My JVC Year: Living Simply
*this is a transcription of a talk I gave at the Jesuit Volunteer Corps DisOrientation retreat
When I was asked to talk about the pillar of simple living, I was struck by a series of feelings, most of them negative. I was confused, angry, and frustrated. I was confused because I didn’t really think I had anything to say about simple living, yet others thought I did. I was then angry as I recalled all of my shortcomings with making choices towards simplicity. Finally, I was frustrated during the brainstorming and writing process because nothing seemed to have an upbeat, cohesive, comforting theme. Coming into JVC a year ago, there were so many things I wanted to do and so many expectations I had that just weren’t met as the year started to shape and mold itself. Normally in my writing process I search for a constant theme from my life and shape the work around that. However, the pillar of simple living is so much more complex than a “here’s the moral of the story” type tale or a “go out and set the world on fire” kind of commissioning. So, instead of trying to give you a superficial survey of my year, I’m going to tell you about my honest struggles, bring you into some of my darkest moments with this pillar, and end with a challenge for all of us.
Right now, I come to you from a place of deep disappointment. As much as I want to congratulate myself for making it through a year if simple living, I just can’t find myself to get to that place. During my JVC interview over a year ago, Pat asked me what my expectations of simple living are …I told him I had none. Hah. Turns out, I lied to him. I was so excited to move to a place where electronics wouldn’t be used, wifi wouldn’t exist, showers would be used scarcely, toilet water would be preserved, meat would be a luxury, no one would watch TV, and everyone would collaborate to make our house and community more sustainable. This dream slowly started to fade away when I realized that every person in my community, and in JVC, had different interpretations of simple living. Without much control over these fallen expectations, I started casting very harsh judgements–sometimes on others around me, but mostly on myself. It felt so completely wrong to me that I knew I was living more simply in my senior year of college than I was during my JVC year. When I finally had the courage to bring this to my community, they helped me realize that putting my expectations of simple living onto others was unfair. Yet, here I am, done with my JVC year, and still feel the same way I felt in those first few months of frustration and disappointment. While I tried to implement many of my own simplicity ideas into my life, I felt constantly limited by community matters like shared spaces, personal boundaries, and budget spending. How could I live simply when I have little control over what we’re getting at the grocery store, how we’re spending our down time, how we’re using our water, or even what we’re personally spending our money on? While I recognize that my expectations were high and, at times, stemmed from a need for control, I don’t think I was completely unreasonable in wanting to really aim to encounter the pillar of simple living face to face. When we signed up to serve this year, we signed up to take this plunge out of the consumerist, media-focused, materialistic lifestyle and dive into the beautiful and sobering realities of a life constructed from relationships and solidarity. When I reminded myself of why we live simply, time and time again, I started to become more humbled by my own limitations of this pillar, and started to accept the compromises made within my community. With relationships, active listening, and understanding as the true foundation for simplicity, I started to let go of my controlling tendencies and started to really listen to the people around me. These feelings of powerlessness and lack of agency within my community in regards to simple living helped me set my vision on finding solidarity through accompaniment. As I battled with this in my home life, I started to recognize the implications of simple living at the workplace as well.
My placement, Reunion House, is only a temporary emergency shelter. Most of the teens that come through are habitual runaways, so they usually don’t bring much with them (or so you would think). Throughout the year I would be surprised by the teens that would haul trash bag after trash bag through our doors. There was one particular teen who cycled through Reunion House a few times and every time she came through our doors, she carried at least 7-10 large bags of clothing, makeup, room decor, purses, blankets, stuffed animals, perfume, and shoes with her. Within 30 minutes of her stay she would have her whole room set up like she had been living there for years. During a room check I made the comment to my coworker, “wow, this girl has more stuff than what I brought to JVC.” This image of her room and all of her stuff stuck with me for months- how can she have more than what I brought? This really conflicted with my initial understanding that simple living is all about material items. Aside from breaking through the stigma of what “homelessness” really means, I realized that my idea of simple living was really just about the amount of things one person owned.
Months after this room-check, a different coworker of mine was telling me that this youth’s parents were put into prison for physically abusing all of their young children. This youth’s life before her parents’ incarceration was consistently unstable and in - crisis. Once I heard this, the light bulb went off– simple living can’t possibly be about material items. This teen, like every other teen at Reunion House, has practically no support system, no family, no stability, and no control. It would make sense that someone with a void of love and contentedness would fill this need with superficial replacements. I found out later that almost all of her belongings were stolen, which makes her story all the more sad and sobering. This youth’s situation shed light on my own frustrations with simple living. Yes, living simply is ridding of the clutter and consumption, but the backbone of simple living is to make room for loved ones, family, and support systems. How could I cast judgement or compare this youth to myself when I know that her only sense of stability is found within her material goods? This very small and basic insight helped me better understand that my role as a case manager, companion, housemate, confidant, and JV requires simple living because it requires me to think beyond a first perception and see beyond what a person presents on the outside. While I can’t say that this small moment fixed my frustrations with simple living, I can say that it helped me to listen and learn with compassion especially when I was struggling to understand my community’s interpretation of this pillar. Instead of giving me more power, this moment helped me seek out solidarity it my petty moments of comparison and control.
