Principle 1: Needs vs. Wants

Principle 1: Needs vs. Wants

Make a sharp distinction between true needs and mere wants, because there are consequences for excessive indulgence of wants.

If you’re just getting started with simplicity, this is the easiest principle to understand.

Simplicity implies distancing yourself from the consumerism and materialism of the modern industrialized and technological world, a world where making money and accumulating possessions is equated with “the good life.”

All of us experience firsthand the sad effects of…blind submission to pure consumerism: in the first place, a crass materialism, and at the same time, a radical dissatisfaction, because one quickly learns…that the more one possesses the more one wants, while deeper aspirations remain unsatisfied and perhaps even stifled.[1]

A wise friend succinctly paraphrased the quote above: “Consumerism leaves the consumer empty.”

The principle of Needs vs. Wants applies not only to the choices we make as consumers (how to spend our money) but to the choices we make regarding the use of our other personal resources:

  • how to spend our time
  • how to spend (and expend) our energy
  • what to pay attention to
  • how to arrange our living space
  • how to use our gifts

Questions for reflection:

Am I considering a purchase right now? Is the item I’m thinking of buying a need or a want?

One of the consequences of consumerism is a paradoxical sense of emptiness. What are other consequences of excessively indulging our wants?

List the things in which you currently invest your resources of time, money, energy, and living space. Which are needs? Which are wants? Which are extravagances or selfish indulgences?

Take action:

Can you bring yourself to eliminate—right now—anything on the list that is an extravagance or selfish indulgence? Can you eliminate any wants?

[1] Pope John Paul II, On Social Concern (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis), December 30, 1987, no. 28

Simple Living In A Complicated World

For many years now, I’ve been striving to live a more simple life. I’ve made conscious, deliberate choices to eliminate excess and live a more streamlined, efficient, peaceful life, free of clutter, chaos, and confusion.

Now, let me tell you what my so-called “simple life” is really like. It was January 2009, and simple living had come off the rails:

Sunday, our day of rest (ha!) began with driving my 6th-grader to an 8:30 am volleyball practice, returning home to drive my teenagers to church to sing in the choir at 9:30, getting myself ready for church, driving to pick up my 6th-grader from volleyball so she could get ready for church, then going to church with her at 11:30. Somewhere in there the teenagers reappeared, having apparently wheedled a ride home, so at least I didn’t have to go back to church a third time: all those trips back and forth were giving me highway hypnosis, and it wasn’t even noon yet.

Monday I got up at 5:30 am to go to a 6 am exercise class. Came home and got ready for work. Went to work all day until 6. Came home and was preparing to hurry the kids out the door for an evening of errands and dinner on the run when a friend called and begged me to play guitar for a church holy hour service later in the week because the other guitarist couldn’t make it and by the way the rehearsal is tonight and it starts in an hour. Sigh. So much for my errands. The store I had to go to would be closed by the time the rehearsal ended.

I knew I would have to put off my errands until Wednesday because on Tuesdays I also work until 6 and then have a prayer meeting at 7 that is supposed to end at 9 but always goes until 10 or 11. So Tuesday was a wash.

Wednesday I was too tired to get up for the 6 am exercise class, but I did manage to get to work on time, sort of. During my lunch hour, I ran the errand I had planned on doing Monday night: pick up my computer from the repair shop. Then I went back to work for the rest of my shift, returned home, fired up the computer, and discovered two emails of doom: the first telling me that my daughter was supposed to have been serving the 6:15 am Mass this whole week, and the second telling me that an article assignment was due yesterday. Couldn’t work on it right away though, because my daughter had volleyball practice again and my other daughter needed a ride to her friend’s house so she could get a ride from there to the thing she was going to…

The next day — Thursday — I dedicated my lunch hour, in the middle of another shift that ends at 6 pm, to yet more errands. After which I picked up my daughter from basketball practice, and then came home too frazzled to do anything but retire to the couch with a bag of M&Ms and a stack of Star Trek DVDs, even though we were no doubt out of milk or some other essential, and I had a stack of real mail to go through and several screens of new email to process and a car that needed gas and a driveway covered in snow and a bunch of school papers to look at, permission slips to sign and yet another field trip to pay for and a thousand other things on my to-do list hammering away at my psyche.

At the time, I consoled myself with the reminder that this was just a temporary anomaly: my daughter isn’t usually in two sports at once, writing deadlines will not always coincide with computer breakdowns, and once this cold snap was over the big kids could walk to church on Sunday if necessary.

Nevertheless, this maelstrom I found myself in proved that in modern America, you have to fight to keep things simple. “Stuff” is always creeping in, piling up on my desk and on my bedside table, adding itself mysteriously to my schedule and my to-do list, insinuating its way almost imperceptibly into my life and into my family, until a week like that comes along and slaps me awake.

If I may be permitted to paraphrase Wendell Phillips, the price of simplicity is, truly, eternal vigilance [1] because “entropy increases.” [2]

But what is simplicity, really, and why should we be concerned to seek and maintain it in our lives? Most people freely admit that they long for a simpler life. But how is it even possible in such a complicated world?

The purpose of striving for a simple life varies with each individual, but I believe the most universal reason is:

  • We would prefer to conserve our most precious personal resources—time, energy, attention, and others—in a way that allows us to direct those resources toward things that are truly important, such as personal growth, important relationships, worship of God, service to our neighbor, and activities that give joy and meaning to our lives—rather than frittering them away on endless trivial errands, the minutiae of daily life, and the “tyranny of the urgent.” [3]

The hectic pace and materialistic focus of modern life in the technologically advanced regions of the world leads to dissipation of our energies and focus, and as a result, our “deeper aspirations remain unsatisfied and perhaps even stifled.” [4]

If you’re looking for some calm in your life and need some practical ways to nurture those “deeper aspirations”—such as “…purity of soul, the life of the mind, the cohesion of the family, [and] the good of society.” [5] —I invite you to explore this website. I hope you find it helpful!

[1] “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” Wendell Phillips (1811-1884) American abolitionist, orator, and writer. A contemporary of Henry David Thoreau.

[2] The Second Law of Thermodynamics

[3] Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) said, “Our lives are frittered away by detail…Simplify, simplify!”

[4] Pope John Paul II, On Social Concern (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis) December 30, 1987, no. 28

[5] David Shi, The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p 3-4