The Diderot Effect:
Staying Simple in the City
by Bruce Elkin
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.
It turns what we have into enough, and more.
In an essay titled "On Parting with My Old Dressing Gown," French philosopher Denis Diderot described receiving a fancy velvet robe as a gift. He loved his new robe, but, shortly, he noticed its magnificence made his study look threadbare. His desk, rug, and chairs looked shabby by comparison. So, one by one, he replaced his furnishings with new ones that matched the robe's richness. Later, surrounded by bright and modern furnishings, he regretted giving up the old robe. He resented the new one for "forcing everything else to conform with its own elegant tone."
In The Overspent American, Juliet Schor says consumer researchers call striving for such lifestyle conformity the "Diderot Effect". Purchasing a new home leads to buying new furniture. A new jacket needs a new skirt or slacks to set it off. Moving to an upscale area prompts thoughts of a car upgrade.
Recently, I experienced my own encounter with the Diderot Effect. I moved to the city, and struggled to avoid an outburst consumerism.
For 14 years, I lived on Saltspring Island, a once green, back-to-the-earth haven that is rapidly upscaling as retiring boomers try to purchase pieces of paradise. I lived in a 50-year old, rented cottage that had seen hard use. Early on, I renovated my work/meeting area. I tore out rugs, painted the floor blue, the walls white, and trimmed with homemade pine baseboards. Then I hung colourful, framed prints and art posters.
With pine and white cotton Ikea furniture and rustic, woven wool rugs transplanted from my city home/office, the place looked nice. But the rest of the house was shabby and threadbare. Dark panelling, dark rugs, and walls of an indeterminate colour, darkening daily from an ever-growing coat of soot spewed out by an old wood stove the landlord would not let me replace, even if I paid for it.
As an ex-outdoor guy, used to living in tents and unfurnished cabins, I was fine with what I had. So long as I used low-watt fluorescent bulbs in the lamps, a little soot didn't bother me. But, now, I'm in a bright, newly renovated apartment with brilliant white walls and sparkling just-refinished hardwood floors.
Although I have good rent in a small, sixties-type building, I'm smack in the middle of one of the toniest neighbourhoods in town. Suddenly, almost everything I own seems shabby.
Like Diderot, I feel a gnawing pressure to bring my furnishings, my wardrobe, and myself in line with my upscale neighbours. But, really, with one or two exceptions, everything I have is fine.
True, I should dry clean the jackets and slacks I wear to speak to groups, or work with organizations. It was "interesting" that I smelled like wood smoke when I heated my house with wood. Now, it's just funky.
And, if I decorate carefully, refinish my coffee table, and spend a small fortune to clean my rustic rugs (done!), I can tone down my furniture's shabbiness, upgrade my wardrobe a bit, and make me and my place look good enough for company.
Still, there's that gnawing pressure. To buy a new coffee table. To replace my board, brick, and banker's box filing system with an Ikea system that reflects the sparkle in the floor.
But, I resist.
Even such small steps could land me on the consumer escalator. I could find myself trundling away on that hedonistic, work-and-spend treadmill where more is never enough. Instead, I am practicing what I preach. I will create a rich, yet simple, successful, and sustainable lifestyl—using what I have. Following the advice printed on WWII posters, I will, "Use it up. Wear it out. Make do. Or do without!"
The American Friends Service Committee's consumption criteria evoke the essence of rich yet simple sustainability I seek:
1. Does what I own or buy promote activity, self-reliance, and involvement, or does it induce passivity and dependence?
2. Are my consumption patterns basically satisfying, or do I buy much that serves no real need?
3. How tied are my present job and lifestyle to installment payments, maintenance and repair costs, and the expectations of others?
4. Do I consider the impact of my consumption patterns on other people and on the earth?
I will remind myself that thoughts such as "I'm not as good as those with nicer stuff," and "I NEED a new whatever," are just thoughts. They rise, I notice them, they pass. I do not have to act on them.
Even in the city, I can avoid the consumer ranks. I know I cannot buy a "real" simple life. I can make do with what I have, make inexpensive improvements, and, after considering the criteria above, if I can justify a purchase, I'll go ahead and buy it—and enjoy it.
I'll let the mastery and meaning of my life and self manifest in my actions—in doing and being—rather than merely in material things.
I will take Melody Beattie's advice when she says, "Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more."
I will practice gratitude daily. Doing so, says Beattie, "can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow."
I will appreciate what I have while I work to make my vision a reality—simply, successfully, and sustainably.
Bruce Elkin is a writer and personal life coach. He helps individuals and groups create what matters most—in spite of problems, circumstances, and adversity. As well as a success coach, he wrote Simplicity and Success: Creating A Life You Long For. It and his ebook, Emotional Mastery: Manage Your Moods and Create What Matters Most—With Whatever Life Gives You are available on his website at www.BruceElkin.com. Visit his blog at http://createwhatmattersmost.blogspot.com, phone (250) 388-7210.