When Less is More

By Jessica Shepherd

We have embraced minimalism on both a social and economic scale and feel richer for it.

Mid-April and winter’s deep cold hangs on like a bad cold, or a pandemic. I’m itching to emerge from this cocoon of self-imposed isolation, spread my wings, and fly. Fly, literally, to warmer climates, or figuratively, exchanging this shroud of angst for gossamer wings of hope and possibility. That reemergence is coming, along with a greater awareness of who and what we value.

As fate would have it, I retired just as Covid-19 was stealthily seeding across the globe. Initially, as my calendar opened up, I made plans to fill that void with volunteer work, writing conferences, and travel to the lower 48 to visit friends and family. But all of that was abandoned in March of last year when the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. Instead of the lighthearted adventure I’d hoped for, this last year has been more about sequestering than exploring. Devoid of direction, I have struggled to find a sense of purpose, feeling as if I am adrift on an iceberg in a lonely expanse of ocean. In this, I suspect I am not alone. 

On the whole, this last year has shown us how vulnerable we are and how much we, as a global society, depend on one another. If not for the doctors and nurses (30% of whom are foreign-born) tirelessly tending the sick, teachers juggling in-person and remote learning, and essential workers (many earning minimum wage) bagging our groceries and delivering our mail, we would not have weathered this tragedy as well as we have. And, thanks to social media, and good old-fashion phone calls, we’ve maintained and even strengthened the bonds of family and friendships. As with most overwhelming and unwelcome experiences, this time of cloistering, and profound loss has also presented new opportunities. First and foremost, Covid has given us an impetus to reach across cultural and economic divides to show our appreciation for one another.

Moreover, this pause button on our normal lives has provided an opportunity to narrow our focus and reevaluate what matters most to us.  Many people have used the time to resurrect old passions like photography or cooking, while others have used their federal stimulus and unemployment checks to kick-start new home-based careers.

Ecologically, our year-long return to a simpler way of life has slowed carbon emissions, increased the presence of birds and other wildlife in our urban areas, and reconnected many of us with nature. Bird watching is on the rise, as are gardening, camping, hiking, and bike riding. 

For me, this unaccustomed luxury of time to read, reflect and write has helped me see that sometimes less is more. My husband Hal, who runs his business, Water Policy Consulting, out of the house, welcomed my help with grant management. He’s also enticed me to join in his workout routine of yoga, weight training, skiing, and bike riding. 

Limiting our trips into town to just once or twice a week has given these outings greater significance. A cup of chai tea from our favorite takeout spot, followed by a whirlwind shopping trip at the grocery store and a final stop on the way home to pick up the mail has become an adventure to savor, not just a chore to tick off the to-do list. Like Maria Kondo’s adage of “doing more with less,” we have embraced minimalism on both a social and economic scale and feel richer for it.

I’ll acknowledge that Hal and I are among the fortunate ones. Fortunate to live in a home without the gut-churning angst of back rent and an angry landlord. Fortunate that we have not needed to stand in line at the local foodbank. Fortunate to have affordable insurance and easy access to excellent health care. And most of all, fortunate to live and work where and how we please in this deeply troubled but prosperous country. These fundamental privileges remain out of reach for many Americans and are the stuff of dreams for desperate families awaiting salvation on the far side of our southern border. 

This brings me to the question of how I might serve my community and country during my retirement years. I have always felt the pull to make a difference in the world, however small and anonymous.  If I can assume, because of my career, education or maturity, I’ve earned the right to be heard, what is it I want to say? What is my contribution? These are the questions I ponder as I look forward to the renaissance of society after Covid.

These same questions apply to society at large.  As we begin to reemerge, what new habits do we want to keep? What lessons do we want our children and grandchildren to learn from these difficult times? Under a new administration we have the opportunity to raise ourselves up on a tide that lifts the poorest and most vulnerable first. And we can, with enough common will, continue to apply the brakes to greenhouse emissions and the impending storm of catastrophic climate change. In both cases, less is more. Less money and power in the hands of the self-serving elite. More progress on the social and environmental ills that have become blatantly evident in the past year. 

I can’t offer any words wiser or more fitting than those spoken 60 years ago, on January 20th 1961, by John F. Kennedy during his inaugural speech:

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.