2016-06-30

We live in a branded culture. Everything from novels to neighborhoods is now focus-grouped, massaged, packaged, and sold. So it should come as no surprise that the ultimate nonproduct--a movement to reduce the need for and number of products in our lives--has evolved into two sleek, high-end consumer magazines. Real Simple and Simplicity are chock-full of information on what to buy to simplify your life.

Think what you will about "voluntary simplicity," the crunchy movement rooted in Hinduism, Buddhism, Puritanism, and transcendentalism that flourished in the '80s. But it does have a message that's worth hearing. "The objective is not to dogmatically live with less, but is a more demanding intention of living with balance in order to find a life of greater purpose, fulfillment and satisfaction," writes Duane Elgin in "Voluntary Simplicity," the book that started the movement. "Harmonious and purposeful living" means more sincerity on the inside and less pretension on the outside.

Propelled by concerns for the environment, advocates of voluntary simplicity have set up commune-type neighborhoods, promoted "Buy Nothing Day" on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and generally eschewed materialism. They've been sometimes mocked but hardly dismissed. With the swell of consumer expansion in the roaring '90s, though, no one has wanted to hear from the simplifiers.

Although the economy is still in high spirits, we now seem to be moving into an inevitable backlash against ostentation, especially technological ostentation. To many people, unplugging the latest gadget has become cooler than acqiring it.

To take a simple walk in the rain, I apparently need: a Lands' End nylon trench coat; a $30 Sharper Image umbrella; Miller's nonskid rubber riding boots; a Nan Swid cup and saucer; and Todd & Holland tea.

Now, if everyone who is complaining about being over-wired understood, on some level, the absurdity of allowing a Palm Pilot to represent their net moral worth, then there may be some cause for optimism. But for most, I would assume, their gestures toward simplicity are simply that--a style, a fad, an aesthetic, something to be discarded when no longer needed. Simplicity has devolved to minimalism; anti-materialism to shabby chic.

Real Simple, which is published by Time Inc. (People, In Style), purports to be "the magazine for a simpler life home body soul." It encourages its readers to "do less have more." (Apparently, one component of the new simplicity is minimizing commas.) In her editor's note, Susan Wyland, formerly of Martha Stewart Living, writes: "We hurtle through our days as if we've been shot out of a canon.... I think a lot of us are longing for a way to make things simpler."

But while the first issue does contain an article about a young writer who gave up her life in New York to move to Nebraska, the main message of the magazine seems to be awfully close to "do less buy more." Take its seemingly most simple section--Small Pleasures. The suggestion for this issue is to walk in the rain. I'm not sure I needed a magazine to tell me that, but OK. To take a simple walk in the rain, however, I apparently need: a Lands' End nylon trench coat ($78); a $30 Sharper Image umbrella (because it won't blow inside out); Miller's nonskid rubber riding boots ($32.95); a Nan Swid cup and saucer ($30); and Todd & Holland tea ($56 a quarter pound).

Other sections are equally superficial. To dress simply, purchase a Calvin Klein satin bra ($32), a Theory wool blend skirt ($210), and an Ellen Tracy rayon knit top ($135); to clean your face simply, Chanel Precision Day Lift Refining Oil-Free Lotion SPF 15 ($50); to entertain simply, a Barbados 3 White on White Cotton Appliqued Tablecloth ($120).

Simplicity magazine, which is targeted toward a slightly hipper Gen X crowd, is marginally more substantive than Real Simple. In her publisher's letter, Danielle Chang writes: "'Simplicity' is more a state a mind than appearances." It's about "leading a balanced existence where work, family, and personal time play equally important roles." Articles encourage slowing down and discourage vanity; one offers the basics of Buddhism.

Unfortunately, just a few pages later the reader gets: "Must-have staples for every man's wardrobe." And then "Stark fashion: who said fashion had to be practical?" offers up some rather ridiculous-looking clothes. Other articles deal with spas, vacations, and renovating penthouses.

It's not easy bringing important ideas, especially involving morality and spirituality, to a mainstream audience. The temptation is to water them down, mix them with some mind candy, in order to make them more palatable and more lucrative. It's unclear whether the brains behind Real Simple were truly interested in fomenting simple living or whether they just wanted to ride the next trend, but the effect is the same: condescension toward the reader.

This is not to say that idea-based media need to go in the direction of the quarterly Simple Living: The Journal of Voluntary Simplicity. Purposefully low in the bells-and-whistles department--it's virtually a 22-page newsletter--Simple Living has many more references to "the planet" than its new, spiffier offspring, but it also has rather low writing standards.

One thing that Simple Living seems to understand, though, is that a sincere and unpretentious life isn't something that can be packaged and sold. And it can't be acquired simply by being told to buy less or buy more. In the end, of course, it doesn't have much to do with material things at all.

If more people are now tired of being high-tech construction workers, lugging around tool belts full of gadgets and gizmos, so much the better. But tuning out the ambient static is only half the battle. I like the way the monk Thomas Merton, quoted in Simplicity, thinks of the task: "The whole thing boils down to giving ourselves...a chance...to realize that we have what we seek."



Karen Lehrman is the author of "The Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex, & Power in the Real World" and the editor in chief of view magazine.


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