The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

The Best Things in Life Aren't Things:
UUs in Search of Simplicity
By Bella English

September/October 1999

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also related:
Responsible Consumption as a Moral Imperative: 1999 General Assembly Study/Action issue
“Simplify! Simplify!” by Steve Watkins


For Virgil Agnew, the simple life means weaning himself from his car: he now rides his bike four miles to his job and back every day.

For Carol Holst, it means getting rid of clutter. She says she now spends about $20 a year on clothes, including a “gorgeous” $3 skirt recently purchased at a thrift shop.

For Paul Doolittle, it means living in a New Hampshire barn with a composting toilet and no running water, heating with wood and growing his own food. 

For Cecile Andrews, it means applying a test before buying something: Can I borrow it or rent it? What is this product’s environmental impact? Where and how was it made? In a sweatshop? By a corporate polluter? 

All four of these people are Unitarian Universalists who have embraced the voluntary simplicity movement, which began in the Northwest in the early 1990s and has since taken root in other parts of the country. The idea is to re-examine one’s life in terms of money spent, things purchased, and time wasted and start making decisions that benefit oneself—and the earth.

Of course, living simply is an old idea: Jesus embodied it, the Buddha embraced it, Thoreau was an active practitioner, and one of Gandhi’s best-known sayings is “Live simply, so others may simply live.”

But living simply on the eve of the new millennium is different from heading for the woods, walking stick in hand. The new voluntary simplicity movement was started by aging yuppies who rejected their former values. Having grasped the golden ring of life in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, they now wanted to fling it loose. For them, the American dream had become the American nightmare as abundance turned to clutter, success to stress. Simply put, they had too much stuff in their houses, their minds, their lives. Life would be richer, they thought, if it were simpler.

Dick and Jeanne Roy of Portland, Oregon, are Exhibit A. In 1993, Dick, a Harvard-trained lawyer who had been making big bucks as a partner in Portland’s biggest law firm, stunned the city’s legal community by quitting law to devote his life to full-time volunteer work. He and his wife, Jeanne, who had long been active in the recycling movement, founded the Northwest Earth Institute, a nonprofit environmental education group.

One of the institute’s first courses taught voluntary simplicity. From initial course meetings at a handful of Portland-area UU churches in 1994, the idea has spread to some 1,000 study groups throughout the country, meeting in churches, offices, and schools. Dick Roy says the most vivid incident he’s witnessed in a simplicity discussion group happened at the Michael Servetus Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Vancouver, Washington. “There was a man there who made a ‘declaration of enough.’ He said he was not going to buy anything else for the rest of his life, except to replace what wore out,” says Roy, 59.

The Roys have long practiced what they preach. When Dick graduated from law school, the couple took a vow never to change their lifestyle because of their income. They live in the same house that cost them $30,000 in 1971; have never owned a clothes dryer or microwave oven; and fill one—count it, one—garbage can a year. Everything else is recycled or composted. They also make their own cloth napkins to avoid using paper and dig up and pot a live Christmas tree, which they return to the ground after the holidays. As for clothing, Jeanne gets hand-me-downs from friends, and when Roy needs a new shirt, he goes to the thrift shop. She pedals a 30-year-old bike; his is a mere 20. 

If this sounds too hard to you, the Roys stress that simplicity can mean different things to different people. For some, it might merely mean cleaning out the closet. Like the UU faith, voluntary simplicity takes you as it finds you. If you pull up to the meeting in a BMW, no one will put a guilt trip on you. (But don’t be surprised if someone says something about your gas-guzzling SUV!)

“It’s not competitive or judgmental,” says Cecile Andrews, who in 1997 wrote The Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life. An adult educator, Andrews held a workshop on simpler living in 1989. Four people showed up. In 1992, she repeated the workshop. This time, 175 people came. 

“I think there was a backlash to the ’80s, to Reaganism and excessive greed,” she says. Andrews likes to point out that this country was founded on the philosophy of simplicity: a rebellion against the royal way of life. “And then we became affluent,” she says. 

Andrews, who belongs to University Unitarian Church in Seattle, now goes around the country preaching the gospel of simplicity. She also writes a column for the Seattle Times called “Voluntary Simplicity.” Friends, she jokes, “hate to see” her coming. But really, she says, “I am not one of those people fascinated by austerity. I eat out a lot. I am totally devoted to eating out.

“Some people will want to start from scratch, growing vegetables, cooking, putting by. My vision of simplicity is more of the bohemian life, a student’s life. I don’t eat out in expensive restaurants. I try to stress the kind of celebratory aspect of this. To me, it’s replacing extreme consumerism with friends and family.”

At one simplicity circle she attended, someone volunteered that no one needed a washing machine. “All you need is a bucket of water and a plunger,” the person said. Andrews says she tried not to laugh. 

