When the American Dream Leaves You Empty: How to Have a Slower, Simpler, More Sustainable Life

01/07/14 by Juanita Teschner

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Nancy Sleeth, author of Almost Amish: One Woman’s Quest for a Slower, Simpler, More Sustainable Life, will lead a workshop called “A Simple Plan that Simply Works” at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, February 10, at the Center for the Environment building on the Catawba College campus. Co-sponsored by the college’s Lilly Center for Vocation and Values, the workshop is part of the Center’s ongoing Faith, Spirituality and Environmental Stewardship series.

Recognized by Newsweek and Christianity Today as one of “50 Women to Watch,” Sleeth is the co-founder of Blessed Earth, a faith-based environmental nonprofit organization.

She talked recently with Juanita Teschner, the Center’s director of communications. This is an edited transcript of that interview.

Q: What caused you to seek this slower, more sustainable life?

A: Like many people, I was living out the American dream. My husband was a physician and I was a mother and homemaker and a teacher. We had crazy, busy schedules, and we had a beautiful home. We had filled it with many beautiful things, but there was an emptiness inside. And when bad things happened to us, as they do to everybody, we didn’t have a moral compass. I lost my only brother in a drowning accident, and my brother died right in front of my kids.

My husband also started to see some changes in diseases in the emergency room. Things such as cancers of the reproductive systems were skyrocketing as was asthma among children and respiratory problems in the elderly. A lot of these things seemed to be connected to this stressful life we were living, which was focused on material things and the environmental damage we were doing to our world.

So we started looking for answers. At the time, neither my husband nor myself were Christians. So for us we were beginning to embark on a spiritual journey as well as a simplicity journey, and those journeys were combined. Eventually, my husband picked up a Gideon’s Bible, and that Bible changed our family completely. That’s where we found the answer to this question we were struggling with, which was, “How do we change this materialistic, over-scheduled, busy life?” The answer we found was in the gospel of Matthew. It said, “Don’t worry about the speck in your neighbor’s eye. Worry about taking the plank out of your own eye first.” Gandhi paraphrased that as, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

So that’s what spurred us on. We decided we wanted to be the change that we wanted to see in the world. And we went about beginning to simplify our life.

Q: What, then, made you seek out the Amish?

A: So we did change our life. We down-scaled our lives tremendously. We moved to a house the size of our old garage. We got rid of more than half of our possessions. We cut our energy use back by more than 2/3. We cut our trash production back by 9/10. My husband eventually also left his job as a physician. I left my job teaching, and we went around the country speaking about the joys of living a simpler life.

We were in a church, leading one our simplicity workshops, and there was a man in the back of the room who clearly did not want to be there. His arms were crossed. I like to say his eyebrows were crossed. Everything about his body language said that he just wasn’t buying this. In the Q&A part, somebody asked us if we really hang our clothes on the line, and I said, yes, we really do, and explained that it saves about five pounds of greenhouse gases from going into the air each time I do a load of laundry, but it also just gives me a chance to slow down and be outside and chat with God or listen to the birds or talk to my kids as we hang up the laundry together. It’s just a nice break in the day.

It was like steam was coming out of this man’s ears, and he just couldn’t hold himself back any longer. He yelled out from the back of the room in this big, booming voice, “What are ya, Amish or somethin’?” I was taken aback by the question because it wasn’t said in the nicest tone of voice, but then I quickly realized that that question was a gift – that, no, I’m not Amish. I don’t want to be Amish, but the Amish have a lot of wonderful things that they can teach me.

So I went about studying the Amish people, and I came up with 10 principles about their life that I wanted to adopt myself. And that’s how I ended up writing the book.

Q: Did you actually go to an Amish community to do your research?

A: I went to college in Lancaster, Pa., so I think part of that has always been with me from that time. I lived in the epicenter of the Amish community, and we live in Kentucky now so there are a number of Amish communities here. I also have Mennonite friends so I just learned as much as I could.

Q: And which of those principles are you going to going to talk about when you come to Catawba College?

A: The six areas we’re going to talk about are Sabbath (the “S”) ; “I” stands for Internet and technology; the “M” stands for money; “P” for purging stuff; “L” for local community; and the “E” for exploring God’s created world.

Q: Let’s talk briefly about each one, starting with Sabbath.

A: Sabbath is about stopping one day in seven, no matter what your faith is. Just coming to rest one day in seven can help us reflect on our life. It gives us a chance to pause. I used to teach English and I always gave a diagnostic essay the first day of class. One student turned in a three-page run-on sentence. It didn’t have a single period or semi-colon or paragraph indentation. What I’m afraid is that many of our lives have become just like that paper: one long run-on sentence. When we don’t have pauses in our life, we don’t get to the really important things that really matter, which are relationships with family and friends and with God.

Q: Now, Internet and technology.

A: The Internet and technology seem to be controlling many of our lives. So if there’s anything that is ruling you like a master, rather than serving you like a tool, then maybe you should take a break from it. It’s different for everybody, but some people find that social media or their email account or their cell phone is controlling their life, so just taking a screenless Sabbath is something that some students and families are experimenting with.

Q: Money?

A: I talk about the fact that being in debt makes us slaves. It controls the choices we make, and accumulating stuff, again, becomes a master of us. We talk about ways we can avoid debt. We can live more frugal lives, but they are more joyful lives as well because we don’t spend our lives trying to earn more money to buy bigger houses to get on this treadmill of more, more, more when the quality of our life goes down.

Q: Purging stuff?

A: Again, just getting rid of things. I talk about taking small steps. If you can’t clean out your whole house, try just cleaning out one drawer or one corner of your basement or one corner of your garage. If you go about it on a regular basis, you’ll find that it’s okay to own things, but it’s not okay for things to own us. There’s a freedom that comes when we give things to people who can use them now instead of saving them for someday.

Q: Local community?

A: I like to encourage people to get to know their neighbors and to invest in local businesses. The average piece of food travels about 1200-1500 miles to get to our table when there are people right there in North Carolina who are growing wonderful food – people we can get to know as human beings and the beauty of local farms we can experience. We can support those local family-owned businesses, and we win because we have relationships with people, and we also support a more sustainable and resilient local economy.

Q: Exploring God’s world?

A: The average school-age child spends 6 hours and 40 minutes a day in front of a screen, and they spend less than 30 minutes a week outdoors in unstructured play. So our children and students are not spending time in the beautiful, natural world.  We are losing the opportunity to find peace and contentment and good health just by being outdoors and also a chance to get to know
God. Many, many people feel they are closer to God when they are in God’s creation.

It can take many forms. It can be just having picnics or taking walks or picking up trash around the campus or in the neighborhood or cleaning up a streambed – restoring some of the beautiful earth as well.

Q: What do you want the participants to take away from these workshops?

A: The participants from both the community event and the student event will leave with a personal action plan for de-cluttering their lives. They can choose one or two of those areas that they want to specifically focus on – an area that speaks to them – and develop their plan around that principle.

Q: What are the fruits of this slower, more sustainable life?

A: You rediscover the simple joys of life by slowing down and living a more sustainable life. Instead of things owning you, you own things. That results in better relationships with family, friends and God because you aren’t controlled by the stuff in your life.

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The Lilly Center at Catawba College promotes programs that help participants, especially students, discover and use their gifts in ways that serve others. The Lilly Center also encourages students to consider how they can make a difference in today's world through the Christian ministry. For more, visit www.catawba.edu/programs/lillycenter.

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