Contents: UU World Back Issue

Modeling the Simple Life

By Tom Stites

The road Carol Holst has traveled as a consumer leads from a frugal Wisconsin childhood, through the excesses of Beverly Hills, to a tiny apartment in downtown Glendale, California, furnished with gift paintings and used furniture.

"I choose it carefully," she says, "and it just makes me so happy. If I thought for one minute that I was depriving myself I would adopt a different mode. Because I already have enough, I need very little time to add things."

At 55, Holst conscientiously lives her values. Her apartment is only one expression of her commitment to live simply. You'd never know it, but her clothes come from thrift stores. And her work-not her paid work but her life's calling-is to be one of the dynamos powering the voluntary simplicity movement.

In this role she wears many hats. She is the volunteer director of Seeds of Simplicity, a 1,052 -member national nonprofit organization that she founded when she was director of religious education for her congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills in La Crescenta, California. She is also the part-time administrator of the Simplicity Forum, an alliance of forty voluntary simplicity leaders. She serves on the national advisory board of the PBS television series Simple Living with Wanda Urbanska and on the Sierra Club's sustainable consumption committee. She organizes conferences and projects. And she frequently sits for interviews, serving up quotes about simplicity for broadcasters, newspapers, and magazines.

"Salvation Army and Goodwill, they are my friends," she tells me in the easy manner of someone with professional skills at getting a point across-then hastens to add the reassuring message that hers is hardly the only approach to simplification. With our hyperconsuming culture fouling the environment and "stuffocating" our lives-to use a word coined by one of her board members-even an act as modest as cleaning out a closet full of clothes is meaningful and welcome. People need to start where they are, Holst says. As for herself, "I am most comfortable with a minimal amount of stuff to worry about, to pay for, to store, to clean."

Sitting with me in a Long Beach hotel lobby just before making a presentation at the UUA General Assembly in June 2004, Holst presents a striking appearance, tall and slender with a wide smile and straight auburn hair descending down her back. Her poise and calm are powerful witness to the value of simplifying material things in order to concentrate on other concerns. Needing so little time for shopping helps her make even a life with so many roles seem simple.

Seeds of Simplicity is aptly named. The seeds it plants are sprouting all over. One day in 2003 Holst picked up the phone and a Seeds of Simplicity member told her that she was finding voluntary simplicity to be an effective therapeutic tool with some of her anxious social-work clients. This started a conversation on the group's board, which includes Dr. Roderic Gorney, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Ashley Montagu Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles. Less than a year later Gorney and Holst organized a conference entitled "Mental Health and Simple Living: Countering the Compulsion to Consume" at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute. It was the first time a major university's psychiatry department had brought together experts to explore the ways our complex lives affect us.

"We are pushing the limits of human physiology," Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of the institute and executive chair of UCLA's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, said in his opening remarks. "Some people collapse a little earlier than others as this push occurs, but in the long run this is not a story about people who have mental illness; this is a story about all of us. This is a story about how we are an ongoing experiment in America. We are at the leading edge of something that the human race has never experienced before. . . .

"We have constructed a set of circumstances, a culture, which is actually toxic for us. It doesn't fit with our neurobiology, and it doesn't fit with our evolutionary behavior. Because we have gotten so complex and so big, we have to, as a society, think how we will develop systems which provide the infrastructure in the communities we need to teach the next generation of people. . . . The simplicity movement is the beginning."

Whybrow's book American Mania: When More Is Not Enough, which was enriched by some of the conference proceedings, was published in January by Norton. Now Holst is working with the institute to create a curriculum from the book to be distributed at no cost to church groups and simplicity study circles inspired by Cecile Andrews, author of The Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life. The curriculum will be available at www.seedsofsimplicity.org.

The UCLA conference in January 2004 drew many therapists and some reporters as well as a PBS film crew. Holst introduced the speakers, who included a young emergency room physician with a moving confessional about her struggle with a compulsion to consume, Andrews, Gorney, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor at the Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University and originator of the groundbreaking psychological theory laid out in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. A second conference is planned for late this year or early 2006.

The road Carol Holst has traveled spiritually leads from a childhood with agnostic/atheist parents to confirmation in the Swedish and German Lutheranism of other family members, disillusionment in college and a decade without church, to Unitarian Universalism, when her children started asking questions about God.

Holst now characterizes herself as a dyed-in-the-wool Unitarian Universalist. For fourteen years she was director of religious education at the Verdugo Hills church, where she founded Seeds of Simplicity in 1996 , initially as a way to help children be comfortable with simple living despite the endless advertising bombardment they endure. Seeds of Simplicity's mission broadened quickly, its membership grew, and in 2001 Holst stepped down as director of religious education. Seeds of Simplicity still holds its board meetings at the church and Holst remains an active volunteer there. She helped present two workshops at the General Assembly last June in Long Beach, California. Holst has also written a version of the Seven Principles for young children, available from the UUA Bookstore as a booklet called My 7 Principles. Not surprisingly, she frames simplicity in terms that resonate spiritually.

"The simplicity movement," she says in our interview at General Assembly, "is about countering the spiraling complexities of our world in such a way that people can find balance and satisfaction and fulfillment in ways that have much deeper meaning for them, not only for ourselves but for our children. It helps redefine who we are as people."

What does it take to get people out of the malls and into the simplicity movement?

"I think just exposure, realization that there is an alternative to the messages of Madison Avenue that are so pervasive and in your face. Our American public is not only inundated but hypnotized by this. It tends to create a false sense of what our lives are about and, not only that, creates all this environmental damage and maldistribution and all these other social ills."

