My story: True confessions of a yuppie lawyer
Linda Breen Pierce is a happy convert to the Simple Living movement that is sweeping the Developed World. Finding herself in a lavish home she couldn’t afford, Linda realised that while she had, in her own opinion, become a successful ‘someone’ she didn’t feel like she was living an authentic life.
Two events gave Linda and husband Jim the freedom to remake their lives: a three-year house sitting gig and stumbling across others’ writing on Simple Living. Since the early 1990s, Linda and Jim have tried to live according to their understanding of Simple Living: wanting less, spending less and celebrating the simple things in their daily lives. This is Linda’s story of her journey into her happier and fuller Simple Life.
Most of us don’t simply wake up one morning and decide to change the way we live. As a friend of mine reflected, ‘Coming to simplicity sometimes takes 20 years.’ In my own life, I know this to be true. Being the second of eight children born to Catholic parents who were neither rich nor poor, I am probably not that much different than most Americans born in the last five decades. My beginnings were modest and my quest for happiness covered a wide range. In the years between entering the convent at the age of sixteen, through becoming an attorney at age thirty, my life took many turns.
I earned a degree in African Studies and went on extended trips to Africa, the Galapagos Islands, and the South Pacific. Except for a five-year period in my early twenties when I was married, I lived on very little, alternating periods of work and college. That all changed when I married at age twenty-two. My husband’s parents showered us with generous gifts, buying us beautiful clothes and treating us to lavish vacations in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Indonesia. As wonderful as it was to enjoy such material abundance, I felt a puzzling emptiness. After five years, my marriage ended-a simple case of two people who were too young to form a mature relationship.
After my divorce, I returned to my frugal ways while attending law school. A few years later, I obtained my law degree-my ticket to earn the big bucks-and came into my material own. I could afford a car, some nice clothes, and frequent ski trips. While I still needed to manage my money carefully, I didn’t need to count every cent. Within a few years I had doubled my income. Now, I had enough money to indulge all my material urgings.
I married Jim, my second husband, in my early thirties. Jim was earning good money in the corporate world. We spent freely and thoughtlessly on expensive vacations, frequent restaurant meals, and regular household help. For a while, we hired a woman to come in every afternoon for four hours to clean our house, run our errands, launder our clothes, and prepare an elaborate dinner for us. We referred to Martha as ‘our wife.’ We would arrive home from work in the early evening, sit down with cocktails for our daily debriefing session, and eventually meander into the dining room where Martha would serve us dinner and then quietly slip out the door.
The Work Thing
The amount of money I earned as an attorney was not important to me for what it could buy, but it was vital to my self-image. My self-esteem seemed to rise in direct proportion to my salary increases. I could feel myself puffing up as I shared with close friends and family the successive annual salary increases I received in my corporate attorney position. When I surpassed the $100,000 mark and gained a Vice President title, a company car, stock options, and pension benefits, I figured I was a success. I was somebody.
I found that working in a corporate environment was enormously draining. While I could and did excel at playing corporate games, I did so at a great personal cost. I did not sleep well and was often sick during those years. I became a tense, uptight person who was only half-jokingly referred to by one of my colleagues as ‘Colonel Breen.’ I had lost a part of my humanity.
Nature and Beauty
I had moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles in the early 1980s initially for romance, but stayed there for ten years primarily because of work opportunities. Jim and I lived in the Hollywood hills. While our neighborhood of older, Spanish homes and lush landscaping was beautiful, only two blocks away lay unattractive commercial streets, devoid of any appealing architectural style or other redeeming qualities-a perfect setting for drugs and violence accompanied by the obnoxious sound of patrolling police helicopters in the night.
This environment ate away at me inside. I was suffocating in Los Angeles (literally and figuratively). Gradually, I saw that the price I paid for becoming ‘someone’ was steep indeed. I started to question the value of what I was getting compared to what I was paying. I realized that once I became ‘someone’, the question would arise, ‘What next?’ Indeed, what was next? I had achieved what I had set out to do professionally.
What I learned in my journey to my inner self was that becoming ‘someone’ was simply not enough. It did not have lasting value. So, having been raised to have few fears, I jumped off the high dive. I quit my job as a corporate attorney in December of 1989, much to the astonishment of friends and family.
Rebuilding our Lives
Fast forward to the fall of 1995. Here we were living in our home worth nearly $500,000, with almost all of our savings invested in that home, and with grossly inadequate income to pay the mortgage and other living expenses. We would sit together in our lovely solarium, looking at each other, wondering what to do. Neither one of us wanted to go back to traditional, salaried positions in order to keep our home. Our freedom was more precious to us.
