Art Gish, in his wonderful little book entitled Beyond the Rat Race, begins with this amusing illustration:
A salesman once visited a hermit who was living leisurely in the mountains. Quickly realizing he would make no sales there, the salesman tried to point out the hermit’s folly. “Just think.” he argued, “If you worked hard like I do, you could earn and save lots of money. When you are older, you could retire and live leisurely without needing to work.” The hermit replied, “What do you think I’m doing now?”
This story perhaps reminds us of the rat race so many live day by day. We have bought into the popular definition of “the good life” with all its expensive and superficial trimmings and amusements. However, few of us find the time to experience joy and community, to discover purpose and meaning, and to cultivate our relationship with our Creator. The comedian Lily Tomlin put it well when she said, “The trouble with being in the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat!”
Many Christians in our society are beginning to rethink the goals of their lives, the impact of their vocations, and the ways in which they spend time. Some of these are discovering the joy and freedom which come when they live from the Center as they “seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness.” The changing lifestyles of these few but inspiring people are based on four observations.
First is the recognition of how “rich” we become when we live from the Center. Augustine said that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. All the money, possessions, power, achievements, and fame in the world cannot fill the emptiness and loneliness of our lives. Only daily awareness of and communion with our Creator can meet our greatest need. The Apostle Paul wrote that he counted everything he once valued as rubbish compared to the incomparable riches of knowing the Lord.
Secondly, those who are finding ways to simplify also recognize that they are in more control of their lives when they are free to choose what to do with their time and resources. Time serves them as they in turn serve the Lord. I find it ironic that with all the labor-saving devices of the modern world, we have less time to enjoy life, to find contentment in noble purposes, and to relate to our families and friends than our parents and grandparents who were not “blessed” with those devices.
Thirdly, these witnesses to the way of Jesus realize that they must “live simply so that others may simply live.” They know, as the prophets taught and as Jesus demonstrated in the Sermon on the Mount, that there is only enough to meet the needs of everyone in this world. My excesses literally take bread from the mouths of others. Many of the “least of these” Jesus mentioned in his parable of the Great Judgment suffer because of our greed and indifference.
We live in a society based on advertising. Years ago, I realized that the purpose of advertising is to make us miserable with who we are and what we have. All advertising is based on this strategy. Of course, advertisers know that we will never find authentic joy and deep contentment after purchasing their wares. In fact, they are betting on the failure of their products to deliver so they can sell us the new, “improved” model which we will, once again, be seduced into buying. Our whole economy is based on this vicious cycle of failed expectations and deliverance. And we, like those fabled lemmings, unknowingly hasten toward an immoral and shallow abyss. From our lifestyles and the investment of our resources, the world would scarcely know that our Lord and Savior said, “Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
And finally, these faithful pilgrims who take Jesus at his word know that our beautiful planet is being stretched to the breaking point and only as we learn to live simply can there be a future for this world as we know it. Because this creation is precious to its Creator and bears the footprints of God, we must learn with St Francis what it means to speak, from the bottom of our hearts, healing and reverent words like “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.” The hope of the future rests in God’s hands and, by divine grace, in the lives of those who decide to abandon the rat race and to choose abundant life for all creation.