I walked up to the bank for my regular deposit and saw the middle-aged man sitting in a wheelchair. His dark skin contrasted with the white of his eyes, downcast, but with an anxious, waiting gaze.
A Styrofoam cup with a dollar bill and some small change sat on the ground by his left foot, while his right leg jiggled in a habitual manner: amputated below the knee. The pant leg shook loosely below it. He looked like a man large in stature that was shrunken by confinement to this machine that allowed him the freedom of ambulation, but not much else.
I wondered what he had been through – the Gulf War? Vietnam? No, probably too young for that. How many years had he subsisted this way? What was it like day in and day out to sit here by Washington Mutual, or the coffee shop down the street, or in front of Whole Foods, awaiting someone’s charity to get by? But the question that stuck in my mind the most was this: what sustained him? What kept him going every day, when life looked so bleak?
We are on the doorstep of challenging times. The pundits predict it, with the stock market plummeting, banks crumbling, and unemployment on the rise. One friend described it thus: at the mall on “black Friday” she felt sad that it was easy to find parking. Yes, times are changing. For how long, we don’t know. But most of us are feeling the need to tighten the belt, buckle up, and hang on.
Some calculate that we are embarking on the worst economic period since the Great Depression. Maybe so, maybe not. But if so, then what do we do? How will we get through, besides pinching the pennies and cutting costs? Life has its ups and downs, and money isn’t everything. If we’re to journey through some financial struggles, maybe we should find something deeper to anchor ourselves to than the volatility of the stock market. What is it that really sustains us?
The Great Depression
I thought I should ask someone who knows, so I called up my mother. Born in 1925, the Great Depression was the bulk of her childhood memories. It was not a “bad spell” – it was the norm for almost every American. She had heard of the Carnegies and the Rockefellers, but everyone on her street and in her town barely had enough to put food on the table.
Imagine it: men knocking on the back door in the afternoon to offer work in exchange for a meal. Her mother cooked dinner in the kitchen for an extra person as the stranger fixed a broken chair or did some yardwork. Lines of men downtown, awaiting free meals or a possibility of a job. Kids sitting on the road with a basket of apples, sold for a penny each to help the family. My grandmother took in a border for their extra room to make enough money to pay the bills.
My grandfather was an engineer, trained to run power plants with a degree from Johns Hopkins University, and couldn’t find work. So the family moved from their nice home in Detroit to Maryland, to work with his uncle harvesting oysters from the Chesapeake Bay. After hours, he’d go around to families in the neighborhood to collect life insurance, and would sit at the dinner table late at night counting up pennies for each person’s account.
The family didn’t have enough money to buy toys, so my mom made paper dolls and cradles from Quaker Oat cans. She’d get a little porcelain doll from the Five n’ Dime in town and my grandmother sewed doll outfits as her Christmas gift from the scraps remaining from sewing my mother’s own clothes.
Happy with less
Seem a bit dismal? Not at all, according to my mother. Of course, she admits that her parents probably kept a lot of the family financial difficulties from her, but she had a happy childhood. The kids played with each other on the street, and would make up games and toys from bits of things they had. When they didn’t have the money to buy Monopoly, they used old cardboard to copy a friend’s board game and buttons as the game pieces. Everyone was in the same boat. There was a feeling of community and commonality, and no one in particular felt like they lacked. They enjoyed the simpler things in life.
Thus, the first principle to survive and thrive through hard times is to enjoy and appreciate what you have. Find happiness with less, and simplify. At first, it may be difficult – when you’re used to a lot of television, it’s tough for a couple of weeks, getting used to silence and a blank screen. But if eliminating the cable bill is what it takes to pay the rent, you may find that the silence is golden. In fact, less television means more quality time with family, friends, and favorite projects, like knitting or wood carving. The joys of reading, writing, art, and listening to music can be rediscovered.
You have what you need
Simple living, while being a trendy catch-phrase of the twenty-first century, may actually catch on when we don’t have the luxury of spending ourselves into temporal satisfaction. A hundred years ago, people didn’t have so much “stuff” that they needed to think about simplifying their lives. Most people only had just what they needed.
It was with the advent of a highly prosperous middle class, post WWII in the 1950’s, that much of our modern-day “consumer culture” was born. Advertising and the greater availability of home conveniences and luxury items brought on the desire to keep up with the Joneses by acquiring more things.
Now, our culture tends to need more and more stimulation through entertainment and consuming, whether foodstuffs or fill-your-closet stuff. But the more we buy, the less we seem satisfied, and the more we need to buy again to keep feeling the excitement of new stuff. How much of our material possessions do we really use and enjoy? How much gets stored in the closet, never to be seen again until we clean it out? We may discover some interesting and useful things (even some clothes we forgot we had) when we open up that closet and realize that we don’t need to buy something new after all.
In yogic philosophy, there is a term that nicely describes living happily with less (or at least with what we already own) – aparigraha. Literally translated as “non-greed” or “non-clinging,” both definitions aptly embrace the qualities of simple living.
Do not accumulate more than you really need – how many shoes are really necessary? And what you don’t really need, practice letting it go. That means cleaning out those overflowing closets. Inevitably, what most people find when they practice aparigraha is that they are happier. When we satisfy our loneliness by spending quality time with friends instead of shopping, it fills a deeper need. Plus, having fewer possessions often feels lighter: less responsibility to care for them, more freedom to enjoy the space and time we have.