About this time, I read an article in Worth magazine on the voluntary simplicity trend. I started to read everything I could get my hands on about simple living. The lights went on, the bells chimed, and everything became clear. This life we were living didn’t make any sense!
We put our home on the market and sold it in about six months. At the same time, some good friends moved to London and did not want to bring their two large Bouvier dogs with them because of England’s six-month quarantine rule. They were looking for someone to housesit their Carmel home (with free rent) and take care of their dogs for a few years. The timing of this opportunity was incredible. We volunteered, even though we had no experience with dogs, let alone large dogs, including a three-month-old, not-quite-trained puppy named Murphy. After a difficult first few months of adjusting to being parents of dogs, we became quite attached to our new charges and settled down to a very enjoyable lifestyle in the village of Carmel, walking to town and the beach daily.
With no housing expenses except for utilities, we were able to reverse the rapid deterioration of our savings. I dropped out of real estate sales and decided to write a book about simple living.
During 1996, I continued my research on the simplicity movement. I set up a web site and started collecting surveys of people who had experimented with simplifying their lives. I had discovered my passion, my right livelihood. I loved my work and still do even as I write these words at the close of 1998.
A Spiritual Transformation
Following the path of simplicity has led to more personal satisfaction in my world of work and in my daily life generally. My new, slower-paced lifestyle gives me time to reflect on just about anything and everything. My frequent walks and runs along the spectacular coast of the Monterey Peninsula and my hikes in the Big Sur mountains bring me closer to my spiritual self. I feel a sense of oneness with nature and with all life on the planet. Journal writing, meditation, walking to town to do errands, and the occasional leisurely lunch all contribute to a different way of living for me-a slower, more relaxed way of being. This new way of life has led to a spiritual transformation within me.
When I started reading everything I could find on simple living in the fall of 1995, I discovered that many advocates of simplicity had a strong interest in preserving the earth’s resources. I saw in these writings an almost religious respect for nature, plants, and animals. At first, I didn’t really see the connection between simple living and caring for the earth. After all, a person might have plenty of good reasons to simplify her life without considering the earth. Even though I had always been passionate about nature, I had never been an environmentalist. Then, over the course of about a year, my feelings about environmental issues changed radically. I started to see a connection between simple living and caring about the earth.
The changes I’ve experienced seem to be spiritually based. They stem from my core belief that we are all connected in some way that our rational, human minds cannot comprehend. I believe that there is some form of a higher level of experience that we share, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. As I see it, when we connect with our inner selves, we touch the part of ourselves that is connected to all other forms of life. When that happens, we naturally start caring about those other life forms, including the earth, plants, animals, other humans, and people who will be born after we are gone.
Living simply has also sharpened my feelings about social injustices. I view the global human population as one world. I don’t understand why Americans should have so much more wealth than four-fifths of the remaining world population. I am disheartened to think that our priorities as a global society allow millions of people to go without sufficient food, shelter, and health care. I wonder why so many of us take more than what we truly need to live fulfilling, satisfying lives. Why don’t more of us share our abundance with others less fortunate?
When I look at my own life, I see that I have a long way to go before I can truly walk my talk. Even though I have reduced my dependence on material possessions and cut back on my utilization of the earth’s resources, I still consume more resources than four-fifths of the world’s population. Perhaps, if I were a perfect human being, I would not be living a life of comfort in America, but instead would be residing in a third world country trying to help others less fortunate than I.
However, I don’t beat myself up about not walking my talk. I see my personal growth on these matters as a process. Before a child runs, she learns to walk. Before she walks, she must crawl. I am at the crawling stage. I don’t think any of us make a valuable contribution by forcing ourselves to ‘do the right thing.’ It must come from within and it must be authentic to make a difference.
What Simple Living Means to Me
When I think about simplifying my life, I see it as a process, rather than a thing or a destination. There is no point in time when I will say to myself, ‘Ah, I have arrived. Isn’t this grand?’ It is not something that I have accomplished. It is not even anything I can really define. For me, simplicity is a process, a way of looking at the world and myself. There is nothing static or fixed about living simply. In fact, for me a better term to describe this approach to living would be soulful living. By soulful living, I mean the process in which a person invests the time and energy to develop her inner self, to connect with whatever higher being or spiritual presence she believes in. In my view, this is all that is required. Once a person does that, everything else falls into place. All of the answers to life’s difficult challenges become evident, not necessarily easy, nor without anxieties and fear, but clarity and courage will usually prevail.
My experience illustrates that simplifying often takes years, not weeks or months, and usually consists of small, serial steps rather than a wholesale makeover. I find it to be an exciting and tremendously rewarding adventure.