October Forum

Viewpoint: An Upside to Downsizing

By Chuck Hosking

When I’m being honest, I have to admit that minimalism is an acquired taste. In a sluggish economy and with mounting awareness of climate chaos, though, I’m finding more folks receptive to the cleansing effects of downward mobility. A friend of mine just built a microhouse (120 square feet) in my backyard and will be living in it when he returns soon from a scientific expedition in Antarctica. He stayed with me in the main house as he was building his and remarked several times on the therapeutic effects of the standards I set for my home: nothing costs over $20 (except the refrigerator), doors and windows remain unlocked at all times, and utilities are used minimally.

The God I revere invites us to pursue global equity. No one need be destitute if no one takes more than a fair share of resources—whether natural or financial—from the global commons. And a lean approach can help us feel better about ourselves. I view God as a Great Spirit of goodness and love, an infinite font available to anyone. God’s goodness and love can flow through us as human pipes, conduits to a world with massive spiritual needs. But excessive living is unhealthy for our souls and, over time, builds up as spiritual plaque in our arteries, impeding the flow of God’s love to a needy planet. Robbed of a right relationship with God, our spiritual health falters, and we become disappointed with ourselves. The antidote to this spiritual malady is a minimalist approach.

The longer we diverge from the path of spiritual health that we know is best, the more persistent is our sense of ethical dissonance. As with spiritual plaque, ethical dissonance erodes our relationship with God and weighs heavily on our souls, decimating respect for the one person we’re fated to spend our entire lives with—ourselves!

Last fall, thousands of folks persistently protested corporate greed and Wall Street white-collar gambling. They reminded us that one percent of U.S. citizens elevate themselves at the expense of the other 99 percent. Viewed through a global lens, however, many of us would  realize that anyone making $50,000 per year is part of the elite global one percent; anyone making $25,000 per year is part of the elite global 10 percent.

This “elite” status might make us feel guilty, but our guilt benefits no one. We are not destined to be victims of our drive to succeed. The choice is ours. We can wallow in our ethical dissonance, or we can undertake a healthy dose of minimalism. We can downsize and shed our surplus baggage. Through solidarity with our global siblings, we’ll respect ourselves and find greater meaning in life. At long last, we’ll finally feel like we’re home.


Responses to “Meant to Be”

Jacob J. Staub (“Meant to Be for Some Purpose,” FJ, August) speaks my mind. God is not to be found in the event but in our responses to the event. Events (good or bad) are opportunities for us to open ourselves more fully to God. Sometimes it takes work, time, and perspective before we’re able to find meaning, but God is with us as we find our way to it. This essay is a heart-wrenching reminder. Thank you.

Mary Linda
via web

I appreciate the clarification about recognizing opportunity rather than predetermination. I am very troubled by the “new-age” concept of “everything happens for a reason,” which usually translates to blaming the victim (e.g. the appalling questions like “Why do you think you chose to have cancer?”). Being open to what gifts and opportunities new experiences bring, even when they are also traumatic and destructive, can be very powerful and healing.

Bruce Dienes
via web

Living in reality, whether good or bad, is something I aspire towards. Whether crisis or not, what tools I use and how I react are very important to me. Thanks for the reminder.

Michael Blackman
via web

How many branches of Friends?

With regard to Isabel Penraeth’s article “Understanding Ourselves, Respecting the Differences” (FJ, June/July), I was startled to see her division of contemporary Friends into three groups: Liberal, Conservative, and Evangelical.

There have been four groups of Friends (not three) for the last 150 years or so! The subscription renewal form from Friends Journal even lists them as Unprogrammed (FGC), Programmed (FUM), Conservative, and Evangelical. I wonder where the author included FUM meetings and churches in her own thinking. It seems obvious to me that they need a category of their own, since they truly do not fit into any of the three she listed.

Rosemary Coffey
Pittsburgh, Pa.


I see in the other articles from authors in programmed Meetings that they also often call us liberal Friends. While this may accurately describe our politics, I think it narrows and thus distorts our theological beliefs. I also hold a concern that Belief.net, a popular website with a quiz people can take to determine which world religion their personal beliefs most closely conform to, makes a similar error. It recognizes only two types of Friends (I have no idea to which camp it thinks each of the four branches conform). But taking to heart Rick Seifert’s point about how we name ourselves in the world (“Surmounting Our Quaker Language Barriers,” June/July), I wish anyone receiving these “results” from their belief quiz good luck in finding in the phone book a “conservative Friends church” or a “liberal Friends church.”

I appreciate that in this issue, Friends Journal gave us writing from all four branches, but it appears to me that even those from each branch who travel among the branches see and describe through fixed lenses. This reminds me of the parable of the six blind men who touch different parts of an elephant to try to describe it, but are perplexed by how they see “the same thing” so differently! After reading these articles, I did not feel confident that I was accurately informed about the different branches of modern day Quakerism.

Lynn Fitz-Hugh
Eastside Meeting, Wash.


The author responds:

The Lord has been guiding me not to develop theologically normative definitions of Friends, but rather to explore the areas where each group finds itself in conflict with the other. I’m interested not in saying, “These are the boundaries of Friends,” but to say, “These are the battlegrounds of Friends, and they can only be usefully explored by looking at how each group functions.” Labels are necessary in this endeavor.

