7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess

7“What sorts of things do you read?” people ask me, when they find out that reading is almost my only hobby. “Almost anything,” I tell them. “All sorts. Horror, romance, literary fiction, mysteries, religion, biography, history, psychology, science writing. Well — I don’t usually read much self-help.” And I laugh a little.

So I didn’t think I would like 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, by Jen Hatmaker — it’s part of a genre I don’t enjoy and normally think is too prescriptive (rules for everyone!) when almost everyone can usefully live their own lives without much interference. It had another couple of strikes against it, too. I find books telling me how to declutter and tidy up annoying. (The recent The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing is an excellent example of a book I wanted to throw across the room, thereby creating more mess.) Hatmaker also speaks the language of evangelical Christians, which I assumed (snottily enough) that I would find preachy and irritating. I’m a Christian, but from a different tradition. Surely her ideas about excess would not match mine.

Imagine my surprise when I was so engaged in this book that I dropped almost everything for an entire weekend to finish it. This is not a book telling you what you should do. It’s a book telling you what Hatmaker (and sometimes her family and friends along with her) did about their strong sense of global and domestic poverty, and how it affected them, and why. The results are surprisingly funny, moving, unfussy, and self-aware.

Hatmaker, disgusted and shocked by American excess in the face of horrifying and heartbreaking global need, decided to take on a different project of reduction and fasting for each of 7 months. She ate only seven foods for a month: chicken, eggs, spinach, avocado, apples, sweet potatoes, and whole wheat bread. (Olive oil, salt, and pepper were allowed for cooking.) She wore only seven items of clothing for a month: a short-sleeved T-shirt, a long-sleeved T-shirt, tw0 pairs of shoes that counted as one, two pairs of pants, and a dress shirt. This, for someone who has numerous speaking engagements in any given month. (Underwear didn’t count.) During this particular month, she came to terms with the hundreds and hundreds of unworn items in her closet, and gave them away — but knew there was more reduction, learning, and humility to come.

Perhaps the month I was most bemused by — but enjoyed reading about the most — was the month about waste. Hatmaker lives in Austin, Texas, but like many conservative evangelical families, has never seen the need to use the resources available in her community to help the earth. She barely knew what those green bins by her curbside were for. During this month, she made every single possible effort, not only to recycle, not only to compost, but to build a garden in her back yard, partially staffed by formerly homeless families in her community. She learned about why it is important to love the earth, and to use it in a way that sees it as the wonder of creation. She created a family in Austin that worked together to give something back to the environment. This, to me, was the most permanently transformational month for Hatmaker and her family, though other months spoke more to human global need and intercultural humility. We can all do no other than our utmost before our planet.

This book was about far more than organizing your life, or about tidying up. And its language and reach are about far more than a single point of view, whether Christian or not. Hatmaker is funny and wise, humble and kind — but in the end, she is rebelling against the Western way of life that tells us that buying beautiful apothecary jars and bins from the Container Store to put our things in will solve our problems. In fact, this will leave people around the world — and in our own country! — as hungry as they ever were, and as much in need of love as well as food. Only radical change in our own lives will change this. Hatmaker chose the seven places in her own life that she thought were places of excess, from food to media, from the environment to spending — but she doesn’t prescribe that for you. She wants you to think about your own life, your own excess, your own seven. And help solve the problems of the world. Because if she can — and she believes she can — you can, too.

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15 Responses to 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess

  1. Sounds wonderful, I think we all feel that we use and waste too much stuff and want to find ways of cutting down. The law of seven makes perfect sense to me. Didn’t Albert Einstein take a similar approach to clothes in that he famously used to wear the same cut of suit and shirt every day?

    • Alfred Einstein interestingly enough comes up in yet another connection with the number 7, in what may of course be an apocryphal story. Apparently, the great physics and mathematical genius nearly failed math as a child because he “couldn’t comprehend” the number 7!

