Thinking “out of the box” big

Dear President Trump,

It’s not clear who first coined the phrase “Live simply that others may simply live.” It might have been Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821), the founder of the Sisters of Charity, or it might have been Mahatma Gandhi – the Google sources aren’t sure. Whoever came up with it, the phrase has been a darling of the sustainability movement for a long time. Surely even you have heard or seen it, even if it’s meaning baffles you.

And what does it mean? Ostensibly, most basically, it means that resources should be distributed equitably enough so that no one dies from want. In light of the historical record this is actually a radical idea. In fact, I think you would agree with me on this since you clearly have a “winner takes all” attitude about resources, the losers be damned – to death. You can’t come out and say this in so many words, but you’ve made it clear that you’re fine with certain among us dying for lack of access to healthcare, lack of clean air and water, lack of spine when it comes to gun laws – the list could go on for pages. So actually, this idea that all people should have access to enough of the basics to live healthy, dignified lives is not just radical to you, it’s an anathema. In your world, those who can wrest or withhold resources from others have “earned” the right to their spoils in a ‘might is right,’ ‘survival of the fittest,’ ‘dog-eat-dog’ sort of way.

There sure are a lot of handy, pithy phrases for this sort of worldview, aren’t there?

Radical as the living simply / simply living idea is, I contend that it’s not enough. In fact, it falls well short of what’s needed. Plenty of people exist and find ways to ‘simply live’ in poverty, in food deserts, breathing polluted air and drinking water that’s laced with heavy metals and other toxins. But it’s not ok that anyone has to endure such awful circumstances. It isn’t enough for us to aspire to a system where some give up a few of their more over the top luxuries (“live simply”) so that others can eek out a few more years on the planet centering their days on getting clean water for their kids to drink and access to inhalers so their kids can breathe.

I don’t have answers to the big questions I’ve been posing to myself (and to you), but as we figure out what we need to learn from covid-19 (all of which was there all along) and how we will apply those lessons to reshape our country, our culture, and most basically, our expectations (everyone’s), I think we need to think big – out of the box big. I’m a psychologist, not a political scientist or economist, so I don’t have the intellectual scaffolding to envision the details of what it might look like or how it might operate if we had a system wherein everyone is enfranchised and valued, where everyone is guaranteed enough resources and safety that their needs are met fully and consistently, but I think we have to go for it. It’s not enough to shave little bits off the top and sprinkle them down as if they might, maybe make it all the way to “the bottom,” to those who are barely (or are frankly, not) subsisting. At best, that’s a Bandaid approach.

We need a far more radical reset.

I know all of this is aspirational and a radically better culture and country won’t happen until long after I die, but I am going to focus more of my energy on helping to realize this reset than I have heretofore. Thus, I’m going to try really, really hard to refrain from ragging on you for the next while in the interest of this much more important project.

May we be safe to envision deep, systemic, positive change.
May we question assumptions that keep us stuck in a ‘have lots / have next to nothing’ paradigm.
May we raise up everyone to a truly livable standard of living.
May we accept the radical idea that this is possible.

Tracy Simpson

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