In regard to finding a label for “Liberal” Friends, I found that Friends of that branch resist labels entirely, so it becomes difficult to honor their feelings on the subject. If I call them Friends General Conference Friends, I am informed FGC is welcoming to all branches. If I call them Hicksites, I am informed that this is a historical artifact that is no longer pertinent. These Friends will also say they dislike the label “liberal” because there is no umbrella group under which they organize themselves by that name, but then neither do the conservative Friends, who originally claimed that label consciously to explain their differing viewpoint, but have no organizing body beyond each yearly meeting. Using “Unprogrammed” isn’t useful, either, as it ignores the fact that Conservative Friends are also unprogrammed but can have very different cultures, theology and conflicts. I am left with the impression that these Friends wish they could just call themselves “Quaker” and leave the modifiers (beyond personal modifiers such as Buddhist Quaker or Pagan Quaker) to the other branches, but that strikes me as neither accurate nor fair.

Isabel Penraeth
Auroro, Colo.


Supporting the Nation’s Workers

Thank you for sharing the “Quaker Earthcare Survey” in the recent Friends Journal (John Fletcher, “How Green Are Quakers,” FJ, August). As we become more conscious of our impact on the global ecosystem, we should also make choices to support the financial sustainability of our nation’s workers.

When purchasing produce from local farmers, ask if they pay workers a living wage. Kim Bobo’s recent book, Wage Theft, draws attention to the many employers—large and small—who deliberately fail to pay workers what they earned. Nationally, 35 percent of lettuce producers, 51 percent of cucumber producers, 58 percent of onion producers, and 100 percent of the major chicken producers steal their workers’ wages.

When buying new garments and other products, look for union and fair trade labels. When patronizing larger shops specializing in lightly used clothing, ask if workers make a living wage or receive training that will enable them to earn a family-sustaining wage.

We can also support legislation for green jobs in our school and transit systems, increase efficiency standards for homes and cars, and raise the minimum wage. Learn more at Interfaith Worker Justice, www.iwj.org, and the Blue-Green Alliance, which promotes good jobs and a clean environment, www.bluegreenalliance.org.

Linda Lotz
Cherry Hill, N.J.

Wanting to be known

Oh, did J.A. Kruger’s article “A Friend Among the Sisters” speak to my condition! I have performed at hundreds of retreat houses filled with sisters (often with plays about Roman Catholic saints, like Teresa of Avila) and Kruger’s cry, “After all, they know I am a Friend,” has been my own. We all so desperately need to be known and loved for who we are. Writing that article for Friends Journal must have been so healing for the author, helping her to put in perspective alien experiences like Confession, Anointing with Oil, and Mass.

What I learned from all the many different faith traditions where I performed is expressed well in Rumi’s poem “The Guest House”: “Be grateful for whoever comes / because each has been sent / as a guide from beyond.”

Roberta Nobleman
Dumont, N.J.


Germantown slavery protesters already Quakers

I found Charles A. Miller’s “The Concord, A Story of Two Stamps” (FJ, August) interesting; however, I must take exception to the line, “and now Mennonite Anabaptists themselves came to Pennsylvania.” They left for Pennsylvania because they were being persecuted for being Quakers. I am a descendant of Abraham op den Graef who, along with his brother, Derrick up de Graeff, was one of the four signers of the 1688 Germantown protest against slavery.

The family had been Mennonite for over 100 years. Isack Hermans op den Graff (Abraham and Derrick’s father) became Quaker, as did other Mennonite families, after visits to Krefeld, Germany, by English Quaker ministers in the late 1660s or early 1670s. They gathered informally on Sundays until 1679, when they organized as a monthly meeting. As Quakers, they were persecuted for their beliefs and in 1679, Herman and five other Friends were exiled from Krefeld for their Quakerism. While we do not know for a certain all the reasons for the Krefeld Quaker Meeting’s migration to Pennsylvania, I am sure that persecution for being Quaker played an important role in their decision.

James G. Updegraff
Sacramento, Calif.


Jews in Germany Today

Thank you for including “Modern Germany and the Lessons of World War II” by Debbie Zlotowitz in your May issue. Her description of the numerous steps that Germany has taken to memorialize the individual victims of the Holocaust is encouraging. In 1964, when I attended a summer meeting in Berlin held to foster Jewish-Christian relations among young people, there were no such memorials. One feature of our visits was common, however—the scant Jewish presence in Germany today. Ms. Zlotowitz mentioned that she encountered no Jewish children in any of the schools she visited, nor had there been any since the war. Similarly, no Jewish young people from any nation were in attendance at the Berlin meeting in 1964. The only Jews we met in Berlin were several old men who somehow had survived the war by being hidden by political sympathizers and friends.

Sandra Herbert
Chester, Md.



Letters from Chuck Hosking, Mary Linda, Bruce Dienes, Michael Blackman, Rosemary Coffey, Lynn Fitz-Hugh, Isabel Penraeth, Linda Lotz, Roberta Nobelman, James F. Updegraff, and Sandra Herbert.

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