    • Jenny says:

      I agree with you! And I agree with Hatmaker: it’s got to come from some real inward change. This book prompted some serious thought on my part.

  2. Lisa says:

    This sounds like such a perfect book for Lent. I might have hesitated to pick it up, but now I am putting it straight on my reading list.

    • Jenny says:

      Lisa, I read this book before Lent began, but I do think it would be perfect for that purpose. It’s gentle but uncompromising, which is just what I think Lent calls for.

  3. Teresa says:

    I read Jen Hatmaker’s blog every now and then, usually because friends and bloggers I trust have linked to her. I find her writing generally thoughtful and probing and self-aware. There are quite a few other evangelical (and recently former evangelical) writers who are similarly engaging—Rachel Held Evans, Kristen Howerton, Sarah Bessey. They represent some of the best that tradition has to offer, and I’m glad they’re out there.

    So I’m glad you found and enjoyed this. I like Lisa’s suggestion of it as a Lenten reading. Perhaps I’ll keep it in mind for next year.

    • Jenny says:

      I know Evans, but those other names aren’t familiar to me. Thank you for that. My pushback against evangelical language is knee-jerk and unpleasant, and I repent of it.

      • Teresa says:

        I understand the pushback, though. As you know, I was raised in that universe and it still feels like my first spiritual language, where I’m naturally fluent, so I like finding writers in that world who I can enjoy but who don’t bring with them the baggage I’ve worked to give up.

  4. Christy says:

    I like the kind of self-help books that steer away from being too prescriptive, but still can make you think about areas in your life that you can change. Added to my to-read list!

    • Jenny says:

      This was really about her own experience, and the insights she gained from it — and it was very thoughtful about the global and domestic context we find ourselves in, and what it can mean for us to do with less. I liked it a lot.

  5. I’m impressed by all the sorts of things you like to read. I always start out with good intentions, but I rarely read anything other than fiction and poetry; I’m swiftly becoming an educated idiot of a very narrow kind. Anyway, there was a book I came across, not quite a self-help book, rather a thought-provoking book about the American medical system called “Healing Words” by a doctor named (I believe) Larry Dossey. He examines the state of the American healthcare system, in which there’s so much prescribing and examining and excess of care and which yet fails to keep up with other first-world countries in terms of results. He puts forward the unusual notion that prayer (not precise and literal prayer, always, but a prayerful attitude) belongs in the practitioners, and not just in patients who pray for results. He says that often the observation that goes along with U. S. healthcare is a form of unwarranted interference, and uses the metaphor of quantum physics results (in which observation of results at the subatomic level actually changes the results). It may be just a crock, of course, but it really gave me heart, because I hate and detest all the tests and fooferall that goes on in the name of healthcare, and want to be seen mainly when I myself feel sick, instead of being worried into an early grave by someone or some system that insists if I’m a certain age that such and such things must be wrong with me. I don’t mean to bore you, and may have already, but you seem to be such a wide reader that I thought of recommending this book, which I think deserves a wider audience. I hope you don’t mind my taking this opportunity to let you know about it.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, I do read certain kinds of things more than others! Thank you very much for this recommendation — I am always looking for new good books of any kind, and I do think there are good books to be found in any genre, since really genre is mostly a construction. Thank you!

  6. Thanks for this review. Like you, I was afraid the evangelical Christian perspective might be a big turnoff for me. But minimalism in this sense is something I’ve been focusing on a lot in my own life. Starting small – stopped buying paper towels a few years ago to being more aware about packaging when I shop to reusing as much of my own resources as possible. This definitely sounds like something I’d really enjoy reading.

    • Jenny says:

      I did enjoy it much more than I expected! Though some of those expectations are my own fault. I would definitely recommend it, especially if this sort of minimalism is the kind of thing you’ve been drawn to.

  7. bybeebooks says:

    I hadn’t heard about this book, but now I have to read it! Thanks for the review.

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