Matthew Hoffman finds joy in a life uncluttered by material possessions.
Money, money, money! That’s what it’s all about, right? Or is it good looks? Washboard abs? How about being and staying young? Having a sweet car? What makes you happy? What are you thankful for?
Me? I’m thankful for nothing. OK, to be fair, I should say I’m thankful for almost nothing.
I grew up poor. Not living-on-the-streets-poor, but we were pretty bad off for a long time. And we never had extra. Until I was in my 20’s, almost everything we had was used, hand-me-downs, or something basic that mom and dad had struggled to save up for.
There are so many stories I could tell, so many examples I could give. Here are a couple of the more colorful ones:
The family legend has it that my father, who once owned a prosperous ambulance business in Bethlehem, PA, went bankrupt and the creditors came after everything we had. As the story goes my mother, a nurse by trade and a young mother of a four year old boy, and a newborn (me), was home when police and movers came into the house and took everything— including the crib I was sleeping in. Not surprisingly, my parents split up for a year or so after that. It was a real low point.
When the family came together again, we landed in Kutztown, PA, in a skinny, drafty little mobile home. We still called them trailers in those days, because ours could have been towed with a big pickup truck. On a particularly cold morning I found the dog’s water frozen on the kitchen floor. And yes, the heater was running. I’m pretty sure my chronic dislike of the cold comes from spending years in that awful trailer.
One Thanksgiving while living in that trailer, all my parents could afford to feed us were hamburgers. No turkey. No fixings. This was another low point, and my father vowed to always put a turkey on the table, one way or another.
Finally, I have some pictures of myself as a little boy in grade school wearing the most horrible fashions the 70’s had to offer. Since almost all our clothing was given to us, we were often given what others didn’t want to wear. To this very day paisley turns my stomach because I had to wear a stupid brown paisley button-down shirt over and over. Well, I shouldn’t complain. I had a green paisley button-down shirt, too. Sigh.
So yeah, we were poor.
Eventually things got better, but those experiences when I was three, five, ten, they’ve stayed with me. I remember at Christmas getting just a few presents, most of them fairly cheap, and sometimes one larger item. A refurbished bike. A large toy truck. Something like that. And for my birthday, which is less than a month after Christmas, I usually got a card, a song, and a homemade cake after dinner. No party. No friends over. Certainly no inflatable bouncy-house and a clown. That’s it, and it’s that very austerity of which I am thankful today.
My wife also grew up without much, being the daughter of Bible translators in a foreign land. We both know what it’s like to not have much, and to be thankful for what little we have.
Our family has one car. We rent a small house and make four people and three cats live in it. We grow some of our own food every summer. We don’t have cable. We recycle everything we can. Just this year we got our first iPhone—and only because it was a free upgrade. And even that feels like an opulent extravagance. We wash zip-lock bags and we don’t even buy tin foil or paper towels. And you know what? We’re happy with that.
I’m not trying to make my family sound good. We’re not the Hipsters of Humility trying to make you feel bad. Honest. We just grew up without much, so that’s actually how we choose to live. We find more joy in life by not being focused on ‘stuff’. I only wish others could have the same experience. To be able to reject materialism because it just isn’t something you need, that’s a true blessing. It’s liberating in a way that’s difficult to explain, but there are some plusses.
We live simply, so we have more energy, money and time to spend on family, faith and hobbies. We’re making a tiny little difference in the war to save the planet. We’re not comparing ourselves to others’ things, so we don’t feel like we’re inferior or missing out on something. And we’re not giving much money to big business, which makes us happy for different reasons.
And so I am thankful for nothing, or next to nothing. Because I grew up with so little, it’s like an old friend. And you can become friends with nothing as well. If the constant pursuit of “success” —whatever you think that is—has begun to seem futile, then join us.
Give in to the Null Side. We don’t have much, but we’re happy with what we have.
Photo: Flickr/Evelyn Lim