By Adam Jeske

Learning to Live Simply from People Who Have To

Simplicity and minimalism are buzzwords that come and go, attracting a lot of attention and then fading away again.

Of course, some people live simply and minimally all the time, without much choice. We often pity such people, thinking how awful that must be (and it often is). But Jesus said something that runs counter to our typical response.

“Blessed are you who are poor.”

Wait, what?

Jesus’ words in Luke 6 (and elsewhere) startled my wife, Chrissy, and me sufficiently that we went to live in abject poverty in Nicaragua to investigate, just after we graduated from college. Might we find our neighbors there particularly blessed? To our North American minds, it seemed impossible. But being young and full of faith, we had to see for ourselves.

What we found from our time in Nicaragua (and later China and South Africa) is that our friends in hard places—without electricity, without even well water (only rain), with only a tractor for transportation for 40 families—were indeed blessed in ways that challenged us to think about life back in the U.S. differently.

People who are poor in financial resources are often rich in time resources. I think this is the single greatest difference from our lives back here in the U.S. With money comes stuff, and stuff takes time. With money comes choice, and choices take time. With money comes opportunity, and opportunities take time. There is certainly a downside to having very little stuff or choice or opportunity, but there is a surprising upside too, when viewed from a different economic situation.

This wealth of time leads to a social life that is radically different from what I see around me here in Madison, Wisconsin. People like our friend Karlona have time to sit and chat. Friends would drop in at her home and visit. They would have long, lingering conversations. And they could even afford to sit in silence together, watching the sun come up or go down or slant through the leaves. Several generations would gather and tell stories while sitting on overturned five-gallon buckets on the dirt floor of her home, laughing and ranting together for hours. Chrissy and I now try to maintain some of that same attitude here at our home. We don’t have a TV (but yes, we do watch stuff online one or two nights per week). We have long Saturday afternoons just sitting around together with tea. We go on long walks. We prioritize the Sabbath.

The abundance of time also led to really full rest. Without electricity, we were not tempted to stay up watching Game of Thrones or even to read just one more chapter, which meant we got plenty of sleep (and loved it!). Afternoon heat meant full hammocks in almost every home and other nappers catching one where they could. And those lessons have stuck, at least in part—I gratefully remembered the example of my friends in Nicaragua as I took two naps last weekend.

In addition, with enough time on their hands, people would sometimes come up with interesting projects that are rare to nonexistent in North America. For example, one day my friend Neno and I met up with a friend of his who had a chainsaw. We made some smoky fires, cut down a big tree, and then harvested a natural honeycomb in a five-gallon bucket, licking the sweet, dripping wax and chomping it to squeeze out the last drops. And the next day? We cut up the tree into planks that we used to make a chair by hand. (Who does that?) It was very satisfying and engaging work, but intense enough that it doesn’t happen in our more prosperous context. Chrissy and I try in small ways though, by cooking more from scratch, buying lumber to build our daughter’s bunk bed instead of buying one, and having a local beekeeper place hives at our place for some local honey.

People there also experienced the seasons differently. Without a Kroger or Safeway, they couldn’t get apples in the spring or kiwis in December. (Actually, they couldn’t get kiwis at all.) Rather, when the avocados ripened on the big tree in the middle of town, we had massive piles of guacamole with our rice and beans for about a month, and then none for the rest of the year. At another time, there were more mangoes than we could eat. It was glorious. We rejoiced at the bounty of the season and anticipated the next. Now, we look for ways to practice the same. Wisconsin has long winters, so we don’t eat many salads for much of the year. But we’re moving into the high season, when we’ll have heaping plates of greens again—the feast after the fast.

With sufficient time and scarce financial resources, our friends there paid much more attention to the present than the future. They knew very well the truth and application of Matthew 6:34: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” This was instructive for our future-oriented, Midwestern, middle-class selves.

Finally, having more time and being focused more on the present seems to lead to more closely noticing and enjoying simple pleasures. We picked wild hot peppers and chucked them in our lunch pails while walking out for a morning’s physical labor. If someone brought a two-liter of Coke back from town, we shared in the joy with small cups of the warm acid, giggling at the celebration. After swinging a machete all day to cut fire breaks and sweating from the nearby flames, my back and core had a whole new composition impossible to replicate at the gym, and I found joy in the newfound strength.

So now I try to preserve more margin in my life, in large part due to the blessedness of the poor that I’ve been able to share. I allow interruptions and linger with good friends as much as I’m able. I relish naps and Sabbath and fallowness. I find projects that don’t make financial sense but more than make up for it in intrinsic rewards. I enjoy the ebb and flow of seasons. And I notice small pleasures and give thanks.

I don’t mean to minimize the real hardships of people in hard places. But Jesus was right: “Blessed are you who are poor.”

We who are not poor need to learn these lessons. But do we have the time?


Image by Adam Jeske.

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