Klodt’s Leisure of Abundance

Klodt’s chapter “The Leisure of Abundance” sounded strangely reminiscent of a conversation another birder and I had at Nisqually the last time I was there, two old guys wondering why cheaper goods didn’t result in people having to work less. After all, when I was young, way back in the old days, the dream was that modern machinery would free man from having to work, or at least work so hard or so long.

As Klodt points out, this dream has largely been sacrificed in the name of consumption:

To be sure, the emphasis on efficiency in the workplace has resulted in tremendous increases in productivity. Yet productivity gains have not been translated into increased leisure but have instead gone into increased consumption. In her excellent book, The Overworked American, Juliet Schor notes that if Americans today enjoyed the same standard of living they had in 1948, they could work every other year or take six months off. Today we have a variety of “labor-saving” devices and entertainments unknown to earlier generations. In 1948, Americans didn’t own dishwashers, home air conditioners, microwaves, or automatic dryers. They didn’t have televisions, computers, compact disc players, or VCRs. Fewer Americans owned their own homes, and the typical single-family dwelling was smaller (roughly the size of today’s three-car garage). Yet we could well ask if the material: things and comforts we have gained in the last fifty years are worth six months of the year, or half of the time of our lives.

At the very least, we should ask how things might be different if we had opted for more free time rather than greater consumption. It is pretty clear what things we wouldn’t have, but what would we have that we don’t have now? Would marital relationships be stronger? Would our children be better cared for and feel more secure? Would we have greater opportunities to express ourselves creatively? Would communities profit from increased participation in their social, cultural, and political life? Would we feel relaxed and enjoy the simple things of life more fully? Would we be friendlier and take more interest in our neighbors? Would we be healthier in body mind and spirit?

Obviously, all we can do is speculate about what might be if we weren’t driven to consume so much, but what better time to think about our values than amidst the Christmas season which increasingly seems dedicated to Mammon rather than to Christ?

Of course I’m already biased this way. Leslie and I long ago gave up giving gifts to each other, and last year our family decided that the only gifts adults would give to each other is homemade gifts, which is really quite simply the gift of time. That, of course, explains why my leisurely approach to blogging has been temporarily interrupted by a hectic rush to finish Christmas projects, but at least all of the things I’m doing are things I like to do.

I’m sure early Taoists, just like early Christians, could never have imagined how addicted modern Americans are to their things, but it’s clear they would consider us hopelessly addicted to our possessions.

Klodt comments on this passage from Lao Tzu:

These are my three treasures,
Compassion, frugality, and humility
Being compassionate one has courage,
Being frugal one has abundance,
Being humble one becomes the chief of all vessels.
-Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu said, “Being frugal one has abundance.” In a society in which social standing and even personal worth are measured by our possessions, frugality is hardly a value. Yet if we trace the origin of the word, we find that it is derived from the Latin frux, or fruit. To be frugal is to be fruitful. To save, to conserve, to mend, to repair, to do without what is unneeded – surely these are virtues. Yet Madison Avenue has convinced us that these behaviors are neither sexy nor desirable. We go ’round and ’round in a cycle of work and spend, in the interest of preserving the social, which is to say the economic order.

To those who say that society would fall apart if people thought a little more before they bought, or bought a little less, we could well ask if it is not already showing ample signs of breakdown? We could ask what our commitment to ever-expanding production and consumption are doing to our humanity. Moreover, sooner or later, we are going to have to face the fact that there are limits to the earth’s capacity to support runaway growth.

Better that we confront and deal with this problem now than cover our eyes and wait until we are forced by major ecological and economic crises to face it later on. It’s up to all of us to explore alternative visions of abundant living, with a view toward creating a social order that is ecologically responsible and committed to preserving, and indeed nurturing, human- heartedness.

Obviously much of what Klodt discusses here has more to do with our contemporary world than Taoism, but one could certainly argue that most great religious leaders have offered the same advice, which just shows how difficult it is to get people to see beyond material possessions.

6 thoughts on “Klodt’s Leisure of Abundance

  1. I’m sure early Taoists, just like early Christians, could never have imagined how addicted modern Americans are to their things, but it’s clear they would consider us hopelessly addicted to our possessions.

    We turn now to Verse 53 in our hymnal (Waley):

    He who has the least scrap of sense, once he has got started on the great highway
    has nothing to fear so long as he avoids turnings. For great highways are safe and easy.
    But men love by-paths.
    So long as Court is in order
    They are content to let their fields run to weed
    And their granaries stand empty.
    They wear patterns and embroideries,
    Carry sharp swords, glut themselves with drink and food, have more possessions than they can use.
    These are the riotous ways of brigandage; they are not the Highway.

    Short answer: He/they imagined it. Jesus did too, actually, but I’ll stop here.

    (ETA: I am enjoying this series of Tao-themed posts. As noted in an earlier comment, my erstwhile series is now available for viewing at ethmar.com – FYI only.)

  2. Yes, I knew this, Ethan, and quoted verse 53 in an earlier discussion of the Taoteching.

    I was suggesting that they could never imagine just HOW rich the common man would become.

  3. I guess I’m not drawing a meaningful distinction. The authors of the Tao Te Ching observed the “riotous ways of brigandage” in their time, so why would it be a stretch for this sort of behavior to continue into the present? I suppose it’s a bigger deal that, as you said, the “common man” could follow suit, as opposed to the subservience to “stuff” being reserved for certain wealthier classes. cf “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle…” (Not to mix lit’rature, but it’s apropos.)

  4. Hmm. These abstemious themes feel as seasonal as the decorations in a mall. If we need either the Tao or Jesus to teach us that simplicity is beauty and that living frugally is the WAY to abundance, where did they learn it. I have a hunch it’s available to all of us, just looking around, and not for happiness, peace or wisdom. If the HIGHWAY leads anywhere at all, it is to the rest of the Highway, isn’t it? And if there’s anything that troubles me about that it is the implication that it’s a superior way than the one most men choose?
    I distrust that. If the other ways are empty ones, won’t that wisdom gradually dawn on others? Shall we sit down here on the Highway and wait for them to join us? I like the example of Da-Ruma.

  5. This is a complex issue to which there is no easy answer. Frugality depends on wisdom. It is not so much what one has as it is how one strives to attain what one has; and according to Jesus’s parable of the talents, one is supposed to strive, to make something of the gifts given. If one is able to accrue talents wisely and yet share with others–both of which are ever present in some humans, frugality is fruitfulness. That I have often failed in this regard. . . . Given that humans appear to be the masters of this planet they inhabit, their survival as a species requires that they be inventive in ways that are beneficial to them and to their planet. Quality. The presence of the WWW/Internet and all the technologies which allow each of us onliners to easily meet and learn from each other is proof of that. Rightly or wrongly, I have decided to not have other things so I can afford to have a computer. Thank you.
    brian in MO

  6. Great post – this is amazing, my husband and I were just talking about this exact issue today and I was planning to blog about it, talking about all the “things” we MUST have nowadays that we didn’t have to have 40 years ago. I think I will and will include a link to your excellent take on it.

What do you think?