Voluntary simplicity disciples know it’s easy to parody a bunch of well-off folks driving vintage vans and wearing old L.L. Bean khakis till they’re threadbare.

The need for something like simplicity groups isn’t a joking matter, though. While the United States comprises five percent of the world’s population, it has 32 percent of the world’s cars. According to Business Week, in 1997 the chief executives of the largest US corporations had earnings that averaged $7.8 million—326 times the earnings of an average factory worker. The world’s richest person, Bill Gates of Microsoft fame, has a net worth of some $18 billion, roughly equal to the total annual economic output shared by 11 million people in Zimbabwe, according to David Korten’s book The Post-Corporate World: Life after Capitalism.  And according to a recent study by the nonprofit Merck Family Fund, Americans listed nonmaterial needs as their most pressing: reducing stress and spending more time with family and friends. 

As for the simplicity groups themselves, they are, of course, simple. Held in schools, offices, churches, or houses, many rely on a curriculum put together by the Roys (and printed with vegetable-based inks on recycled paper, naturally). The course costs nothing except for the price of the book—$13 plus shipping. A volunteer from a group like the Northwest Earth Institute may oversee the initial meeting and come back for a wrap-up.

Generally, the group meets once a week for 10 weeks to discuss readings on topics such as the meaning of simplicity, living more with less, “your money or your life,” and the practice of simplicity. Talk might range from the mundane (100 uses for tinfoil) to the political (how to create green space in your town). A final session is set aside for a celebration. Many groups will go beyond the set 10 sessions, meeting in one another’s houses. Some have continued to meet for years. 

During a recent Sunday evening session at the First Parish UU Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, nine people share a potluck dinner and their lives. They have pulled their chairs around in a circle in the parlor. Connie Cutter, there with her husband, Henry, describes how the Christmas holidays have turned into a joyless rush for her. “There’s this incredible pressure for food and drink, gift-giving, party-throwing,” she says. “I have two parties in a row I give, Christmas Eve and then Christmas Day. This year, our granddaughter came. She just turned seven. I was so exhausted I couldn’t enjoy her.”

Others nod their heads in recognition. The talk turns to societal addictions: to food, news, possessions, mail-order catalogs, even sex. Connie Cutter remarks that “a disconnection with community” sets people on a course for substitutes such as possessions. At 69 and semi-retired, her husband, Henry, says his age makes it easier to live simply. “It does focus the mind on things like ‘Will I need to buy another car, or will this be the last one?’ It makes it easier to resist pressure. I don’t need to buy another suit,” he says.  Sally Owen notes that every week, the group has discussed how stressful their lives are and adds wryly, “In our culture, ‘to be’ is not valued; ‘to do’ is.” 

The rest of the conversation ranges from a neighborhood plant exchange to clipping supermarket coupons. Someone mentions a sister who spends too much money on unused gifts. Someone else brings up homemade gifts, and Connie Cutter describes a scrapbook she has put together for her daughter. “It’s more complicated than a store-bought gift, but it speaks to the heart,” she says.

But isn’t the point of simplifying your life to make it less-not more—complicated?

“Simplifying your life,” says group member Alexandra Mezey, “is really about balancing your life. It’s not necessarily the most efficient way that counts but the values that matter most.” The Amish, someone points out, lead simple lives, though they work with old-fashioned implements. 

Simplicity, the group decides, isn’t really all that simple. “It’s really conscious living, making choices about what matters,” says Kate Meyer. Among those in the circle, changes they have made since joining the group include vacationing closer to home, using cloth napkins instead of paper, and giving used books for gifts. 

If all this makes the simplicity movement sound like something for the middle-class, the liberal, and the educated—well, it is. Many of its acolytes are feminists and environmentalists. And because it’s a movement of “haves,” as opposed to “have-nots,” it’s an easy target for charges of elitism. After all, unlike the poor, practitioners have a choice about whether to give up this or that comfort or convenience.

“People will often say, ‘Oh, it’s just a bunch of middle-class whiners,’” acknowledges Cecile Andrews. “But what we’re saying is that we’ve experienced having stuff, and it is not working. We have to come up with a new definition of success. Our definition in this culture is that more is always better. . . .  My definition is waking up in the morning and feeling excited about the day. It’s living in balance; having work you love, friends you see, and time in nature.”

In fact, Andrews predicts the poor will greatly benefit from the voluntary simplicity movement—first, because of the movement’s goal of reducing the gap between rich and poor and, second, because of its concern for the environment. “Who is most affected by environmental issues? Poor people, who can’t buy cleaner air or water. The same greed that is destroying the environment is also the greed that downsizes people and pays them the minimum wage,” she says. 

