The Art of Giving Up

Are you giving up anything for Lent this year ?

The thought may well not have crossed your mind – obviously you might not be a Christian, or even if you are, you might not observe Lent.

Lent, like Christmas, has a more complex origin and history than you might think.

The word Lent comes from the word lengthen, referring to the increasing length of daylight in the Spring. In theory it comprises the 40 days before Easter Sunday, though in practice it always lasts for a few more, as traditionally Sundays are not included as being part of the 40 – church calendars aside, it means the last day before the beginning of Lent is always taken to be Shrove Tuesday: Pancake Day.

Like Christmas, there’s no direct biblical basis for Lent, but most Christians would consider it to be a period of reflection, repentance and self-denial. Historically people undertook some form of fasting over Lent, often by not eating meat, but it’s now more usual to consider giving-up some small vice for Lent, such as chocolate, crisps or alcohol.

There is something attractive about the idea of giving something up that appeals to a wide spectrum of people.

For most of us there is some degree of disconnect between the way we would like to be, and the way we are. We know eating too much is bad for us, but we still do. We know staying up too late is bad for us, but we still do. We know we waste too much time watching TV/surfing the internet, but we still do.

Despite the best intentions we don’t always live-up to being the people we’d like to be.

Why ?

Because we’re human. We’re emotional, not just rational, and struggle with highs and lows of mood and resolve; we’re impulsive – frequently more concerned about enjoying the present moment than about the long-term consequences; and we have limited willpower – psychologists talk about ego-depletion, the idea that our self-control is a finite resource, and once we’ve used it up we inevitably cave-in !

It does us good to strip some of the ‘junk’ from our lives from time to time – a sort of personal defragging. It also doesn’t hurt to exercise our willpower muscles occasionally. Matt Curtis of TED advocates trying something new for 30 days – short enough to be achievable, but long enough to make a difference to our long term habits.

Whether you’re thinking about giving something up for Lent, committing to some other short-term change in your life, in the hope of empowering something more permanent, or (perhaps) just pondering why not everyone is as perfect as you – you might want to ask yourself a few questions before you start:

Why am I giving this particular thing up ? What permanent change do I want to create ? How am I going to motivate myself when I start to run out of willpower ? Should I share what I’m doing with others or keep it private ? How am I going to celebrate when I’m successful ?

This Lent a number of friends of mine are taking part in something called the 6 Item Challenge (Blog Facebook) – only wearing six items of clothing for the whole of Lent (underwear thankfully excluded) !

The Challenge is in support of the organisation Labour Behind the Label, who campaign to draw attention to, and improve the often poor working conditions of those in the developing world who produce the majority of the clothing you’ve got in your wardrobes at home and you’re probably wearing right now.

As well as highlighting the ethical aspects of the global garment trade, they hope to raise money through sponsorship and donations, to support Labour Behind the Label’s work. If you’re looking for a worthy cause to support, minded to have a go yourself, or just pass on messages of support and encouragement, I’m sure they’ll be very pleased to hear from you (especially when they start to smell) !

As well as encouraging fairer, more ethical trade, the challenge also asks us to us to examine our attitudes to material possessions, and our ideas of personal image and sufficiency.

Whether you call it giving something-up for Lent, or spring cleaning – dejunking our lives from time to time might not be too bad an idea, and perhaps our clothes and wardrobes might not be too bad a place to start.

Photo by from The 6 Item Challenge

RELATED ARTICLES – Cleaning Out My Closet

Can Christmas Still Really Change the World ?

Can Christmas still really change the world ?

This post is for those who are a little less than certain about Christmas, whether Christians concerned about the extent of the consumerism and materialism that modern Christmas celebrations in the West seem to have embraced, or humanists who might share the same concerns, but who also perhaps believe there’s something positive in the message of ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all men’.

In these difficult times there seems to be an increasing disillusionment with Christmas, in its current form as a two month long expensive consumer event, which so often seems devoid of any real meaning, and frequently fails to meet our unrealistic expectations.

A lot of people are interested in devising a new version of Christmas.

This is nothing new, of course, many of our traditional Christmas celebrations have no religious connection at all, with the whole history of Christmas being in fact rather complicated. The first record of Christmas being celebrated appears to have been in Rome around 350AD. There are many suggestions why December 25th was chosen, but it seems likely it had no real religious basis. What is certain is that since it’s origin Christmas and how it should be celebrated has changed considerably and been the subject of much debate and disagreement. Celebrating Christmas was banned in England under Oliver Cromwell, and it later came close to dying out during the 1700s. Its revival occurred during the Victorian period, influenced in particular by Charles Dickens – who popularised carol singing, gift giving, family gatherings, feasting and did much to make ‘Merry Christmas’ the traditional festive greeting.

