Life is Beautiful :: Personal Narrative Essays


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Life is Beautiful

Life is Beautiful

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Life is Beautiful

 

I threw my hands into the air, fell back on Emily’s bed, and covered my stressed eyes with the palms of my hands. Suddenly Emily turned out the lights and whispered “night-night” in a small voice as the door closed. She did it again. Just when I thought that I was the worst teacher in the world, torturing this sweet little girl with incomprehensible questions that she just wouldn’t answer, she does something to show me that she does see me, she can hear me, and more importantly, she’s responding to me. Sitting up, I think, “Oh Emily, I could just pick you up, hold you, and never make you work again. But you won’t let me hold you. That is why we have to do this.” Renewed, I was ready to start again.

 

Emily is a six-year-old with autism. I met her in 1996 through a baby-sitting job. This was the first time I had ever taken care of a person with a disability. Although I was a little afraid, I was excited that I would be able to do this. Emily’s autism causes her to learn more slowly than other children. She doesn’t communicate or respond to the outside world as most children do. It is a rare social and emotional developmental disorder. For Emily, simple tasks, such as focusing on an object or idea, become difficult, aggravating, and sometimes impossible. This makes it very hard for Emily to play a board game with her sister because she doesn’t understand about rolling dice or moving the pieces.

 

A year after meeting Emily, her mother offered me another job through an organization called Respite. I would work exclusively with Emily to reinforce her communication and self-motivation skills, and in turn, help to take down the communication barrier. I would accomplish this by being both her friend and teacher: playing with her while prompting her to talk and respond.

 

I’ve been doing Respite work with Emily for three years and it has been an incredible experience. Of course there were times when I would talk to her and she would just not respond the way I wanted her to. These instances of frustration are always made up for by the times when she progresses so fast and I just have to hug her. Although I know that with her degree of autism she will never fully overcome her disabilities, it is exhilarating to see how she has improved.

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Why the simple life is not just beautiful, it’s necessary

Emrys Westacott

Emrys Westacott

is professor of philosophy at Alfred University in New York. His latest book is  The Wisdom of Frugality  (2016).

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Princeton University Press

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Detail from <em>Interior with Two Girls</em> by Peter Ilsted, 1904. <em>Photo courtesy Flickr</em>” src=”https://omicron.aeon.co/images/32242bd7-ae2a-4e12-ac27-1aad2243db73/idea_sized-6553168051_059b861e92_o.jpg” /></div><div class='article__image__caption article__image__caption--inline'>Detail from <em>Interior with Two Girls</em> by Peter Ilsted, 1904. <em>Photo courtesy Flickr</em></div></div></div><p class='article-card__authors'><span class='article-card__authors__inner'><br /><span class='article-card__authors__author'>Emrys Westacott</span><br /></span></p></div></header><div class='article__wrapper'><div class='article container idea' id='idea_1678'><div class='article__body'><div class='article__inline-sidebar article__body__meta'><div class='gutter'><div class='article__body__author-details'><p class='article__body__author-name vcard'> Emrys Westacott</p><p><span>is professor of philosophy at Alfred University in New York. His latest book is </span><em> The Wisdom of Frugality </em><span> (2016).</span></p></div><div class='article__body__partner-bio'><div data-react- data-react-props=

Published in association with

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Detail from <em>Interior with Two Girls</em> by Peter Ilsted, 1904. <em>Photo courtesy Flickr</em>” src=”https://omicron.aeon.co/images/32242bd7-ae2a-4e12-ac27-1aad2243db73/idea_sized-6553168051_059b861e92_o.jpg” /></div></div><div class='article__image__caption article__image__caption--inline'>Detail from <em>Interior with Two Girls</em> by Peter Ilsted, 1904. <em>Photo courtesy Flickr</em></div><div class='article__inline-sidebar article__body__meta article__inline-sidebar__mobile'><div class='article__body__author-details'><p class='article__body__author-name vcard'> Emrys Westacott</p><p><span>is professor of philosophy at Alfred University in New York. His latest book is </span><em> The Wisdom of Frugality </em><span> (2016).</span></p></div><div class='article__body__partner-bio'><div data-react- data-react-props=

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Brought to you by curio.io , an Aeon partner

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Edited by
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The good life is the simple life. Among philosophical ideas about how we should live, this one is a hardy perennial; from Socrates to Thoreau, from the Buddha to Wendell Berry, thinkers have been peddling it for more than two millennia. And it still has plenty of adherents. Magazines such as Real Simple call out to us from the supermarket checkout; Oprah Winfrey regularly interviews fans of simple living such as Jack Kornfield, a teacher of Buddhist mindfulness; the Slow Movement, which advocates a return to pre-industrial basics, attracts followers across continents.

