My daughter is really into “Little House on the Prairie” right now. I never liked those books as a kid. I always thought they were kind of boring, but my daughter is fascinated by life in pioneer times. Reading the books with her has given me a new appreciation for them, not only because they are giving my kid a glimpse of the time before there was a Wal-Mart on every corner and every single thing you need can be at your doorstep in two days thanks to Amazon Prime, but also because I think they have lessons to teach me.
When most of us think back on the “olden days” we are really thankful that we didn’t live back then. We have air conditioning and cars and smartphones, and we don’t work sun up to sun down to eke out a living in a cold and unforgiving land. I’m starting to think maybe we’ve got it all wrong, that maybe life back then, in spite of being hard, was actually happier, and maybe we would be better off if we all lived a little more like Ma and Pa Ingalls.
What could I possibly mean by that? Well, Ma and Pa Ingalls worked hard; there’s no doubt about that. Even the kids worked hard, because it took all of their combined labor to feed and clothe the family. They cut down trees and built their log home, plowed and planted and harvested their food, chopped their firewood, hauled their water, and sewed their clothes. It may not sound like a lot of fun, but it was fulfilling in a way that many modern jobs are not.
A lot of people just punch the clock, day in and day out, never gaining any sense of fulfillment from their work. They’re not working for themselves and they get the same paycheck whether they put forth maximum or minimum effort, so many of them don’t bother trying to do a good job. If you have ever called the customer service line of any major phone or cable company, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Pa Ingalls, on the other hand, built a house and then he lived in it. He grew a tomato and he ate it. Ma Ingalls made a dress and then she wore it. Their work mattered. If they didn’t do a good job, they would be cold, wet or hungry. I wish the people at Comcast would be cold, wet or hungry if they did a crappy job. Then my bill might actually be correct for once.
Ma and Pa Ingalls had an emotional connection to their things that we don’t have today. We live in houses we did not build, we eat food we did not grow, and wear clothes we did not make. We are a consumer society the likes of which the world has never seen, and yet in all our buying and consuming, we have very little emotional connection to our things because we had no part in their creation. They are easily and cheaply replaced, and they are out of style almost as soon as we buy them. I think we would all be better off if we did not have so much stuff. Our stuff breeds a certain kind of discontent. We have everything and appreciate nothing.
The most striking thing about the “Little House on the Prairie” books is how happy everybody is, most all of the time. In spite of hard work and very little free time, in spite of setbacks and hardships, in spite of miserable weather and failed crops, the little family remains cheerful and optimistic, thankful even. I look around at people today who seem so ill at ease in their own lives- unhappy in their marriages, unhappy at work, disappointed in their children or their spouses, bored by and yet trapped in their lives, living for their next vacation, addicted to phones or Facebook- and I think that we do not have it as good as we’d like to think. There is something to be said for a day of hard labor that leaves no time for nursing feelings of inadequacy or disappointment.
Ma and Pa Ingalls probably would have enjoyed an easier life. They probably would have loved to kick back on the sofa a bit more than they did. I bet Pa would go for some “Netflix and chill.” I think it’s possible to hold modern conveniences in balance with a bit of the pioneer spirit. We don’t have to give up on one to embrace the other.
The whole theme of this blog is simple living, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. A simple life to me is filled with hard work, but it’s fulfilling work. What that work is will be different for everyone. At the end of the day we’ll be tired, but our hearts will be full, just like Ma and Pa Ingalls.