Because life is simpler in the wilderness, most people learn quickly that taking too much gear with them on, say, a backpacking trip, is dysfunctional and potentially life threatening. With diligent planning the solutions are usually obvious. For example, if you are feeling cold in the wilderness you can put on every single piece of clothing you brought with you. If you are still cold you can eat. If you are still cold you can make camp and get in your sleeping bag. Unfortunately, because civilization does not have such fast feedback loops it allows us to continue with dysfunctional behavior far longer than in the wilderness. While the consequences of such behavior are not so immediate they can be just as life threatening.
As a financial planner I have seen many clients struggling to support large expensive McMansions and lifestyles to match, and suffering from a range of stress related illnesses and/or relationship problems. Because civilized life is more complicated (family, work, school, peer pressure, neighbors, social networks, religious affiliations etc.) it is often difficult for clients to conceive what it would be like without much of the ‘stuff’ that currently supports their lavish life style.
At this point it often becomes clear that the ‘stuff’ is an obstacle to change and growth and that rather than the client possessing ‘stuff’, the ‘stuff’ is possessing the client. This inverse relationship was clearly recognized by the early Christians. In one of the most striking images in the Bible, Jesus told his disciples that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich young man, whom he loved, to enter the kingdom of God. This was not, as is generally thought, because the man was comfortable with his worldly goods but because he refused the invitation to give them up i.e. he had become dependent on them, no longer self-sufficient, no longer autonomous.
Socrates had long ago made a similar point. In reply to criticism that he eat food and drink of the worst kind and wore cheap clothing, Socrates replied that he did not receive money for his conversations and consequently was at liberty to talk to anyone. As for his diet: “he who eats with most pleasure is he who least requires sauce.” In other words Socrates chose to dress and eat simply, because by doing so he could remain free and autonomous, not beholding to anyone.
Along the same lines Henry David Thoreau saw that the luxuries and comforts of modern living had become its necessities and that people were making slaves of themselves in order to pay for them. His solution, like Socrates, was to see how many things he could live without. For Thoreau the richest person was not the one with the greatest accumulation of goods but the one with the largest amount of free time. Thoreau recognized that we are our own worst enemy, Most men, he said, “lead lives of quiet desperation,” because rather than living modestly and trying to experience life to the full, they strive to own more than they need and so find themselves on a treadmill that leaves no time to smell the roses.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms,”
Thoreau also walked the talk:
“I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”
“My “best” room, however, my withdrawing room, always ready for company, on whose carpet the sun rarely fell, was the pine wood behind my house.”
There is no need to live like a hermit to learn that ‘ less’ means ‘more’. A few days spent hiking or backpacking in the wilderness is cheaper than counseling, therapy or financial planning, and certainly much more enjoyable.
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)