Carol Holst has a different answer to the question of wealth and poverty as it bears on the simplicity movement.  Three years ago, Holst, the religious education director at the UU Church of the Verdugo Hills in La Crescenta, California, started a Los Angeles-based group called Seeds of Simplicity, a program of Cornell University’s Institute for Religion, Ethics, and Social Policy. The group’s stated mission: “to help adults and children enjoy freedom from our country’s possession obsession.” Its unofficial motto: “Simple living is out of the woods.” Its advertising sound bite: “The best things in life aren’t things.” 

Last fall, Holst threw a Seeds of Simplicity conference at the University of Southern California, expecting a few hundred guests. One thousand showed up. Cecile Andrews was a keynote speaker. “I was feeling sorry for Carol, thinking no one would come,” says Andrews. “I gave the opening remarks and then had to go out in the lobby and give them again for all the people who couldn’t get in.” 

Even Holst has been surprised by the group’s success. “I had thought that human greed was so all-pervasive that there was no hope of working on it,” she says. “I have been very, very pleased.”

But she doesn’t kid herself. Even after cutting back, she admits, most Americans live on easy street compared to third world residents. “As long as we do stay humble and recognize the fact that we’re still living lives of great bounty compared to so many people in the world who are doing without, there is no limit to the amount of simplifying and reevaluating that people can do,” says Holst. She adds a warning: “We all need to avoid getting too pleased with ourselves.”

Still Holst, who has sworn off shopping retail and drives a 10-year-old Toyota, says voluntary simplicity is “very consistent with my UU values, a way to approach economic and social justice. It has brought great joy and enrichment to my family and me. As we try to lower our consumption, we’re spending more time with nature, with each other, with friends and the community. I spend absolutely no time on material trappings.”

Holst knows she’s not alone; the word is getting out that money indeed can’t buy happiness. Last spring, the city of Long Beach, California, devoted its annual public education forum to voluntary simplicity. Actor Ed Begley Jr., speaking on the issue, said “I’ve never seen a hearse with a luggage rack on top.” And in August, Seeds of Simplicity is holding a conference in Beverly Hills, that bastion of the rich and famous. “It’s consistent with our campaign to help the affluent communities of our country reduce their levels of stress,” says Holst. This summer, the UUA General Assembly chose a study-action issue that uplifted responsible consumption as a moral imperative.

Both Holst and Cecile Andrews hear from many UUs eager to join the simplicity movement. “I think this reflects the traditional Unitarian concern with social issues, with discussion and with making a difference in the way we live our daily lives,” says Andrews, who has helped establish simplicity circles at several Northwest UU churches.

Katlin Smith and her husband, Gary Kokstis, were among the early converts in their church, the Michael Servetus UU Fellowship in Vancouver, Washington. After taking a voluntary simplicity course in 1995, they and other members put on a service for the entire church, delivering homilies on how the simplicity movement had changed their lives. For Smith and Kokstis, it has meant more recycling and composting, a move toward vegetarianism, taking mass transit to work, and driving their old cars till they drop.

On a recent weekend, the couple tore down their old garage but pulled every single nail out of every single board, recycling the wood and taking the nails to a metal recycler. “It would have been much easier to yank the whole thing down and haul it to the dump,” says Smith, “but we stopped and thought, ‘Can this be recycled?’”

They both say they got enormous support for their lifestyle changes from other simplicity circle members. “I think UUs are open to new ideas and change, and it’s the value system we share in common,” says Kokstis. He added: “And they like to talk.” The two admit that there is much “involuntary poverty” in the world, and they consider themselves lucky to be able to choose simplicity.  And Smith stresses that she, for one, is no simplicity saint. 

“Voluntary simplicity,” she says, “is not voluntary poverty. It’s liberating if anything. The less I have, the happier I am.” Does she buy decent clothes? “Oh yeah,” she laughs. “We all have our weaknesses.” 

But even putting aside the question of wealth and poverty, another question remains about the movement: can a handful of well-meaning people really change the country’s social and physical environment? After all, the task is daunting. According to statistics from the Northwest Environment Watch, since 1940, Americans have used up as large a share of the earth’s mineral resources as all previous generations of Americans put together. In the process, the country has lost half of its wetlands, 85 percent of its old-growth forests, 99 percent of its tallgrass prairie, and as many as 520 species of native plants and animals, with another 6,000 at risk. Can a small movement make a difference?

“It’s the only thing that ever has,” says Paul Doolittle, of Derry, New Hampshire, quoting anthropologist Margaret Mead. Inspired by Dick and Jeanne Roy’s Northwest Earth Institute, Doolittle, who belongs to the UU Church of Manchester, started his own Northeast Earth Institute. A key component of its work is voluntary simplicity, something Doolittle already knew a lot about. He lives simply in a barn, on less than $20,000 a year. “But in the global village, that still makes me rich,” he notes. A Derry town councilor, he is helping set up a bike path to loop downtown so that residents can pedal instead of driving. He’s also working on getting the town a new park system and wildlife habitat, and in the 1980s, he helped start a recycling center.

