GULF COAST ZEITGEIST
An oxymoron worth living
Less is More
Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest have won. —John Maynard Keynes, from his 1931 essay, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” Humans are hardwired to acquire more and consume more even if their basic needs have been met.
By 2028, Keynes predicted well into eight decades ago, “the standard of life” in Europe and the United States would be so improved that there would be a 15-hour work week. That rosy view, however, was pierced by a white-hot beam of warning: only those who understood “the art of life itself” would “be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.”
In 2014, recognizing that it is rare to hear someone complaining of having too much time on their hands, Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte examined why 21st-century Americans feel so busy in her book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. Starting with interviews of social scientists from the International Association for Time Research, she learned several theories for why time pressure is increasing: (1) too much time is spent thinking about how much there is to do rather than just doing it; (2) busyness has taken on social status; (3) humans are hardwired to acquire more and consume more even if their basic needs have been met; (4) work lends meaning to our days, and for many is the means of most (if not all) of their sense of self-worth (recall how common it is when making a new acquaintance to ask or be asked, after “How do you do?”, the question, “What do you do?”).
In our current culture we repeatedly ask ourselves, “Why am I so busy?” A healthy response is to face up to the recurring challenge of citizenship in any and every economically developed society, which is to become an artist of living.
An artistic response to the temptation to get busy at (1) making to-do lists, (2) measuring social status, (3) counting possessions and calories, or (4) equating self-esteem with effort expended is to affirm the reality of less is more. Coined by the poet Robert Browning and popularized by the German-born architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, this precious piece of wisdom is an oxymoron (literally, “pointed foolishness”) that is not a simple contradiction in terms but a contradiction in ideas. It stretches your mind and expands your thinking.
Every oxymoron awakens awareness because it is neither logical nor literal, yet makes a sharp point. Country singer Dolly Parton was raised in Appalachian poverty, yet became a rich and glamorous Hollywood star. She wielded the weapon of an oxymoron when she quipped at a glittery, televised award ceremony: “You’d be surprised to know how much it costs to look this cheap!”
Here on the Gulf Coast our warm midwinter season has lured many of us to Florida. Out in the gulf the serene, green sanctuary islands beckon visitors to enjoy nature—a protected environment with a healthy balance of people, plants and animals. Laden with lush conservation land and adorned with a necklace of white, sandy beaches, it looks good and hasn’t been cheap to maintain. But it’s worth every penny for at least two reasons: (1) its inhabitants are lured outdoors where time is measured not in minutes on a clock but in moments that are breathless; and (2) the sports that fuel our energetic activities aren’t concerned with goals written on a day planner, the burdens of a time schedule, the pile of stuff owned, or accomplishments listed in a record book.
Writer/artist William Blake’s own oxymoron is a lesson about time management relearned by all who cross the Sanibel Causeway, take a deep breath, and begin, artfully, to make an island life: “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.”