Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Joy of Less

A friend sent me an article yesterday from the Happy Times section of the New York Times, its contribution to "The pursuit of what matters in troubled times": The Joy of Less, by Pico Iyer, a fellow who decided to live life more simply, so he left everything behind and went to Japan, where he lives in two rooms and does what we would all like to do--quit our day jobs and just write.

He extols the virtues of the "Less is Better" mindset and I can relate to much of what he says. What unexpectedly interested me more, however, were some of the 695 comments people left at the conclusion of his essay. (Six hundred and ninety-five!!! by last count.)

What kind of a person would plow though 695 comments of anything?! (Don't answer that!) I didn't, of course. But the majority of responses that I did read were fully supportive, and I imagine people secretly salivating at the idea of being able to one day live the simple life, as Pico Iyer defines it. Several have already done so, and elected to add their own stories. But it was the number of peevish, judgmental and seemingly almost anger-ridden comments that seemed to jump out, like a tomato flying out of nowhere, suddenly sailing into a painting, adding yet another dimension to the dimension.

The author is chasticized for being "a self-involved baby boomer, un-immersed in community, spewing out 20,000 lbs. of carbon dioxide annually on his flights to and from the States. Walden he is not." [The commenter was referring to the fact that Iyer returns to visit the U.S. every three months.] [Walden, by the way, is mentioned often in the comments.]

Another reader criticizes Iyer for his seeming disengagement from the society in which he has chosen to take root ("21 years in Kyoto and you dont speak the language? I would call that ignorant..."), while another rigorously defends him, saying he (the reader) has studied Japanese for 12 years and STILL can't express himself in the language.

Regardless of whether one would actually want to do as Iyer has done, some people seem to have a problem, in general, with those who absent themselves from the status quo and go off to seek a different, less stratified life elsewhere: "I challenge all serenity masters to get angry at some of the problems of the world. Pick one and be its champion! Volunteer for Doctors without Borders if you want to check out the simple life most people live." (I hear in this, concern for those for whom life is never simple--but also discomfort with those who aren't "doing" anything.)

Iyer is simply recounting his own experience and suggesting that having less can be a cause of joy. He "has" less, and it feels joyous (to him). So he wrote about it. A good number of the readers, though, seem bent on interjecting a dose of reality into the equation:

A fellow ex-pat named Earl reminds Iyer that things may not always turn out as one expects: "This laid-back Caribbean paradise life is anything but, it is not stress free, and is more expensive for basic human needs. The water is unsafe to drink and full of parasites,the electricity goes out very often and food in the refrigerator goes bad... There is no sanitation and often you can smell human waste coming up from the pipes as you brush your teeth... I long for a glass of tap water in front of a fan that works while eating some organic French cheese on crackers."

A single mother of five, who has been living with LESS-than-less, for YEARS (the tone in her comment comes through loud and clear) wants to know how she could partake of the "joy" of which Iyer speaks, as she is not able to afford a plane ticket to take off and relocate somewhere less stressful, echoing several other commenters' acknowledgment that for them, "Opting out is not an option."

Well, you don't actually have to get a plane ticket and go somewhere. A reader named Jessica transplanted to Alabama writes that "Rural America can provide for the same escape as a foreign country: lack of technology, lack of consumerism, inability to understand the language, culture shock, etc.," and this forces you "to focus on what really makes you happy."

Ah, so it's not the Place itself, then. It's one's Attitude. Yes, says one reader, "Happiness is a state of mind, not a physical dimension. You decide if you want to be happy or sad, and pick the arguments that will justify it."

Sometimes a reader's comment contains information of which you might be unaware, and finding it is like stumbling upon a tiny bit of hidden treasure. This one, for example, from a reader named Lee:

Mr. Iyer’s writing made me think in many ways of “Hojoki” (A Tale of My Hut), an early 13th-century autobiographical text by a Japanese priest named Kamo no Chomei. Tired of natural disasters, famines, and political unrest in the imperial capital, Kamo retreated from society and moved to a simple hut in the hills outside of Kyoto. It’s a self-reflective piece of literature in which Chomei notes the irony that he became a recluse to escape worldly desire (attachment) but in the end he finds himself driven by his desire for his hut.

Thank you, Lee. You got me googling to find out where to find a copy of Hojoki!

It was also amusing to learn, inadvertently, that including your URL in a comment will sometimes (based on the quality and content of your posting--or simple curiosity) lead readers of those comments to check out your blog. As I did--click on someone's mentioned blog, that is, to find them giddily ecstatic at the number of "hits" as a result of their posting that comment. Sort of like leaving an internet calling card (Never leave cyberspace without it!). Well gosh, how else would people find you, ha ha.

The focus of the above was more on the responses to the article mentioned, than to the article itself. Human nature is fascinating. It's like you go to see a movie and start watching the screen and all of a sudden you're aware of all those other souls around you, munching popcorn, holding hands, sniggering, slurping their sodas, saying "Shhhhhhhhhhhhh!" Oh to be able to tune it all out.

Iyer was talking about less THINGS. Possessions, accumulations, attachments, "stuff", that kind of thing. He was talking about finding Happiness in living simply. But some readers took this to mean escape from responsibility, socially isolate oneself, and remind him that sometimes one's lot in life is not a matter of choice. He was not saying "BE me." In fact, "I certainly wouldn’t recommend my life to most people — and my heart goes out to those who have recently been condemned to a simplicity they never needed or wanted."

It's just what it is, folks, calm down. One man has less, and finds joy in it. Maybe you're envious. Maybe what you're really saying is, "I want what you have." Or, in this case, what he doesn't have--he doesn't have to slave at a job he hates, engulfed in debt, he's free (and can afford) to travel. He's just saying, "Having less makes me joyful."

He's affirming that Happiness is not elusive or unobtainable. Anyone can find it. For Iyer, less is enough; it's also, in some respect, "more." One man's joy may be another man's misery, and vice versa. Happiness is a state of mind.

One final comment (I couldn't resist):

"Great essay.
But I still like my stuff."
— Dave

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