This is a guest post by Patricia Maurice. An accomplished professor, mother, and a voracious student of life.
There’s nothing like a solo hike up the side of a rugged mountain peak to organize one’s thoughts and create a little time for reminiscing. But, it wasn’t until I got back to camp this evening and raced to warm a bowl of soup in the path of a thunderstorm that clarity finally struck me… at 55 years old, I am happier than I’ve ever been in my life.
This journey towards happiness has not been steady or linear by any means. Mine has been a life of long periods of chaos punctuated by sudden epiphanies that have arrived like thunderbolts from out of the blue. I could, and perhaps will write about several of them. But, surely, one of the most important occurred a little over a decade ago. In my mid-40s, life had become a seemingly endless, exhausting ping-pong match of career and family. I wasn’t sleeping, was hardly eating… and it always seemed like the harder I worked, the more behind I fell.
Then, one day, an amazing thing happened in the most humble of circumstances. I was rushing to squeeze in some shopping between work and picking up our son at school. As I reached to grab an item off a shelf and place it in my bloated shopping cart, it suddenly occurred to me: Anything I buy I either have to cook or clean. Well, food is a necessity. Although, buying a little less goodies can also mean weighing a little less. But, very few other things we buy are truly necessary. Even a simple t-shirt or a new candy dish takes up space, needs to be kept clean, and represents a little more work added to a mother’s daily burden.
That simple realization totally changed my life, and so much for the better. Suddenly, I just stopped buying things my family didn’t absolutely need. My house became amazingly neater with a noticeable decrease in chores. I lost weight. Our savings accounts grew and early retirement became a very real option.
More than that, my whole outlook on life was altered. Suddenly, it wasn’t just material goods that I eschewed. I started to streamline my time and energy. Did I really need to dust and vacuum so often? Wouldn’t it be better for my kid and my students if they were given more responsibility to learn and do things on their own? In fact, did I really need to be buying or doing even a fraction of what had become the norm?
I guess this is called growing up. We all do it in different ways and at different times. When it happens, it’s wonderful.
This is not to say that I stopped shopping altogether. My new ultralight down jacket has made it so much easier to pack everything into one small bag for travel. I’ll always buy good shoes—but it’s not such a big deal to wear black shoes with blue, brown, green, or black pants. Sending a kid off to college will probably mean a few shopping trips.
Almost immediately, I recognized the importance of the shopping-trip-epiphany to my own life. But, it’s only in the last few years that I’ve come to realize how much our society needs to go through a similar epiphany. When I used to visit my grandparents’ homes, they were simple, uncluttered, cozy, and wonderfully loving. My grandparents didn’t buy things they didn’t need. They got maximum use out of every penny spent. Being frugal and saving money were considered virtues. Somehow, over the last 50+ years, especially with increased globalization, Americans have bought into this crazy idea that more is better. More food, more clothes, more cars, more trinkets. Our entire economy is based not on conservation but on consumerism. As an environmental scientist, I can see clearly that we are destroying our planet. And, we don’t seem to be any happier for it; in fact, exactly the opposite.
A hike in the wilderness and a simple bowl of vegetable soup has brought it all together in my mind. It’s time for our society to grow up a little. Unfortunately, our collective epiphany will probably not come in so simple and painless a manner. But, we can all start making a difference if we just work to simplify our lives and decrease our wants and needs.
If there’s one thing I know for sure… there’s nothing quite so delicious as a simple bowl of soup at the end of an equally simple but well-spent day.