Monday, May 26, 2008

Imagine relatively few possessions

The New York Times recently published a human-interest story about an Austin family — Aimee and Jeff Harris and their two kids — who are professing to get rid of most of their possessions.

I'm not sure how a family in Texas gets a long article in a New York newspaper devoted to their lifestyle change. But whatever. Let's see what exactly they're doing.

They say on their blog:

We have no need of a 12 piece, breakable set of dishes and will replace them with enamel coated metal dishes, cups, bowls for traveling and camping with. I have no need of high heeled shoes and purses and will replace them with some sturdy Goodwill boots and a back pack. Things of that nature.
I certainly can't fault them for giving away so much to charity. But for a family who's pitching themselves as abandoning possessions, they sure sound like they have a lot of shopping to do.

They're also going to give away their current cars ... and get new cars (again, not exactly monastic behavior) ... and drive all the way from their current home in Texas to Vermont (where they've never been) to start a new life. I'm not sure how driving across the country — which is to say, using up the world's resources and unnecessarily contributing to carbon emissions, just to give a partial list of the evils of driving — is part of simplifying your life and returning to nature. Americans are so obsessed with our car culture that using a car doesn't even register as something that goes against the ideals of simplicity, counterculture, anti-consumerism. Thus, the Times write-up never mentions their car situation, and I doubt that the writers had a second thought about this. Or if they did, it was quickly dismissed: "Come on, you have to have a car!"

I'm not sure exactly what their financial situation is, but it's probably pretty cushy in the first place for them to even consider doing this. Aimee says that part of what's making their project feasible is that Jeff will be able to keep his full-time job because he can do it from anywhere with high-speed internet access. How much are they really vouching for the idea of leading an ascetic life if it's powered by technology in a way that would have been unthinkable just a couple decades ago? You know, it took a lot of people, using a lot of money and possessions, to get to this point.

The family also reminds me of Jason, who's described in the book Your Money or Your Life (blogged previously). He had a countercultural, anti-money life philosophy.* He deliberately avoided getting a "real job." The result was that the lack of income caught up with him, forcing him to flail away looking for any odd jobs he could come up with since he was so desperate to have enough money to get by. His radical ethos caused him to be all the more tied down by material things:
Jason's "money isn't important" attitude was just as limiting as [his girlfriend] Nedra's search for happiness in tangible possessions. Because he refused to participate in the standard cultural job-and-money game, his choices in life were severely limited. He found that he spent more time in making do and making trades than he would have in working at a steady job.
I of course wish the Harrises the best — particularly the 1- and 5-year-old children, who, like all children, aren't consenting to be confined by their parents' values. But who's to say that the ultra-austere focus on minimizing possessions won't just lead this family to become all the more fixated on possessions? After all, you need some things to survive, and this project seems to emphasize and even glorify those relatively few (but surely still numerous) possessions.

If that ends up happening with this family, or if they just plain don't go through with it, I'm guessing that won't get written up in the New York Times.

* In case you have the book, the character appears throughout Chapter 2.


Mrs. Millicent Fullerton said...

With respect to the 1-year-old, and the 5-year-old. Does a 1-year-old feel "confinement"? I'm not sure the kids would suffer so, as you seem to indicate.

If they were teens, then a lifestyle-change might hurt. If there were bona fide physical abuse, then you'd have a case.

I feel a lot more sympathy for children whose parents practice Wicca, or Polygamy.....and the children are forced to go along with those.

Parents have the right, under the First Amendment, to indoctrinate their children into any religion (Wicca ?) , or wacky lifestyle, the parents choose.

It's one of the downfalls of being a child---child indoctrination under the First Amendment. We don't choose our parents, and until we turn 18, we are forced to practice whatever the parents preach, by law !

Ann Althouse said...

And then there are these people -- also covered in depth by the NYT.

These seem to all be people writing a book, with the NYT helping them publicize it for some reason.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Does a 1-year-old feel "confinement"? I'm not sure the kids would suffer so, as you seem to indicate.

No, I'm not saying they're suffering. Look at what I said -- I'm saying every child is confined by their parent's values. Obviously I don't think every child suffers. They can be confined without feeling confined.

I don't see what the First Amendment or any other law has to do with it.