Think of Simple Living as “simply” living. Living means being alive, with our five senses, our bodies, and exploring our world. When we’re living, we’re breathing in the fresh air after a rain, feeling the damp soil with our fingers, tasting the drop of nectar from the center of the honeysuckle.
These things don’t cost us more than stepping into the backyard or perhaps a drive to the park, but when you take the time to explore them, they can be more satisfying than dinner and a movie or a shopping excursion to the mall. And you don’t get buyer’s remorse, either.
Along with becoming happy with what you have lies a second principle – creativity. Like my mother using a Quaker Oat can to make toys, we can be resourceful and come up with a number of ways to enjoy life on the cheap. My daughter loves to draw on the backs of cereal and cracker boxes. Don’t just think outside the box – think of what you can do with the box. Jelly jars can be playful and inexpensive juice cups (I had them as a child). All sorts of fun crafts can be made from trash and recyclables. And with a little imagination, you can come up with a wide variety of free or nearly free activities – from a trip to the beach to a walk to the train station, or inviting the neighborhood to have a “stone soup” block party.
Speaking of the neighborhood, building community is the third tenet to sustain us through tough times. During the depression, my mother said there was a sense of connection with everyone else, because we were all in it together. Remember that while you pass by a stranger on the street, and as you share your big batch of cookies with your next-door neighbor. Feel your sense of connection with other human (and animal) beings. We all laugh, cry, suffer, and celebrate. We are one people on one planet.
What is your community? Is it your family, neighborhood, church, yoga studio, or online social network? Reach out and hold another hand. As we lend support, we are supported. As we share in each other’s joys and sorrows, we cultivate closeness and authenticity. Knowing someone cares and knows something meaningful about us makes us feel less alone in the world. And that can get us through the tough stuff.
Serving others, serving God
We also support our broader community by the fourth tenet to sustain us in challenging times: service. Sometimes, especially when the economy is weak and employment is scarce, we end up working a job that feels unfulfilling or humdrum just to make ends meet. But that doesn’t have to stop us from making a difference in our community.
A branch of yoga addresses this issue: karma yoga. This is the practice of seeking oneness with all of creation through doing selfless service to others. It is said to be one of the swiftest (though not necessary easiest!) paths to enlightenment. Through karma yoga, one learns to see the Divine and attend to that divinity in every person and creature. Feeding a homeless person is feeding God. Taking care of an abandoned cat is taking care of the Essence in all living things. Mopping a floor is mopping the floor of Christ, Buddha, Devi, or Mohammed. Every action becomes an act of love for the Divine.
Recent research affirms that doing volunteer work to serve the community significantly relieves depression. You can’t help but feel that you’re doing something worthwhile, something that makes a difference to others. And that goes a long way to keeping you going when the going gets tough.
What cause speaks to your heart? Helping terminally ill patients through their last days? Serving dinner at a soup kitchen? Caring for puppies or kittens at an animal shelter? Answering a crisis hotline for abused women? Cleaning up a local watershed and returning indigenous plants to the land? The possibilities are endless. As you make some time in your calendar to serve other beings, you’ll feel rich inside.
On the following week, I returned to the bank and found the homeless man there again, amputated leg jingling, and struck up a conversation. He had lost his lower leg in the first Gulf war, when a buddy of his stepped on a land mine. Through a series of other misfortunes while recovering from his injury, he was dishonorably discharged and left without any resources to survive.
As he relayed more of his story, tears welled up in his eyes. He grew tired of the struggle, day in and day out, of having to live on charity. An older Asian woman walked by, calling out to him with a smile while dropping a couple bills into the cup. “Now you keep your jacket on and stay warm, you hear? Or else I won’t be giving you anything.” His face broadened into a warm expression, expressing gratitude and assuring her he’d do his best to stay bundled up. I asked him what kept him going, through the cold winters and all the difficulties he had been through.
“It’s people like her,” he replied. “Someone caring, knowing that someone cares.” The simple offering not just of money but of love and compassion, allowed him to endure his fate. This fifth key to surviving and thriving in difficult times is what we all know: that love matters. Demonstrating love and compassion not only touches the hearts of those we care for, but transforms us, too. Our hearts open more as we expand them to nurture others, even strangers. Karma yoga happens not only when doing volunteer work, but in all actions, words, and attitudes that express love and kindness towards others.
Connect to something Greater
Lastly, as we endure the changing times in whatever form they offer, root yourself to what is unchanging and eternal – your connection to the Divine. This may simply be a feeling inside your heart. Look up at the moon and wonder. Gaze into the eyes of a loved one. Inhale the fresh salty air of the ocean. You can find Spirit there, in the simple and wondrous places.
Listen to who inspires you and reminds you of this deeper part of yourself. Read what opens your heart and expands your soul. If you have a temple, church, or special place that moves you, make the time to attend. And, of course, roll out your yoga mat and be present with yourself, in your body. It is right inside ourselves that we experience the Infinite, if we open ourselves to it. Sit still, breathe, and seek the inner light.
What sustains us is not just food, but what feeds our soul. Simplify your life. Get creative. Connect to community. Serve others, with empathy and love. And seek the Source of all life, of boundless love and compassion in yourself and all beings. These six practices will strengthen and uplift you, and carry you through whatever lies ahead.
Copyright © 2008 by Constance L. Habash