Today’s Christmas looks a little different.

Christmas is now the largest shopping and spending event of the year across much of the world. In the UK 40% of the population are expected to go overdrawn over the Christmas period, with a typical UK family spending between £500 and £700. Many of us overeat and drink too much over Christmas and Boxing Day, consuming on average an estimated 11,000 callories ! The advertising of the mighty spend began at the start of November . . . complete with easy credit, emotional blackmail and over-sweet sentimentality – ponder the Christmas messages contained in the Littlewoods Christmas ad!

Whether you share any part of the Christian faith or not, it’s difficult to connect the Christmas messages of peace, love, family togetherness and compassion, with the consumerism, materialism and general excess that are so often a part of our modern celebrations.

In the words of the Christian organisation Advent Conspiracy; Christmas should be a story of promise, hope, and a revolutionary love, but has become a season of stress, traffic jams, and shopping lists, and when it’s all over, too many of us are left with unwanted presents, debt, an expanded wasteline and an empty feeling of missed purpose.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can opt-out with a downsized Christmas, an ethical Christmas, a simplicity Christmas or a home-made Christmas when it comes to gifts.

More importantly we can also chose to give our time, our friendship, and our compassion.

Whatever Christmas means to you, have a Merry one.


Photo by mhohimer, via Flickr

Buy Nothing Day

Tomorrow, Saturday November 26th, is Buy Nothing Day in the UK and most of the world – in the US it’s today, Friday the 25th, the day after Thanksgiving.

Everything we consume has an ecological, resource and energy footprint. Buy Nothing Day aims to highlight the environmental and ethical consequences of consumerism. We in the developed countries (with only 20% of the world population) are consuming over 80% of the earth’s natural resources, causing a disproportionate level of environmental damage, and an unfair distribution of wealth.

The idea is to shop less and live more.

To take part all you have to do is buy nothing !

Buy Nothing Day was started by Adbusters in 1992, as a way to challenge the prevailing mantra of hyper-consumerism that affects much of the rich world. It aims to convince us to take a break from cash registers for 24 hours and reflect on how dependent our societies have become on conspicuous consumption – hopefully changing our habits in the longer term.


Image from Adbusters

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Some Reflections on the 100 Thing Challenge

Dave Bruno is an author and advocate of simple living, though he sometimes describes himself as ‘a restless wanderer on the way home’. Through his book, The 100 Thing Challenge, he gave rise to a movement focussed on breaking free from consumerism and materialism – breaking free from the sense of being stuck in stuff.

In the guest post below Dave reflects on the publication of The 100 Thing Challenge, just over a year ago, and the lessons learnt.

Readers of my The 100 Thing Challenge book have had at least one positive reaction, I think. Many readers have commented online or contacted me directly thanking me for my honesty. In the book and on my blog and as often as my courage does not fail me in person, I attempt to be honest about my experiences with stuff. It has not been only a story of victory over consumerism and rallying the world to a simpler way of life. We all are a work in progress and I insist on making that point in my writing and in my advocacy for simple living. Simple living is not a way of life that leads to perfection. Simple living is a way of life because we are not perfect and never will be this side of eternity.

I hope my short introduction is not just justification for any complaining I might do while reflecting on the 100 Thing Challenge experience. I do not intend to complain only. The one-year anniversary of the publication of The 100 Thing Challenge is drawing near. That prompted me to write about it. Maybe this will be interesting to those who have followed my journey. Maybe it will be interesting for those who want to publish a book about their experiences.

The truth is that I did not want to write about the 100 Thing Challenge, at least not in a book. I have mentioned this before. The oddity of the worldwide interest in my 100 Thing Challenge has never normalized in my mind. Why is an exceedingly average middle-aged man who is living a comfortable life in the earthly paradise of San Diego but without much stuff interesting to so many people? The fear I had about writing a book detailing the 100 Thing Challenge was that it seemed almost impossible to avoid patronizing my readers. People are fascinated by living with less. Why? I believe it is not because they are interested in what things I kept and what things I got rid of. Sure, there is some curiosity about that. But the real reason, I think, so many people were drawn to the 100 Thing Challenge was because they were hurting after years and years, even generations of being let down by consumerism. I hurt. And I was frustrated nearly to tears about being stuck in the cycle of endless consumerism. And I do not cry much. (Though as an aside, now that my daughters are growing older I find myself tearing up more often. And my hair is thinning. But I digress.) So I took this stand to live simply, and people paid attention to it. I agreed to write a book about it.

The moment my squiggly signature raced across the dotted line of the very long book contract, a new challenge began. As I tried to reach below what appeared to some to be the shallow gimmick of the 100 Thing Challenge and unearth my readers’ grief over bad consumer choices, my hands were switched by the editorial ruler.

