"I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact: that they are unable to stay quietly in their own room." Blaise Pascal
“Simple is not simplistic.” That’s one of the classic sayings from my former landlord in Vancouver, Canada, a city where I lived from 2008 to 2017 as a student and as a working immigrant.
Vancouver happens to be among the world’s five or six most livable cities. And with the livability comes a cost. The city is as expensive as one can find. During my years there, to provide only figure, the monthly poverty line lingered around CAD$1,400 (roughly US$1,150 at the time).
Not having a family network of support, both prudence and circumstances led me into an economic experiment. Despite eventually finding a job that provided considerably more than $1,400 per month, I nevertheless decided to embrace a simple life and adjust my budget just above that amount — and for reasons more than one.
Breaking my head pursuing graduate studies in business, theology, and ecology, it quickly became clear that the global economy was on a crash-course, and that both businessmen and clergy alike often remained rather inactive about it. I was brought to terms with how, even as fewer and fewer today live on wasteful levels of extravagance, countless others live increasingly off the crumbs.
Moreover, even if simplicity and frugality figured as virtues in some of my theology textbooks, endless economic growth and consumption seemed like the norm in viertually every other — a golden calf praised by some and revered by most. Additionally, it didn’t take much to see that pretty much every ecologist had been screaming out loud that the party will soon be over, because the Earth’s living systems simply cannot bear our burden.
Call is as we may, we’re extracting, consuming and throwing away useless stuff far more quickly than the biosphere can replenish itself. “Overshoot”, it’s called.
Whether from the voice of saints or tree-huggers, it took little to realize that the times ahead called for shrinking back. And so, it seemed fitting to experiment with tredding lightly — often hestitating to obey a voice that repeatedly called me to question whether the shrinking-back could actually be a training for what was to come.
Today it’s evident that the COVID-19 may very well be the official start of the impending decline ahead of us. And it’s suddenly vindicating the remark of German economist E.F. Schumacher, on how we’ve come to take for granted as daily necessities that which our grandparents saw as luxury.
What lessons can one distill for this new Era of coronaviruses after a decade of intentional living under a limited budget?
Even if it’s impossible to do justice to ten years in one page, below is the gist of three experiences that began to prepare me for what may lie ahead.
Slow is good
First, speed. Living on $1,400 a month meant relying on my feet, on a monthly Translink buss pass, and on bike rides when possible. In one of the rainiest cities worldwide. In what were often gloomy and wet winters that rarely anyone enjoyed.
I complained at first. But psychologists say it takes 21 days to form a habit. And form it did, for the better. My daily 25-min bike rides to work meant avoiding running like a hamster, otherwise enclosed in a gym under the cold ambiance of 6500°K fluorescent light bulbs.
In turn, the bus became a sort of ‘third space’ to reflect on a conversation, to enlarge the spirit contemplating the sky, to read books all the way from Muhammed Yunus’s take on social business, to Leo Tolstoi’s autobiographical reflections on the spiritual life, to Jared Diamond’s page-turning historical epic Guns, Germs, and Steel.
As time seemed to have slowed down and distances seemed to have expanded, so did my imagination. More than an antidote for stress, slowing down by shifting the mode of transportation became an ally; not least in reminding me that not everything is ready-made, and that it is the devil who is always in a hurry.
There is more in giving than in receiving
“There was a man so poor, so poor, so poor, that the only thing he had was money.” Or something like that goes the saying, certainly against convention and contrary to today’s widespread logic — even if a little money (or a new bike lock) never hurt.
Meet Ferenc, a gardener and low-income senior I came to know through two dear friends. Often, he would stop by the house where I lived and sit at the dinner table without prior notice. At times he would bring carrots and tomatoes to give away just because. Other times he would come filled with awkward stories and long and unsolicited advice he picked up at local permaculture workshops.
But this one time he gave away the unexpected. At one point of the evening, he heard me say I was concerned that my relatively new bike would get stolen.
“Hold on. I got something for you.”
