Verner: ' Not So Big' Style Could Make Huge Difference

03/14/10 by Salisbury Post

EDITOR’S NOTE:This column by Chris Verner appeared in the March 14, 2010, issue of the Salisbury Post.

For a radical, Sarah Susanka laughs a lot — and it's an easy, throaty laugh that fits perfectly with the persona of someone who wants us to find more inner peace and harmony, to live saner lives.

Unlike radicals who want to burn down the house, Susanka initially set out to make it smaller. In "The Not So Big House," the architect offered an alternate vision to the "bigger is better" school of square footage, a theme she has explored in subsequent books related to our homes and living spaces. In "The Not So Big Life," which she will talk about Tuesday at Catawba College, Susanka shifted inward. She shows how we might remodel our cluttered lives to free up more time and energy for things "that really matter," such as relationships, family and activities that engage our minds and spirits at a core level.

On its face, that doesn't sound so revolutionary. In fact, one might trace its roots to ancient scriptures and wisdom teachings that warn us not to be seduced by the material trappings of life or the visible world. More recently, we've had no shortage of old souls and New Age gurus telling us to slow down, to rebalance, to bypass the rat race and follow our bliss.

Nonetheless, it's a message we resist because it cuts hard against the cultural grain and our definition of success. It's a radical departure from a value system that glorifies attainment and consumption. Rather than telling you that you can have it all, Susanka would ask: Even if you could have it all (and you can't), why on earth would you want it?

Yet, the images that bombard us — on television, in books and movies, in the media — reinforce the cultural axiom that equates success with having the right stuff, getting into the right schools, pursuing the right careers, fashioning ourselves a big, busy life.

"We all go toward the thing we believe we're supposed to want," Susanka said during a recent phone interview from her office near Raleigh. "We climb that ladder. In our case, it's usually the corporate ladder or the income ladder, to get to or exceed our wildest expectations — only to discover that there's nothing there." For evidence of that conclusion, consider some cultural symptoms.

In a recent survey of employees by CareerBuilder.com, almost a third — 30 percent — say they routinely feel burned out. Even more — 37 percent — say they're handling the work of two people. Along with feeling overworked, we may be overmedicated.

Recently published studies show the number of Americans taking antidepressants doubled between 1996 and 2005. Yet, Prozac nation isn't resting very well these days. The National Sleep Foundations reports that many Americans are chronically sleep-deprived. No wonder it's difficult to dream a new dream.

Amid all this, Susanka believes the national mood is shifting if not yet lifting. After the era of supermoms and master-of-the-universe dads ensconced in gated McMansions, is it possible we're regaining some sense of cultural equilibrium?

"I certainly think we are, and I think the economic downturn has brought some new sanity," Susanka says. "It doesn't feel good to a lot of people right now, but I think what it's doing is helping us re-evaluate what matters. Whether we're talking about house size or how much stuff we purchase or how many things we try to cram into a day, we're getting back into a more balanced way of living our lives."

Of course, we've had these moments of retrenchment and renewal before. History is replete with boom and bust cycles and cultural oscillations. The excessives of the Renaissance church gave rise to the Reformation. The gray-flannel Eisenhower era spawned the flower children, free love and some suspect fashion styles. Yet, this time, Susanka thinks things really are different. This time, the lessons may stick. From hurricanes to earthquakes to economic meltdown, we've ecountered a number of "assaults on our certainty that everything is always onward and upward." While the collapse of the housing market has shattered the belief in ever-rising real-estate values, Susanka says the scenes of devastation in New Orleans, Haiti and southeast Asia have made many question the very "solidity of our world. ... It has brought to the forefront a focus on 'what do we really care about' and how do we spend our time and money?'"

The truly radical part of her message, she says, is that finding more meaning in life is really "so darn simple" if we'll pause long enough to assess what matters most to us and begin deconstructing the veneer of false messages that mask underlying truths about who we are. In essence, that's what "The Not So Big Life" is all about.

"It sounds radical," Susanka says. "It sounds crazy in many circles, and yet when you just open yourself to what's actually happening to you, you'll find that you have and receive what you need."

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