Through much of human history, frugal simplicity was not a choice but a necessity – and since necessary, it was also deemed a moral virtue. But with the advent of industrial capitalism and a consumer society, a system arose that was committed to relentless growth, and with it grew a population (aka ‘the market’) that was enabled and encouraged to buy lots of stuff that, by traditional standards, was surplus to requirements. As a result, there’s a disconnect between the traditional values we have inherited and the consumerist imperatives instilled in us by contemporary culture.

In pre-modern times, the discrepancy between what the philosophers advised and how people lived was not so great. Wealth provided security, but even for the rich wealth was flimsy protection against misfortunes such as war, famine, disease, injustice and the disfavour of tyrants. The Stoic philosopher Seneca, one of the richest men in Rome, still ended up being sentenced to death by Nero. As for the vast majority – slaves, serfs, peasants and labourers – there was virtually no prospect of accumulating even modest wealth.

Before the advent of machine-based agriculture, representative democracy, civil rights, antibiotics and aspirin, just making it through a long life without too much suffering counted as doing pretty well. Today, though, at least in prosperous societies, people want and expect (and can usually have) a good deal more. Living simply now strikes many people as simply boring.

Yet there seems to be growing interest, especially among millennials, in rediscovering the benefits of simple living. Some of this might reflect a kind of nostalgia for the pre-industrial or pre-consumerist world, and also sympathy for the moral argument that says that living in a simple manner makes you a better person, by building desirable traits such as frugality, resilience and independence – or a happier person, by promoting peace of mind and good health, and keeping you close to nature.

These are plausible arguments. Yet in spite of the official respect their teachings command, the sages have proved remarkably unpersuasive. Millions of us continue to rush around getting and spending, buying lottery tickets, working long hours, racking up debt, and striving 24/7 to climb the greasy pole. Why is this?

One obvious answer is good old-fashioned hypocrisy. We applaud the frugal philosophy while ignoring its precepts in our day-to-day lives. We praise the simple lifestyle of, say, Pope Francis, seeing it as a sign of his moral integrity, while also hoping for and cheering on economic growth driven, in large part, by a demand for bigger houses, fancier cars and other luxury goods.

But the problem isn’t just that our practice conflicts with our professed beliefs. Our thinking about simplicity and luxury, frugality and extravagance, is fundamentally inconsistent. We condemn extravagance that is wasteful or tasteless and yet we tout monuments of past extravagance, such as the Forbidden City in Beijing or the palace at Versailles, as highly admirable. The truth is that much of what we call ‘culture’ is fuelled by forms of extravagance.

Somewhat paradoxically, then, the case for living simply was most persuasive when most people had little choice but to live that way. The traditional arguments for simple living in effect rationalise a necessity. But the same arguments have less purchase when the life of frugal simplicity is a choice, one way of living among many. Then the philosophy of frugality becomes a hard sell.

That might be about to change, under the influence of two factors: economics and environmentalism. When recession strikes, as it has done recently (revealing inherent instabilities in an economic system committed to unending growth) millions of people suddenly find themselves in circumstances where frugality once again becomes a necessity, and the value of its associated virtues is rediscovered.

In societies such as the United States, we are currently witnessing a tendency for capitalism to stretch the distance between the ‘have lots’ and the ‘have nots’. These growing inequalities invite a fresh critique of extravagance and waste. When so many people live below the poverty line, there is something unseemly about in-your-face displays of opulence and luxury. Moreover, the lopsided distribution of wealth also represents a lost opportunity. According to Epicurus and the other sages of simplicity, one can live perfectly well, provided certain basic needs are satisfied – a view endorsed in modern times by the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s ‘ hierarchy of needs ’. If correct, it’s an argument for using surplus wealth to ensure that everyone has basics such as food, housing, healthcare, education, utilities and public transport – at low cost, rather than allowing it to be funnelled into a few private pockets.

However wise the sages, it would not have occurred to Socrates or Epicurus to argue for the simple life in terms of environmentalism. Two centuries of industrialisation, population growth and frenzied economic activity has bequeathed us smog; polluted lakes, rivers and oceans; toxic waste; soil erosion; deforestation; extinction of plant and animal species, and global warming. The philosophy of frugal simplicity expresses values and advocates a lifestyle that might be our best hope for reversing these trends and preserving our planet’s fragile ecosystems.

Many people are still unconvinced by this. But if our current methods of making, getting, spending and discarding prove unsustainable, then there could come a time – and it might come quite soon – when we are forced towards simplicity. In which case, a venerable tradition will turn out to contain the philosophy of the future.

Emrys Westacott

is professor of philosophy at Alfred University in New York. His latest book is  The Wisdom of Frugality  (2016).

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