How do you respond when people say the simplicity movement is elitist?

"First of all, we are addressing voluntary simplicity, working with people who already have enough. We have choices, so by definition that makes us elite in the world. I feel it's all the more important to work with this community, this privileged community of choice, since it represents a new way to reduce the gap between rich and poor. Affluent people represent a very vital strategy without which it's unlikely that we're going to see a paradigm shift."

Unitarian Universalists tend to be rather affluent, and we tend to advocate justice causes, so how would you frame this issue to help them turn their privilege toward justice?

"I just hit very directly on the famous tenet 'Live simply so that others may simply live.' Both from that perspective, and from the environmental perspective, there is just a gut-level feeling among UUs that it's very appropriate that we head in this direction."

As someone who has thought deeply enough about the Seven Principles to create a simplified version for children, how do you articulate the ways the simplicity movement fits into UU principles and values?

"There is no principle, none of the Seven Principles, to which the voluntary simplicity movement does not have a direct connection."

Our materialist culture's energy consumption fuels global warming; our eating choices fuel agricultural practices that erode topsoil, drain aquifers for irrigation, pollute groundwater and rivers, and undermine genetic diversity. Simplifying one's life means not only less stuff and less time pressure but also softening one's impact on the earth, honoring the interdependent web of all existence that is enshrined in the Seventh Principle.

"It's hard for me to pull my Seeds of Simplicity experience apart from my UU experience because they are all intertwined," says Lynne Webber, administrator of the fifty-six-member Verdugo Hills church and the mother of two children who grew up in Holst's religious education program. Webber says Holst's simplicity teachings brought a shared understanding to her family, including more manageable Christmas celebrations, and has made a real difference to the congregation. By consistent modeling of her values, Webber says admiringly, Holst "is a constant reminder that one person really can make a big difference in the lives of many people."

Webber's son Dan DeVorkin, now a 19-year-old college journalism student, remembers the program providing a powerful sense of affirmation-"I didn't think anyone else thought this way"-and believes that it will carry into his adult life, making it easy for him to elude the forces of stuffocation.

Some Unitarian Universalist congregations are beginning to offer islands of simplification for Americans awash in a sea of stuff. More than ninety UU congregations have requested Seeds of Simplicity materials or have religious educators or social justice chairs who are Seeds of Simplicity members. Some host "circles of simplicity," and more than 125 UU churches have used a curriculum created by Northwest Earth Institute.

One was the First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where five years ago my wife Alex Mezey and I attended a series of potluck dinner discussions inspired by the curriculum [see UU World, September/October 1999]. At the last session, the participants all spoke about what they'd learned and what changes they'd made in their lives. I was struck that no one had made dramatic changes, including Alex and me. But a seed had been planted. Eighteen months ago Alex and I sold our house and downsized to a two-bedroom apartment. From my experience, it really is liberating to have less stuff.

The road Carol Holst has traveled as a simplicity movement leader has led her quite a distance from her life two decades ago when she was married to a corporate executive and raising two daughters in Beverly Hills. Now she is trying to open a new road that will lead the simplicity movement out of the margins of the culture, "reaching past the converted, reaching into mainstream America." Seeds of Simplicity's initials are the same as the nautical distress signal SOS, often said to mean "Save our ship." Holst has started using SOS as shorthand not only because it's easier to say than the organization's full name but also because the metaphor works on two levels: Our ship, the earth, needs saving, and, as Whybrow adds, the simplicity movement could help pull our overwhelmed culture to safety.

The next step, she hopes, is significant funding for SOS. Grants can be elusive for organizations that run against the fortune-building culture that spawns foundations.

So Holst works three jobs totaling about forty-five paid hours a week, spends and sleeps little, and puts her earnings as well as her energy into SOS. Her work for the Simplicity Forum is part paid and part volunteer. Her main job is membership coordinator for a nonprofit in another field, and she also works as an artists' model. Her client list includes schools of art, Walt Disney Imagineering, and American Animation Institute.

I asked her where this level of commitment comes from. Holst reached back to her childhood. "I had always felt from a very early age that there was important work to be done in the world," she said. "That the world needed changing resonated very deep in my heart even as a seven-year-old.

"Then in fifth grade I had a powerful teacher who was very persuasive in telling the class that all the important work that needed to be done in the world had been done, and it was up to us to maintain the status quo. I remember internalizing that, and I think I simply resigned myself at that point to fit in, and I did not ask myself, 'What are my values in life? What am I trying to accomplish?' because I really thought it didn't matter."

That lasted until her husband left her in her forties. Her work experiences founding a school called The Learning Place and directing religious education at Verdugo Hills had prepared her to open her eyes. But her personal loss fully awakened her: In less than a week Carol-the-world-changer re-emerged.

"I was devastated," she remembers. "I basically thought the world was doing fine, and then I realized there's just an enormous amount of work to be done."

And what of her daughters, now 27 and 22? Are they living simply?

"No," Holst says with a chuckle. "They're both in the fast lane, making at least four times what I ever will make or what I ever would want to make."

One daughter is a certified public accountant, the other a software engineer with Google. As Holst speaks, she radiates a pride in her daughters that she admits is boundless. Though her daughters regard her as a bit of an oddball, she says, "We have a fabulous communications flow and honor each other's values."

Given the depth of your commitment to simplicity, I ask, what explains this? How is it that people whose values seem so different can find mutual respect?

"Years of emersion in the greater UU community," she says, "which cherishes such cooperation."

With Holst, even the paradoxes that plague all of us can be made simple.


 Contents: UU World Back Issue
UU World : Page 39-42

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