Retreat or Engage?

A stomach virus has knocked my little family down the past few days. And on the tail of that I seem to be getting a head cold.

Today my oldest stayed home from school sick. It was a long day of dealing with all the kids’ various forms of the illness, compounded by lack of sleep from being up in the middle of the night last night with my younger son. The only time we got out of the house was to pick up the groceries at ShopRite. I had $8 in coupons and I earned $6 in Catalinas (cash off your next order; the coupons print with your receipt) from buying a particular brand of paper towels and toilet paper.

Finding and printing the coupons took up some of my Sunday evening; not sure how much exactly because I was also watching TV and hanging out with my husband. In general I suspect that it takes more time than it’s worth, which is why I try to steer clear of all but the easiest coupon deals. The whole coupon situation is illustrative of the larger dilemma that I’m always pondering, which is: how is my time best spent? Clipping coupons to save money, or going back to school to get an advanced degree so that I can earn more money? Of course there are many other factors at play, such as personal satisfaction, my kids, timing, etc. But to put it another, more general way: Retreat, or engage? I’m a classic introvert and I think a kind of innate minimalist. A large part of me is drawn to the idea of reducing my footprint as the best way of improving the world. Hence my interest in reducing the trash I produce, the energy I consume, the goods I hoard. Hanging laundry on the line, having your own garden, composting, buying used… it’s kind of like the physicians’ credo: First, do no harm. If you lead a simple life, you can be fairly sure your life isn’t harming the planet or anyone else.

Conversely, you could become a renowned scientist, educator, politician (ha) or someone else who makes many contributions to the world. But chances are you will be using your gas dryer, buying convenience food that creates trash, buying clothes made in sweatshops, using your iPhone that was produced in one of those factories where the workers commit suicide… because you don’t have the time to think about alternatives. In other words, do the contributions made by Western society to the rest of the world outweigh the drains of our collective lifestyle? I don’t know. Every time I dither over whether to take the extra time to hang my wash on the line, I think: Does it matter? What is that time worth? Should I hire someone to do it for me?

Oooh, new business idea: I’ll be a green/frugal living consultant.

I know, I know: these two paths do not have to be mutually exclusive. And I know that nonconsumerism and the simple life can be practiced by anyone and to varying degrees. And I hope that such ideas will become more popular with the general public. Environmentally speaking, there’s not much question anymore that we all have to reduce our impact, and I think it would also be great for the soul of this nation if we could all chill out, slow down, and at least give some thought to our purchases and lifestyles and how they fit into the big picture. But in my real life, I just don’t see too many people caring too much about the impacts of their own individual lives in terms of what they buy and how they live. Convenience and saving money trump everything. Anyone I know who is frugal does it out of need only.

For me, beyond the environmental and social consequences, it has become a philosophical debate, a question of personal style and personality: retreating vs. engaging; erasing the footprint vs. stomping around and leaving a mess so that everyone knows you were there. Do I keep paring down and stripping away, or I do I let life get a little complicated and messy?

If you are still with me, congratulations! I’ll have to explore this more in the future. I also apologize for any sloppy conflations of frugal living, green living and socially responsible living. They are not always the same thing.

One response to “Retreat or Engage?

  1. Pingback: Tend Your Own Garden | McGuire Domestic Enterprises·

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