Honestly, a decade ago I had never heard of such a thing. If I had heard the phrase, I would have had no ability to define it. At that time, I was a well-educated, professional working insane hours, married to a professional who had his own insane hours at his job, and we had a lovely home in a gated golf course community in the suburbs of a major urban center. I was fairly early in my career, and my husband and I were both busy on the treadmill of the corporate world. In the little free time we had, we were busy with a bunch of church activities and trying to maintain our home. There was little time to stop and breath--let alone think about the big picture. We were just trying to keep our heads above water with all that we had on our plates.
Then the 2004 presidential election was held and I was devastated by the results. (Ok, my conservative friends, this is the time I warned you about. Stay with me, keep reading despite the next several paragraphs.)
In 2004, I was deeply concerned about the direction in which our country had been going. In the course of the first term of George W. Bush, we'd suffered devastating attacks on our country. Instead of using that traumatic tragedy to build on the solidarity felt for our country domestically (and internationally), our president and his advisers stoked fear and exploited it. They exploited our feelings of vulnerability and promulgated untruths, which resulted in imprudent military actions that caused us to be quagmired in two long wars on foreign soil. Instead of showing international leadership and maintaining the moral highroad, we had become a pariah nation whose credibility was shot. My husband and I both worked in the energy industry at the time, and consequently felt certain (due to our professional insights) that the invasion of Iraq had been a thinly veiled attempt to secure better access and control over that nation's petroleum resources. It was never about WMDs. It was demoralizing to us that most of the country--who were not in the energy sector--did not realize this or call the administration on their charade.
I had never been a big fan of John Kerry. Another Massachusetts liberal running for president? That didn't seem like a winning ticket to me. But in my mind, he was better than the alternative. As a Christian, I take Jesus's teachings very seriously and the reckless engagement in wars of questionable legitimacy were alarming to say the least. In the late summer and early fall of 2004, it appeared that Senator Kerry had a strong shot at winning the election, and I was hopeful that he might turn things around despite the horrible mess our country had gotten itself in.
Even on election day, things seemed to be going well. Then came Ohio. Apparently, Senator Kerry did well in the urban areas, but in rural communities there had been an unprecedented drive to get people to the polls. That year, Karl Rove and his team had exploited voter initiatives on same-sex marriage in many states to encourage conservative voters to get to the polls despite their waning enthusiasm for President Bush. In essence, they exploited another type of fear--homophobia--in order to squeak past Senator Kerry in key states.
And sadly, it worked. When the results became final and Senator Kerry conceded, I was incredulous and deflated. I couldn't believe that we were stuck with another four years of one of the more disastrous presidencies in recent memory. I couldn't believe that the military quagmire would show no signs of improvement. It might even get worse.
And as a Christian, I was also distraught that the way the election was won ended up crystalizing even more in the minds of non-Christians the concept of Christian homophobic bigotry. We were not known for our love, but our hate. We were not sharing God's love with a hurting world, but judging and condemning in ways Jesus warned us against.
As a Christian, I couldn't believe God would let all this happen. (OK, my non-religious friends, this is the time I warned you about. Stick with me for the next few paragraphs even if you don't agree with my faith perspective.)
I had felt so certain that the offensive wars, in which we were engaged, were a moral outrage that God would remedy with a domestic regime change. A decorated soldier with a distinguished history of public service and the backing of so many military leaders. Surely this was God's plan to help end the wars and the anguishing human suffering it engendered. I had felt confident that God's apparent plan would work out. Then Senator Kerry conceded and President Bush declared victory. What the heck happened?!!? It was surreal. There must have been a mistake.
I was so distraught. I remember closing my office door--despite our "open door" policy--and listening to Senator Kerry's speech in secret so none of my Republican co-workers would hear. I just sat there in disbelief as tears rolled down my cheeks. I even left work earlier than normal. I just couldn't focus on anything and couldn't hold back my tears. I didn't know what else to do, so I went to a Christian book store not far from my office.
I didn't really know what I was even looking for. But I already was kicking myself for having thought that I could so easily discern God's plans and that he cared as much about politics as I had. I was already vowing that I should not get so invested in secular politics, but should renew myself spiritually. Among other things, I vowed to start reading the Bible more regularly. But I also had a vague thought that maybe at the Christian book store, I might find a book to help me mend my broken heart and allay my concern for our nation. I wandered up and down the aisles. Nothing was really calling out to me. But then I saw a book that somehow caught my attention.
The book was called Simpler Living, Compassionate Life: A Christian Perspective edited and compiled by Michael Schut. The cover was off-white with medium blue font. There was a photo of a straw hat, flowers and some worn leather clogs. Visually it was very pleasant and soothing.
The back cover included praise from people I had not yet heard of: Elaine St. James, Jim Wallis and Vicki Robin. The back cover also included a summary that began:
Not enough time? Money? Peace? Can less really be more? What really matters to you? This powerful resource can help you find the questions that challenge you, and the answers that help. . . A diversity of voices and a helpful study guide make this an effective tool for individuals and groups ready to consider alternatives to the high-price, high-stress 'Good Life': the riches of simplicity and compassion.
Honestly, I did not fully understand at the time what all this meant. But it sounded good. It sounded like exactly what was really ailing me at the time. It wasn't just my disappointment over the election and my concern about our nation's questionable wars.
I had been on a treadmill of stress and competition at work. I had so little life outside my job. This was not what I felt I really wanted, but the "high-price, high-stress 'Good Life'" was what everyone in our social circle was chasing. You went to college, went off to work in the corporate world, bought your lovely home in the 'burbs where you could show off your furniture and play golf. If everyone else is doing it, it must be right. It never occurred to us there might be another path.
The reality was that my husband and I didn't even play golf and had no desire to begin doing so. We did not particularly care about having a fancy house. Initially, we'd just wanted to be comfortable in a home we would enjoy. It wasn't about keeping up with the Joneses. But whenever our neighbors had a party, I'd feel that we weren't keeping up and needed to spend time on getting closer to the ideal in the magazines. However, we never really had time to do that. We were always working. And when we did get a couple days off, we liked to travel and see different places. We enjoyed experiences, not so much things.
We'll get more into all that later. But the bottom line is I owe my epiphany to Dubyah. Had I not been so disgusted with his first term, and so devastated by his winning of a second term, I would not have been inspired to embark on a spiritual renewal. I would have continued reading the Bible only sporadically instead of devoting myself anew to a daily study of Scripture. I also would not have felt inspired to go to the Christian book store that fateful day. That post-election disappointment and sadness were what prompted me to look for a book on a spiritual topic that would help me find a new path in life. One that was much more grounded in my true values and ultimately much more sustainable.