Choosing voluntary poverty

“Themistocles, when asked whether he would marry his daughter to a good poor man, or to a rich man of less respectable character, replied, ‘I, indeed, prefer the man who lacks money to the money that lacks a man.’” – Cicero

TrailI’ve long been an advocate of actively and consciously making choices to live in a particular way.  For me, choosing to do something makes me feel a lot more positively about it, and I’m more likely to see it as a challenge than a trial.  Choosing to ride my bike as much as possible feels a lot different than if I had no other option, and always shopping secondhand feels better than it would if it were my only choice.  In short, I feel like I enjoy my simple, frugal, and environmentally conscious activities a lot more and get a lot more out of them when I opt into them rather than having to do them out of necessity.

One area where I haven’t been so good about seeing things as a choice, though, is around earning money.  I make enough to live on, especially given our current level of expenses.  But there are still times when I find myself feeling stuck, worrying that it’s not enough, fretting about my job situation, applying for jobs I’m not sure that I want, and generally giving money more power over me than I should.

Despite my views on choice, it never really occurred to me to try to apply them to my money situation to see if that might make a difference.  To be fair, I realise that feeling like I’m making a choice in this area is likely to be more of a challenge.  Shopping at the market or riding my bike really are choices – I could do things differently if I wanted to.  Money and work, however, are a bit more constrained – I get paid a set amount and new jobs are hard to come by in this market.  While I can work with what I’ve got and be grateful for that, I still don’t feel like I have much in the way of options.  But, if I already see other things as a making a choice in favour of my values, why can’t I attempt to shift the frame a bit and do the same here?

Although I may not have the choices that I do in other parts of my life, I can still try look at what I have in a different way.  Recently, I’ve been reading up on the idea of voluntary poverty, which holds that by embracing a life with little money we can not only start to get free of many of the issues associated with the dominant economic system, but live better, more satisfying lives.  Applying this idea to my own situation, it struck me that instead of experiencing my current job as a low-paying and somewhat precarious position, I can see it as an option where I’ve traded in a higher salary for work that allows me to do research that I care about, keep a flexible schedule, and have enough time for other pursuits and interests. If I can see it as making choice – and, more importantly, making a beneficial choice – I hope to feel less like these circumstances are beyond my control and more like I’m making an active choice about how I want to live.

Since voluntary poverty isn’t just about work, I’m already some of the way there.  I spend fairly little, reuse what I have, buy virtually nothing new, and try to grow or make what I can.  These shifts have felt pretty easy and I’ve never thought twice about them.  On the other hand, trying to change how I think about working and income feels like a big deal.  Maybe it’s because how much I earn still feels like less of a choice than other activities.  Maybe it’s because it can be hard to see a way out of the money-based economy.  Maybe it’s the fear of the unknown and the thought that I won’t be able to take care of myself and the people I care about.  In any case, I suspect that the fact that this is something that frightens me and feels far outside of my comfort zone means it’s something that I need to spend some more time on going forward.


2 thoughts on “Choosing voluntary poverty

  1. Just catching up on your blog now that my own teaching is done for the year :), and I think this is a really important idea. It can be tough, in the post-student/pre-“real job” limbo, to remember that your situation IS a choice. When we go the academic route, we’re on a track, and so we feel constrained by that path. But the truth is that we did have a choice to get on that track to begin with, and we always have a choice to get off. A couple of years ago, I thought I was going to have to get off the track to be able to keep living here (a limited work pool, and I had decided I wasn’t actually willing to move anywhere else). It was a MAJOR revelation and psychological shift to realize that I was actually a well-qualified, highly skilled, potentially in-demand employee who could be earning quite a healthy salary! Because as a student for so long I had always worked contingent, “student” jobs, I still felt like I was a 20-yr old entry-level applicant. It was empowering to realize that this wasn’t the case at all.

    So just a reminder that the choice to do work you care about, with flexibility and variety, control over your own time, and creativity that in many ways IS outside of the corporate economy isn’t just an illusory choice, a psychological shift in perspective. I regularly had to remind myself in the tough limbo years that nobody HAD put a gun to my head and made me do a PhD in English! LOL. That I HAD made the choice, and I could make a different one if I wanted to. I remembered the various times along the way where I had had the opportunitites to go into more traditional work for good money, and how unappealing that idea had been. You’re so right that seeing those trade-offs as personal decisions feels very different. AND it’s now good for me to have had those years of poverty, because it’s holding on to those habits that make my lifestyle and goals possible now that I have the job and my income is finally going up. Being comfortable living simply even when you’re making enough to live more conventionally is a hugely important skill…

    • Thanks for the reassurances and reminders – it seems far too easy to forget a lot of these things and feel stuck, especially after having been a student and following the same track for such a long time. I have to confess that I hadn’t really thought about what I’m doing as actually being a choice rather than just trying to see it as one to make myself feel better. It really is, though, and recognizing that helps me to feel a lot more positive about it. Being able to work on a range of different areas this summer instead of focusing entirely on finishing my dissertation has helped with that too, and has been a good reminder that the work that I do grants me a lot of freedom to explore the things that I value and think are important. But, as you say, if that ever isn’t the case, I always have the option of trying to do something different instead. That said, no matter what happens I don’t think I’ll ever get away from living how we do now. Frugality is solidly engrained in my life, and living below our means lets me feel a lot more secure about whatever situations we wind up, especially since we’ve been doing so in a way that still manages to meet all of our needs and keep us happy.

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