But, considering all of the ups and downs I had during my year, maybe the most difficult part of living simply was the 6 weeks I spent at home after my accident. The night after I was hit I could not get up and move on my own and it didn’t occur to me that the only way to get to our bathroom was across the house and up a spiral staircase (at the time, the upstairs bathroom was the only bathroom working). As I sat and waited for my mom to come get me all the way from Ohio, I let the first recognition of privilege sink deep into my wounds. I had never experienced disability like this before, which struck me when I realized I had taken even a trip to the bathroom for granted. When my mom checked me into a hotel and then flew me home, many feelings built up on this initial recognition of privilege. I did not want to be taken care of and I did not want people to spend money on me. I did not want to sit on a couch all day in air conditioning watching TV. I did not want people to send me gifts and I did not want special hospital care because my father is a doctor. I did not want physical therapy and I did not want to be away from JVC, solely because being away from JVC meant that I was back in the world of whiteness, wealthiness, and privilege and I did not want that hanging over me. I wanted to be treated like my clients have been treated. I wanted to struggle, to figure it out, to overcome, just like the teens I serve. For those 2 months I entered a dark black void of loneliness and guilt. I refused to talk to the people I loved and stained every conversation with my overwhelming guilt and anger, fueled by my inability to do anything about my situation. About halfway through my recovery my thoughts shifted from privilege to analyzation. Am I living simply by having no control? I absolutely could not deal with the knowledge that when my teens go to the ER they have no family, support, or resources and get back on their feet within a week, but when I go to the ER and attempt to recover, I fall into a deep depression of loneliness and guilt, and end the day with pure helplessness and hatred. Maybe for the first time in my life, I was completely conscious of how much my ego and privilege affect me, and how worthless I feel without these two things. For those six weeks I evaluated my home-self under a microscope: How much have I consumed today? How much is appropriate to spend/eat? What does my annoyance with the small inconvenience of my health tell me about my privileges? Why is it that I am blessed with the ability to have a “month off” and others are not? What does it mean to have a day off of serving and working towards justice when the people I serve can’t take a day off of their own lives? To what extent is control a privilege? Should I be giving up more right now? Do I need to change my future plans because they don’t serve any particular need? As I was attempting to rid myself of everything and everyone around me as a coping mechanism for guilt and shame, I started to really hone in on that last question: Do I need to change my England graduate school plans because they aren’t in direct accompaniment to the poor?
Some of you may be thinking “Why is the girl who is moving to England–possibly one of the wealthiest, whitest countries in the world–standing up here and giving a talk on simple living?” Or maybe you aren’t thinking thinking that, but this worry has certainly laced my thoughts since the day I decided to make the push towards graduate school. I made the decision to do JVC hoping the experience would change my passions and whole life path so that I could truly live out what –I thought was–the only way to live simply–living with close to nothing.I had fallen in love with everything at my placement–my co-workers, the teens I got to hang with, the advocacy I got to do–but I still had this deep urging to follow my personal dreams of going to England. Day to day I would eat away at my brain space trying to convince myself that utilizing this privilege is not the right thing to do because it is not selfless, but quite selfish. I was so concerned with the morality of the whole situation that I wasn’t noticing the small hints–like spending time outside of work researching and reading book after book in search of a thesis I wasn’t even assigned. It took me about 6 months to realize that this wasn’t just a side hobby, but the small voices of discernment whispering to me. I became aware of my vocation calling me and I went into weeks of panic because going to graduate school was not something I could do to live in solidarity with those I serve. In my mind, there was no way that going to graduate school and living simply could cooperate in harmony together.
I knew that I could decide to reject all of my blessings and choose to live a very, very simple life. I knew that I could also choose against wasting all of the opportunities given to me and fulfill a dream of mine. Back and forth I battled with how I could live simply and still live in an extremely white and privileged part of the world. Friends, coworkers, and support people assured me that living a life not in direct service of the poor can still be a life of value and love. But I just struggle *feeling* that.
A good friend of mine once asked me– “Emily, are you making decisions out of love or out of fear?” His sobering question lead me to see that choosing to follow my vocation is so completely a decision out of love, and choosing anything else would be a decision out of fear of not living up to these false expectations of living simply that I strenuously place on myself. I know that I cannot transfer my life and it’s opportunities to another person. As much as I wish I could, I can’t just switch lives with my clients. While this brings me sadness and anger in most moments, it also shows me the importance and value of discerning the vocation that God individually calls me to. The more I sit with this decision in light of my struggles towards living a simple life, the more deep peace I felt about going. Slowly, I am understanding that I can live a life deeply founded in simple living while still following a vocation that seems right for me. I must learn that I ultimately cannot control what I fall in love with and where my path takes me, but that I can absolutely control how I go about loving and making room on the path for others. We can, and must, live simply within the context of our own individual vocations, careers, and relationships, so that our clients, neighbors, guests, and friends, can simply live.
As our year comes to a close and we’re all off to do these “real world” things, I want to challenge us to really make that step towards living simply. I’m not talking about making a compost bin in your new apartment or choosing to leave the lights off during the day (although, those are both great things), but really waking up every day and facing every decision, every credit card transaction, every meal, every research topic with the intention of solidarity. We must recognize that living simply is a choice to even the playing field, a choice to make a movement towards accompaniment, a choice towards active love. As I close this talk, I ask you (and myself) as soon to be FJVs to live as Fr. Dean Brackley’s idea of Downward Mobility calls us to live:
“I invite you to discover your vocation in downward mobility. It’s a scary request… The world is obsessed with wealth and security and upward mobility and prestige. But let us teach solidarity, walking with the victims, serving and loving. I offer this for you to consider – downward mobility. And I would say in this enterprise there is a great deal of hope.
Have the courage to lose control.
Have the courage to feel useless.
Have the courage to listen.
Have the courage to receive.
Have the courage to let your heart be broken.
Have the courage to feel.
Have the courage to fall in love.
Have the courage to get ruined for life.
Have the courage to make a friend.”