Doolittle says voluntary simplicity is his institute’s most popular course; he himself has taken it three times. The simplicity discussion groups, he says, lend support to people who are ready to change. “By talking about it with others, the un-talk-about-able becomes the talk-about-able,” he says.

Americans live in a bubble of materialism, he says, but UUs are well-positioned to burst that bubble “because of our tradition of asking questions.”

“It’s only the rich who have the freedom for it to be voluntary,” he concedes, but he adds that it’s a cop-out to use that as a reason to dismiss the movement. “Thank God it’s beginning somewhere,” he says. “I think the people who are more advantaged have the perspective and the understanding and the need to be able to forge a solution.” 

Virgil Agnew, who codirects religious education at the UU Fellowship in Corvallis, Oregon, shares Doolittle’s hope that the voluntary simplicity movement can change the world. He knows it has changed his family. After taking the course, he decided to give up much of his driving. His wife traded a high-pressure job for one that provides less money but more time. Even his seventh-grade daughter commutes the six-miles roundtrip to her school on a bike from Goodwill and wears second-hand rain gear in bad weather.

Little things, but he feels they make a difference. “What did Gandhi say? ‘My life is my message’? You have to be the change you want to see in the world. It has to begin with you. The power of one person can be pretty incredible. As UUs, we’re committed to making the world a better place, and voluntary simplicity fits in the real world.” 

If Agnew is right about UUs, then it should come as no surprise that a UU minister is voluntary simplicity’s unwitting grandfather. The Rev. Timothy Behrendt, minister of the Utica, New York, church, has been practicing voluntary simplicity for so long that he says he didn’t even know there was a “movement.” 

Thirty years ago, Behrendt began fasting to protest the Vietnam War. His weight fell from 170 pounds to 134, a weight he has maintained since then by eating only vegetables, legumes, and, once a week, fish. “After the war was over, I realized there was a war on wildlife,” he says.

He met his wife, Peggy Spencer, through the antiwar movement. In 1972, she joined him as a vegetarian.

Behrendt, who hasn’t had a hamburger or steak since 1969, laughs heartily when asked if he misses red meat. “Yeah, I do,” he says. “I was a former collegiate and semi-pro football player. I survived on steak.” 

But the couple doesn’t limit their activism to diet. They live on a 300-acre nature preserve in a cottage they built themselves out of scrap wood for $450. A solar panel atop the roof provides electricity. They’ve also built a greenhouse and an organic garden that supply most of their food. They have no running water; they fetch it from a nearby creek. Waste is recycled into the orchard and garden. In the winter, they use a wood stove. Food is “refrigerated” in the root cellar, though they recently broke down and got a tiny refrigerator for hot weather.

Guests come from as far away as Switzerland and Taiwan to see how the couple live. They are welcome to stay in the $50-per-night guest cottage and use the recycled bikes and patched-up canoes. What would the couple consider a real splurge? They pause. “To me, it would be having a gigantic organic salad that would feed four,” Behrendt says finally. “Going to a restaurant for a veggie burger,” Spencer offers. 

“Our lifestyle is actually lower than the poor other than the homeless,” Behrendt says. “We feel we bring a duty and a dignity to living a very simple lifestyle—that no matter what your income, you can still feel good about yourself and not feel you’re a failure just because you don’t have all the materialistic trappings.”

Behrendt and Spencer self-publish books of poetry and stories—he writes them, she illustrates them. And they make tapes of music interacting with sounds of the forest or wetlands: she plays the harp, he the harmonica. Any proceeds go to the local schools for science and ecology projects.

The couple also puts out a newsletter a couple of times a year. In a recent issue, it quoted from an article in the Yoga Journal:

Simplicity is savoring life. It is having a truly memorable lunch with a friend because you didn’t try to cram in breakfast with another one that morning as well as tea with a third in the afternoon. . . .  Most of all, simplicity is freedom  to choose what you want in your life.

Carol Holst agrees. She, for one, offers no apologies to critics of voluntary simplicity. “A lot of us come from the yuppiedom that we have now rejected,” she says. “We feel that people who have so much should take a look at what their lifestyles have done to the planet and to the people who have too little. Then, they should take a voluntary step in a new direction.”

Dick Roy, a guru of the voluntary simplicity movement, has taken giant steps in a new direction. Still, he feels guilty because his work with the Northwest Earth Institute requires him to drive too much. (For the record, he owns a 1993 Honda VX that gets more than 48 miles to the gallon.) 

And then there’s that blasted addiction. “Coffee,” he says, simply.

Bella English writes for the Boston Globe. She is a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist in Milton, MA.

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