Another Name for Essentialism

When I saw this post, “Secular holiness, or how to be happy in the zombie apocalypse,” over on Covenant, I knew I had to pick up and read the book to which it was referring. The book is called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. The review on Covenant and conversations that M and I have been having for months made it a no-brainer.

M gave me the book yesterday for my birthday; according to my Kindle I’m 53% through it at the moment, and it is—indeed—what I expected and hoped for so far.

M and I have diagnosed the situation that we live in as one of constant and tragic over-commitment. Indeed, looking at our lives and the lives of our friends and family, we think that this is the condition of most folks in our general situation. Stated succinctly, middle-aged, middle-class parents have more going on than we can handle; busy-ness, anxiety, and turmoil are defining features of our mental and spiritual landscapes.

McKeown’s book offers a philosophy—Essentialism—to address this situation. It doesn’t offer a coping mechanism to help you handle it all better but advocates a complete shift of habits and intentions to root out the problem altogether: less but better.  The reasons why I feel so attracted to what he is saying in this slim volume is because, in the review above and in the brief sample I read, I recognized that McKeown is not saying anything new. Indeed, he’s been saying something that we in the church have had in our bag of tricks for a very long time.

“Essentialism” is business-speak for “simplicity.”

Christian simplicity and teachings about it—and even some of its secular variants like the Minimalism movement—often focus on “stuff:” specifically, having less of it. But that’s not what it’s really about. Simplicity isn’t about stuff, it’s about focus. You put your energy and your resources on the correct focus and pare away the distractions and irrelevancies that take up so much of our time and space. Yes, at the end of the day there’s less stuff and you’re better off for it—but you can’t get stuck in the stuff or even the lack of it lest you miss that the point is focus!

I haven’t said a whole lot about my Lenten project, in part because I’m still mulling it over—and this book and the lines of thought associated with it is helping me with concepts and vocabulary to better understand it. For instance, I realized this morning that when I added categories to to my time-tracker I did so on an ad hoc, as-needed basis. That is the perfect illustration of letting external people and projects define and claim my time! I’m thinking the far better way is for me to define my time and categories—and if something doesn’t fall within those pre-defined sections, it’s something to decline…

Church often presents itself as anther institution vying for my time and attention amidst the host of other demands. Too, often we as church people present and push it in this way and with this language. Just think—part of our accepted wisdom (likely through the channels of The Purpose-Driven Church and books of its ilk) is that once a person or family starts attending, you need to get them on a committee or plug them into a small group to keep them engaged. Really? I recognize the intention and it does make sense. I think the intention is good, but too often the language or application is off:  where I’m standing, this is precisely another demand on time, my most limited resource. If the option is to accept the time-demand or go away, many will choose (or are choosing, or have chosen) the easier of the two options and just go away…

McKeown makes a point fairly early in the book, “What if society encouraged us to reject what has been accurately described as doing things we detest, to buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like?” The society never will; these things are the grease that make it all go, the bedrock of a consumer-driven materialism.

But the church must.

I think this is part of where I’m heading with all of this. For people in my situation, the church can’t simply be one more demand on my time. Instead, it must offer a profoundly different vision of what the world is and what our place within it can look like. This is a central spiritual undertaking for our time: How do we conceive and communicate Christian simplicity as a workable means of focusing on what truly matters while yet addressing the fundamental practicalities of embodied existence?

2 thoughts on “Another Name for Essentialism

  1. Solar Hero

    Yep. The Druids say LESS: Less energy, stuff, stimulation.

    BTW: Do you still need help transcribing the Anglican Breviary? Email me if so….

  2. Vicki McGrath

    Derek, are you familiar with Richard Swenson’s book “Margin”? He is a medical doctor who says that a great deal of our contemporary malaise is the kind of overload you are describing that brings spiritual, physical, and emotional consequences. He has chosen to cut back on his medical practice in order to be more faithful to Christ in the way he uses his time and emotional/spiritual resources. He’s got a newer book called “Contentment” that I have not yet read, but seems to be getting at the root of the sin of materialism. It sounds like his thoughts and yours are moving in the same direction.

    My question then, is a practical one. In a church atmosphere governed by ASA/parochial reports/things we measure, how do we offer the alternative vision you describe, do the work of worship and formation and building the bonds of fellowship, and yet not overload people? What’s the balance between the centrality of spiritual investment in a parish community, and freeing folks to live Christ’s mission in the world in such a way that they are not just being consumers of spiritual goods and services? As a parish priest, it’s something I really struggle with and usually end up on the side of asking less of my parishioners, but then getting stuck with doing way too much myself to make up the slack.

    BTW, I really enjoyed listening to your Collect Call interviews about The Great Cloud of Witnesses and the “Of the Holy Eucharist” collect.


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