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The simple life

Learning to be content in both abundance and scarcity

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When I read about “Escape into Cottage­core” in The New York Times last spring, it sounded like a blast from the mid-1970s. That was a time of anxiety and political upheaval and double-digit inflation (sound familiar?), when 20-somethings adopted a hippie ethos of “Going Up the Country” and living on little. I baked bread and sewed my own long dresses. My girlfriends donned overalls and raised sheep. Mushrooms and frogs were popular decorating themes, and everyone was reading Lord of the Rings. Some of our generation moved to collective farms or tried and failed at organic homesteading. It was a deliberate rejection of our parents’ consumerism, and it sounds very similar to the cottage­core aesthetic: a simple life in harmony with nature.

What goes around comes around, but today’s simple living is mostly played out on Instagram: sweepy dresses, soft-focus wheat fields, fantasy memes, and whimsical décor featuring mushrooms and frogs. Cottagecore is “less about living a rural lifestyle and more about longing for it or pretending you live it,” according to Ellen Tyn, a popular Instagrammer who sells rural-themed products on Etsy. To harried young moderns who don’t know where to plant their feet, simplicity has broad appeal.

Simplicity is one thing, scarcity another. One is a lifestyle you choose, and the other a lifestyle forced on you. In the early 1990s, my mother hosted a young Polish woman who stayed with her for two weeks and took pictures of everything—especially stores. Poland was only recently freed from Soviet domination, and Dorota couldn’t get over the abundance of American commerce. She had grown up in a culture of scarcity and bare shelves. Now we’re seeing bare shelves—certainly not on Communist levels, but scarcity has become a buzzword as inflation steps up and supply-chain issues refuse to step down.

Contemporary Americans don’t do deprivation well. That may be because we don’t do abundance well.

With only two people to feed in my household, I don’t feel it like families who have to stretch one chicken to feed eight. But if propane becomes scarce, we’ll feel it in our bones this winter. This would be a good time to invest in wool socks and flannel-lined pants while studying the secret of contentment.

That’s what Paul called it while languishing—possibly shivering—in prison: “I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Phil. 4:12). He doesn’t say how, exactly, but the whole letter to the Philippians is about how: Set yourself aside, center your mind on commendable things, rejoice in the Lord.

Yet at times Paul felt weighed down and despondent, cold and bored. Bring the cloak and the parchments, and “do your best to come before winter,” he entreated Timothy from the damp depths of Mamertine Prison—the cry of a lonely man facing a scarcity of joy. The shelves were (temporarily) empty.

Christmas presents backordered until April and turkeys that cost twice what they did last year don’t compare to destitution in prison, but let’s face it: Contemporary Americans don’t do deprivation well. That may be because we don’t do abundance well. We’re both addicted to it and embarrassed by it, like hippies of yesterday and cottagecore enthusiasts of today. “I know how to abound,” says Paul. For that lesson, he points back to the One who taught him.

I’ve read it several times, but this time Luke 16:12 struck me: “If you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?” All I have is God’s, but what’s coming to me is mine. Jesus calls it a place prepared, while Peter speaks of a certain inheritance: an embarrassment of riches we don’t deserve. Who deserves an inheritance?

Abundance is not a bad thing—it’s a founding principle of our teeming world and a key factor of the next. We will not be guests in that new world; we’ll be home. Knowing that, we can hold our temporary goods lightly, whether much or little. It won’t always be easy, but it’s simple.

Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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