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Less Is More

It seems lately every television channel is airing informative segments about how to can produce, convert throwaways into snappy new garments, and make your own cheap fun on Friday nights. Michelle Obama recently started an organic garden to grow food for the White House kitchen. The cover of Time magazine hails “The New Frugality.” And Susan Boyle is our latest media darling, deftly replacing the self-absorption of Lindsay and Britney and the Octomom with a killer combination of talent, grit, and confidence. 

Welcome to the “World of Less.” We’ve had too many decades of more is more thinking, where cars ballooned to the size of armored tanks, family homes were measured in acreage, and the bloated egos of everyone from celebrities to the uncharitably termed “trailer trash” were adrift in a sea of entitlement. At last, we’re beginning to return to our senses—and to a reconnection with the concept of less as more.

And there certainly is less—less money, to begin with. The greedy folks who already got theirs are keeping it out of circulation and well away from the rabble (i.e. you and me). And those who didn’t spend the last thirty years cashing in? Well, the declining value of our salaries while costs steadily escalated meant we’ve actually had less money all along, only now we can’t mask that deficit with credit. But less money can be a good thing too … well, up to a point. More-is-more elevated money to the raison d’etre, when in fact wealth is only good for one thing: buying stuff. Sometimes that stuff is indispensable to one’s well-being and quality of life—housing, food, health care—which is why you need some money. But money is often used to buy things that are, frankly, unnecessary. Pointless. Stupid. No one actually needs a Blackberry, Manolo Blahnik’s, or Botox. You just think you do because you’ve been drinking the avarice-infused Kool-Aid for so long … 

Less money leads inevitably to less stuff, partly because we can’t afford it. And partly because we’re remembering that old homily grandma and grandpa used to tell us: things don’t make you happy (or healthy, or smart, or better than anyone else). At best, the right stuff takes care of basic needs. The rest of it simply distracts and indulges and numbs and inures us to the very life we might be living, if only we weren’t so busy collecting stuff. Instead, we bury our sadness—and sometimes our joy—beneath clouds of commercial effluvia, working harder to buy more while having less time to enjoy it. So, now that we’re not buying so much stuff, there’s nothing pre-packaged standing between us and our lives. And this is good news. 

And now the ultimate in less: the no hype, low artifice, unmanufactured gift of a frumpy, middle-aged woman from the backwaters of Scotland. She came on stage to sing, not to display her latest boob job, or share unwanted details of her personal life. Just sing. Sing, because she’s good at it. Sing, because she loves it. Sing, because it’s the least she can do for us. And a cynical, been-there-bought-the-t-shirt audience went unexpectedly crazy. Her bland appearance and wholesome-yet-goofy demeanor set expectations appropriately low—by the time she opened her mouth, we would have been happy if she hadn’t slaughtered the song. (Heck, we would have been happy if she’s slaughtered it with reckless abandon, so we could tweet about it in mock-horror.) Instead, we got a simple, straightforward dose of talent, without all the glitter and furbelows. And was it ever refreshing! 

Just think: we might have missed it. We might have overlooked Susan Boyle, like we’ve overlooked so many other simple pleasures in life: making dinner with friends; finishing a challenging project; taking the dog for a walk in the falling twilight; eating tomatoes plucked from a backyard vine; the luxury of free time. All “small” pleasures—at least, small compared to the latest model of Mercedes or a week at Canyon Ranch. But big enough to captivate and transform us, permeate us with wonder and gratitude.

If we let them.