I was 10 years old. I ran to my father’s office with a pair of spankin’ new, shiny brown shoes, just purchased during our weekly trip to town. My father, who didn’t seem to mind being interrupted, looked at me, not my shoes, and said, “Janey, darlin’, do you really need them?”
At first it hurt because I wanted him to share my joy and the beauty of those new shoes. But, I rallied. (He taught me that also.) I explained that my feet had grown, my toes were “butt up against” the front of my shoes, and mother said it was time to get a new pair. She was good at keeping track of our needs in our simple home.
It was then that he looked at the shoes, affirmed the purchase, took my shoes in his big hands, and felt the new soft leather. Whew! Difficult lesson. Mutual understanding. We may have enjoyed a hard-earned moment. It was not easy, likely for both of us. I am certain it was difficult for him to ask the question.
The teaching from our Church of the Brethren heritage, like the Quakers, was to strive to live a simple life with few belongings. From our beginnings, we were steeped in serving others. We took seriously the mandate to “live simply so that others may simply live.” It was not a coincidence that the idea for Heifer International grew out of this context.
Growing up, I often heard him speak and share his values. He said, “If a person has more than three pairs of shoes in their closet, someone is doing without.” That was before the time of specialized shoes: running shoes, golf shoes, cross training shoes, summer and winter shoes, sandals, comfort sandals, dress sandals, ergonomically proportioned support shoes for high arches. Shoes for Arkansas, California, Maine. Gardening shoes. Whoa! What’s happened? What’s gone wrong? What do I want? What do I need? Whose shoes am I wearing? To be honest, haven’t we had enough?
The voluntary simplicity movement is beckoning to us. Our culture has us choking on too many things and too little time to enjoy our life, our families, our children, and our grandchildren because we are running too fast and working too hard to accumulate. From infancy, we learn that gaining and gathering are marks of success. We tend to notice change and growth when we “add to.” We are convinced that our wellbeing is tied to gaining things. In reality, our well-being is denied because we become slaves to things.
We are seldom taught to “let go” and ask the difficult questions about what we really need. Many discover that they don’t miss what they let go of and give away. Downsizing is perhaps the most difficult task in these times. I know many who are asking the question, inching their way, finding joy in a more focused lifestyle, and making fewer daily choices.
Now it is time to examine our instinct for consuming things and where it has brought us. It is time to give our closets and shelves a critical look. It’s time to look in the mirror and to lead the conversations around our tables asking, “Darlin’, do we really need this?”
Jan West Schrock, senior advisor for Heifer International, is the daughter of founder Dan West. She was director of Brethren Volunteer Service 1987-1995.