Monday over Coffee: Austerity

Austerity

Train yourself to think only those thoughts such that in answer to the sudden question ‘What is in your mind now?’ you could reply in all honesty 

that all within you is simple and benevolent and worthy…

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

 

When I practiced law, preparing witnesses for opposing counsel’s cross-examination in pre-trial depositions was an important part of the job. The first thing I’d tell the witness was that his or her deposition wouldn’t be the time to tell our side of the case. We’d save that for later at trial. In the pre-trial deposition, we’d just be answering the other side’s question. The second important point was related and it was this: don’t provide any information not directly asked about; that is, truthfully answer the question that’s posed, then be quiet and wait for the next question. A deposition isn’t a friendly conversation, I’d say. Don’t anticipate questions and never volunteer anything you’re not asked about. Some witnesses were good at this. Others weren’t. I never quite put it this way, but what I wanted to convey was that the ideal answer could best be described as honest and responsive, and also austere, simple and self-disciplined. Enough—but nothing more.

 

At the end of the year, the idea of austerity is always on my mind. I clean out my desk, my closets, and shelves—removing the things I haven’t used recently and am unlikely to utilize or wear in the years ahead. I aim to keep what I’m likely to need but nothing more. But here’s the thing: Though I can be pretty ruthless about ridding myself of extra baggage, ballast, and general unneeded stuff, as the calendar turns, I slowly but reliably accrue plenty of new things.

 

Likewise, at work when as a staff we discuss themes and emphases, initiatives and efforts for the year ahead, I can be a bit of a broken record. To my colleagues, I sagely urge simplicity as a driving principle. I come on real strong advising that we shouldn’t try to do too much, but rather focus on just a handful of things—really the core functions of what a church should be doing well. Thematically, conceptually, that’s my mantra every year. However, just as what happens on my desk and in my closet, a month or two into the new year, I see that with respect to the particular area I oversee, the calendar of the guy who boldly preached austerity and restraint has quickly filled up with all sorts of events, functions, and newfound plans. 

 

It’s the same when I’m called upon to make a presentation. I try to hone in on just a single takeaway that’s meaningful and easy to remember. If I’m using slides, I initially set out to leave a lot of negative space on each one, abiding by the best practices of graphic designers concerning clarity, harmony, and letting the eye rest and the slide “breathe” a little. But again as I get further along, my message tends to get overloaded with more than is needed to convey my primary point. My slides begin to get cluttered and that all-important single “deliverable” gets muddled up.

 

This is all to say that while I have this urge to simplify, to clarify things down to their essence—to downsize toward near-asceticism in a lot of different areas—the concept of austerity seems to appeal to me more in theory than in actual practice. But wise folks throughout history continue to beckon us toward the idea.

 

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius quotes the philosopher Democritus: “If you want to be happy, do little.” Marcus then pursues the idea further:

 

Most of what we say and do is unnecessary; remove the superfluity, and you will have more time and less bother. In every case one should prompt oneself; “Is this, or is it not, something necessary?”

 

Even if we’re unable to always fully carry through on the wisdom of doing less in such a high velocity, high-demand world, the Stoic emperor-philosopher’s words ought to at least push us to consider what’s really most important to us each day and then thoughtfully edit away what’s not truly needed. The word austerity can help us do this. Here are some questions to ask yourself: 

 

  • Is there an austerity of goals on my plate today?

  • Could my closet, my desk, my calendar be described as austere? 

  • Might I bring a more austere style to how I communicate? 

  • Can I cultivate a more austere mind, less filled with clutter and the unnecessary?

 

Perhaps that’s enough on this subject.

 

God—May I live with austerity of purpose directed always by You.

Amen.



—Greg Funderburk


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