Hold on. I want to make something exceedingly clear. Editors are absolutely necessary. Not just to find all the typos and misplaced punctuation and sentence fragments and the overuse of polysyndeton. Editors help shape a book. Writers should have editors. I truly believe my book was better because of my editors.

The challenge I had with the editorial ruler was not that my editors were bad editors. Hardly. It was that they had a different vision for the book. So my hands got slapped each time I reached below the surface of the 100 Thing Challenge. In the end my knuckles were bruised and probably the book was a little beaten up, too.

Now this does not mean that I would have succeeded in writing a book about simplicity on a deeper level than the spectacle of the 100 Thing Challenge, if I had no editorial intervention. Personally, I feel satisfied that I came near the goal of avoiding fluff in chapters like “Purging Things and ‘Things Past’” and “Imprecise Goods.” Both are better for the work of my editors. Yet both of those chapters and a few others were not really what my editors wanted. And we only worked through them while misunderstanding each other. At one point as we refined “Purging Things and ‘Things Past’” I felt stuck, going back and forth with an editor.

I asked, “What do you think this chapter is about?”

“You got rid of the trains you liked,” was her answer.

The chapter is about faith. It is about what we put our faith in. My publisher wanted a book about what I got rid of. The life I am wholly committed to is about what we all put our faith in. We just cannot keep putting our faith in stuff. It is killing us to do so. It has ruined the American economy and damaged America culturally. It will make the entire world miserable, if American-style consumerism makes its way across the Pacific, as is already happening. We must have faith and we must put our faith in the right things. God rest his soul, but we should never have put our faith in Steve Jobs and the hope that a more colorful iPod would be available for purchase each year. Of course not everyone did that. But too many people did that.

In the end, I suppose it is my fault. The name for my personal living project was thought up on the spur of the moment. I am responsible for that. The “100 Thing Challenge” does not sound very intellectual. It sounds kind of like reality TV. And once I started accepting calls from media, it began to kind of become reality TV.

Leanne and I made a decision a couple weeks back. No more camera crews in our house. A news station wanted to come by to interview me and film our closets. (Our house, by the way, does not look anything like the way TV reporters think the “100 Thing Challenge” looks, which is why Inside Edition never aired the segment they filmed. He says with a hint of bitterness.) But we are done with the looky-loos. The 100 Thing Challenge was never about the stuff.

I would like to invite people into our home over the years. People who want a safe place to talk about what they have been putting their faith in. People who want to talk about not being stuck in stuff – who want to break free from consumerism. We will not spend our time looking at all the things I own, less than most Americans though far more than most people on earth. But we will look honestly at our hearts. That is where the best stuff can be found.


Photo by Puuikibeach via Flickr

RELATED ARTICLES – Top 10 Anti-Consumerist Must Haves, From Hunter-Gatherers to Shopper-Borrowers, Clearing Out My Closet, 10 Ways to Simplify Your Life 

Top 10 Anti-Consumerism Must Haves

Anti-consumerism is the hot new trend on the High Street – get it now while stocks last !

Check out these links for all your anti-consumerist needs . . .


Watch Annie Leonard’s The Story of Bottled Water.


Have fun watching comedians George Carlin and Dylan Moran, or the Consumerism Musical.


Ponder the relationship between Status SymbolsVeblen Goods and Conspicuous Consumption, before evaluating the extent of your own status anxiety: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.


Listen to Warren Zevon’s Down In the Mall, Lily Allen’s The Fear, Eddie Vedder’s Society, Pete Seeger’s Little Boxes, or Barenaked Ladies If I Had A Million Dollars.


Talk to your friends and family about downsizing this Christmas – try a make your own gift, buy local, buy ethical, buy second-hand, limited value, or single gift  Christmas. Or if you’re really feeling hard-core a buy nothing Christmas. Perhaps take some (slightly crazy) inspiration from Reverend Billy.


Find anticonsumer references in the movies - 12 MonkeysFight ClubThey Live, and Into the Wild.


Watch Jonathan Porrit’s Consumerism TV documentary: Part 1Part 2Part 3 and Part 4.


Teach your children about advertising and how to resist it – start with what an Adver-Game is. Watch Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6 and Part 7.


Consider using consumerism to make a positive difference – you could join 9 Carrots (formerly known as Carrot Mob), who persuade local companies and businesses to carry out environmental and other projects by offering a large group of crowdsourced customers. Don’t really understand ? Watch the video.


November 26th is Buy Nothing Day in the UK, after Thanksgiving in the US – celebrate by buying nothing at all !

‘The things you own end up owning you’ – TYLER DURDEN, FIGHT CLUB

Photo by Littleyiye, via Flickr

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