. Every one of them.” Apparently their “preference” for simpler living wasn’t that all; it was a matter of necessity. With higher income taxes and less to-pocket profit with their occupations, most have been forced to settle for less. I stand corrected.

But this segues into the concept of the American Dream, what it really is, if it truly exists, and if it’s all it’s cracked up to be. Despite its vague definition, most would probably describe it as home ownership and a little piece of earth to call their own. While certainly a fine pursuit, it has the potential to quickly run amok. Americans like big things, luxurious things, and opulence, perhaps to a fault.

I am in no way criticizing those that have the money and resources to buy large tracts of land and build large houses. Nor am I saying that I have no aspirations for such things. Furthermore, I am not suggesting that there should be limits on these ambitions. In fact, such a measure would stand to encroach on what I define the American dream to be: the freedom to make our own decisions, as silly as they may be.

What I find unfortunate, however, is the notion that a palatial home, new cars, and lavish living are the norm here. They should not be. Especially since striving to obtain these things comes with a heavy price. We all know people who live big, work tirelessly to maintain their extravagant lifestyle, but appear to have little time remaining to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Not to say that basking in a large home on the weekend isn’t nice, for it is, but are these expensive tastes truly worth their sacrifice?

For more than limiting one’s time to enjoy these possessions, they limit the opportunity to pursue something of much greater and lasting value: people. Even the fabric of the nuclear family is threatened with both parents working long hours to maintain their lifestyle, children away in school or with babysitters or daycare will into the evenings, and little time left to play with a child, read a book, converse with friends, or simply delight in someone’s presence. There’s no peace, but instead a frenetic effort to keep up with bills. And it’s a shame.

Granted, working, responsibilities and bills are all facts of modern day living that few can escape (those in jail have done a good job of it, however). If we want to eat, we need to work. And unless we wish to be turned out into the streets, we need to pay our rent or mortgage. But must everything be so big? Was that third car really an essential expenditure?

Stuff, without a doubt, is nice. But in the end, it is only that: stuff. Aren’t people a wiser, more savory investment of our time? Sure, they come with their fair share of difficulties and aggravations, but to know another and love another is far nobler than building a monument to our financial success (especially if we are left with no time to even appreciate it).

What, for example, makes a big dinner so perfect? The matching napkins and ornate silver? The expensive plates? The exotic food? I would suggest the company. Some of the best meals I have ever eaten were cooked over trash fires or boiled to death, and served on rickety plastic tables (if there were tables at all). The meal? Maybe Pop Tarts or instant macaroni and cheese. It was the people that I remember, not the food. The same applies to living in general. People, the relationships we have with them, and the friendships we have fostered through difficult times and amazing circumstances, are priceless, however intangible.

In the end, few of us are remembered for the monuments we built or the possessions we accumulated over a lifetime of hard work and dutiful labor. We are remembered for the love we exhibited to our family, the words we spoke to friends, and the joy our mere presence brought to another’s life. Our relationships, and others’ memories of them, are the most lasting, impactful legacy we will leave. Houses are bought and sold, gardens overgrow quickly, cars age and break down, and a new fad will soon replace whichever one we have so desperately sought to appeal to.

More than a grand estate and elaborate grounds, I would prefer A home, and one filled with people: friends, neighbors, family members, loved ones, barefoot children tracking in dirt, and a simple table upon which sit heaps of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on paper plates. Nobody’s there for the food, at any rate; they’re there because they enjoy the company and they love each other. And none of us are too busy to relish that. We would be wise not to pursue plentiful living, but purposeful living. Let’s trim the fat a bit, and instead of keeping up with the Joneses, let’s invite them over for dinner.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. Very well put - now to get myself arrested so I don't have to work!!

  2. I am put in mind of two songs: "Things" by Scott Wesley Brown, and "Movin' Out" by Billy Joel.

  3. There is actually a Filipino saying (Isang kahig isang tuka) which essentially translates as "You don't eat unless you work." A novel concept in our society...