“Bizarre”, I thought to myself, as Ferenc suddenly began to dig deep and unpack the two monumental, jam-packed black plastic bags he often carried with him.
“Here”, he said as he handed over what turned out to be a gift. “Meet your bike lock. It’s brand new.”
Both grateful for the gift and startled about the circumstance, all I could see was the rarity of the gift-giver: a cheerful, impoverished old man whose extravagant generosity happened to overshadow that of a millionaire.
Kudos to Ferenc’s lavishness in what I thought was for him a situation of scarcity. He could only smile; making me recall those voices of old who remind us that it is in dying to one’s self that we are born again, and that it is in giving that we most receive.
Better to struggle together, than to be happy all alone
So from Ferencs to Dick and Jen, who became my surrogate family in B.C., and then to Dave and Hannah, a married couple who I now consider as close as siblings after being housemates for three years.
It was not easy being an immigrant. A different mother tongue from one’s own. Different customs. No family support. Sunsets at 4:30pm in the wintertime. Having to forge connections from scratch in the marketplace. Missing one’s friends, and especially one’s home food (lots !!!)…
But when one follows a Way, one is promised friends and family along the journey.
Charging me CAD$400 a month for food, utilities and rent (read: nothing), Dick and Jen not opened only the doors of their home, but they also opened themselves and their table. Like family. For two years, they made ample room for this stranger, a wayward Latino student playing music on their stereo system and randomly digging into their fridge. (Thankfully, Jen had some Bach CDs that I played as I studied, and Dick had one by Bob Marley, which I listed to when I cooked. Surely this gentleman in his senior years knew well how to keep himself young.)
So did Dave and Hannah. While we equally paid rent for the rugged three-story house we shared, we came to have a common purse, out of which we jointly paid extra dollars for organic food and similar shared expenses. Each person would cook for the rest on a fixed night each week. Mine was Tuesday. Hannah’s Wednesday. Dave on Sunday.
And so, following countless shared meals and conversations around the dinner table, what was mine became theirs, but mostly the other way around. Hannah and Dave, for instance, decided to lend their vehicle for me and some others to use as needed, on the promise that each person chipped in for gas.
In turn, some watered the vine and weeded the vegetable garden in our backyard; others regularly cleaned the fridge and the entryway. Sharing became the norm and hoarding for one’s own benefit, the exception. And thus the house became a home.
(One of my favorite moments was when Dave burnt the front part of his hair trying to fix the furnace. He ended up looking just like Marv, the tall, goofy burglar from Home Alone.)
All in all, folk like them (and there’s many others space forbids one from mentioning) were there side by side navigating with me through what would have otherwise been tough times.
Surely, living on US$1,150 was possible partially thanks to Vancouver’s great biking and public transit system, and also to our Catholic landlady who charged us way below market-prices for the house we rented in East Van, one of the city’s most looked-for neighborhoods.
But, behond circumstance, it was folk like these that made the whole thing come alive, convincing me of how it’s so much better indeed to struggle together, than be happy all alone.
So, back to the minuscular COVID-19, which has opened an unexpected crack able to disintegrate an entire global economic system built on greed, selfishness and speed — not least revealing just how essential are the services provided by the lowly, while shaming the self-professed wisdom of the strong.
COVID-19 is a painful but promising invitation to slow down. To work together. To live simply without being simplistic. To partner. To listen.
And no, suggesting all this is not endorsing poverty or austerity. Poverty sucks and so does the lack of generosity. And it’s not affirming, either, that it’s necessarily always easy to scale back — however challenging and necessary that may be.
Much more than scaling back, in fact, it’s a redefinition. COVID-19 invites us to stop craving for a down-trodden candy bar and, instead, dig deeply into a long-forgotten honey pot.
The Era of Coronavirus is a decisive call to voluntary simplicity beyond the lipstick and the glitter. It’s minimizing distractions, but only to maximize that which makes life worth living.
The world of illusions may very well crumble at our feet, but it’s never too late to start building a more promising foundation. On solid rock. As they say, “the time is ripe”. And perhaps as ripe as never before.