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MORE or LESS
Choosing a Lifestyle of Excessive Generosity
By JEFF SHINABARGER
David C. Cook Copyright © 2013 Jeff Shinabarger
All rights reserved.
MORE THAN ENOUGH
An individual has not begun to live until he can rise above the narrow horizons of his particular individualist concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.
—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Things came to a head the day we moved into East Atlanta Village.
This neighborhood in Atlanta is a quickly developing area of the city, consisting of a mix of everything from tattoo artists to college students to African-American leaders who have lived in the community for fifty years. It has a community-operated bike shop and eclectic bars featuring the best up-and-coming young musicians, and the contrast of brand-new craftsman-style homes and homes that were hand-painted in the 1950s. It's a wonderful, diverse place to live.
My wife and I, as we considered moving into the city of Atlanta, loved the vibe of being in the village. We also liked the idea that we would live close to great places to eat and hang out. We stepped up from a two-bedroom to a three-bedroom home with a great yard for our dog, Max. We knew this was going to be the place where we started a family. We believed that this would be the place where our lives would progress in ways we had not experienced previously.
We just didn't expect what would happen next.
Some neighborhoods have welcoming committees. Others have the unofficial but genetically friendly neighbor who brings over cookies or a bottle of wine when she notices someone moving into the vacant house on the street. When we moved into our house, it was only a few hours before a man rang the doorbell.
This was our neighborhood welcoming committee of one.
He had one of those smiles that implied he had some hard stories to tell. His teeth were a little crooked, yet very white. He wore a Cincinnati Reds hat sitting cocked to one side. He was about forty-five years old and not afraid to talk to anyone. I quickly learned to recognize the particular way he rang the doorbell: much longer than the average person. My new neighbor's name was Clarence, and as I learned that day, he was always "looking for work." I also learned that Clarence worked hard. He focused on one project at a time much better than I ever could. He was a proud worker and enjoyed telling us about all the ways he made our neighborhood a better place, specifically by painting the neighbor's house by himself. You can't miss it: an electric blue house at the corner of my street. That house seems a perfect representation of Clarence: exposed and visible for all to see, because Clarence had no home.
Clarence belonged to a sociological category taught about in the issues-focused classes offered at my liberal-arts college. Clarence was one of the hundreds and thousands counted and written about in statistical articles I had read in newspapers, magazines, and online numerous times. Discussing ethics and studying statistics may spark an intellectual motivation to do the right thing, but meeting a person who was my literal neighbor took doing the right thing to a new level. It's not that I'd never met a homeless person before. I'd served in soup kitchens, fixed up overnight shelters, the usual right things to do. But this was different. Clarence pushed me over the edge. He was my neighbor. I couldn't get away from him. And I liked him. His constant smirk of a smile got under my skin and into my heart.
I enjoyed a complicated friendship with Clarence from the beginning. Our relationship introduced a barrage of new questions for my life: how do I love my neighbor when my neighbor has no front door or even walls? My previous worldview assumed my neighbor would live in the same context as me: in a home. I thought the fabric on our couch or our dinner choices might be different, but I never really imagined my neighbor without a refrigerator or a shower. Loving your neighbor is a great virtue in life, but this neighbor brought new complications to mine.
With one doorbell ring, all the ways I looked at my day-to-day life changed. Suddenly I began to see my life through Clarence's eyes. What he saw looking through my front door was abundance. I have not one but two living areas that anyone can actually see from the front door. If I lived in New Orleans they would refer to my home as a shotgun house—a straight hallway from the front door to the back. I have air-conditioning for those hot days in Atlanta. I have a toilet and shower in each of my two bathrooms, and I even have a washer and dryer for my clothes. And speaking of clothes, my wife and I each have our own walk-in closet filled with them. I have a shed, and my shed is full of tools. My shed holds a bike that I can choose to ride if it is a nice day, and a lawn mower with an extra gallon of gas, just in case. I easily have more than enough. Clarence didn't have to say a thing to me. Just having this new relationship in my life changed the way that I looked at the world.
My material excess and his material need made for a confusing symbiotic relationship. At the start, our relationship felt oppressively lopsided, as it was entirely dependent upon whether I granted his regular requests for money, work, or food. I decided to feed him or give him money for the work he did in our yard. It was always my decision. This raised a number of questions for me: is this how a relationship should be? Is it really all about me and what Clarence can do for me? What can I learn from him? What would I gain by knowing him? I didn't really have the answers, but I didn't give up. He kept ringing my doorbell, and I kept opening the door.
After many months of intense conversations on our front porch, during which I learned more about Clarence while laughing together and working together, I realized that our relationship had transitioned. Once he asked to use my phone, so I showed him my iPhone. "Your i-what?" he responded. He didn't know how to use it, but after a quick lesson and placing his call, he told me I needed to get a real phone because the sound was too quiet.
As he left a voicemail, I overheard him say, "Now you have my number. Just call me back, and my friend Jeff will find me." It was a strange moment for me as I realized that in that moment I became both his personal assistant and his friend.
Somehow we reached a new level of dignity in our relationship. He found in me a sense of community, as if I had a small glimpse of understanding into the life that he lived. We both knew there was no way that I could fully grasp what it would feel like not to have a physical place to sit down and process the day. But there was also an understanding that he could never fully understand the things that I have been given. Our worlds were far apart, yet we lived in the same square mile. We became friends, and our individual lives transitioned to a deeper collaboration and understanding.
Most of the things I learned from Clarence grew out of the extreme frustration rooted in our extreme differences. He didn't see the world the same way I did, and it was tough. The selfish way that I see the world was always called into question when I was with Clarence. Every time I heard his long doorbell ring, it was like an alarm sounding his need. Without Clarence I wouldn't think about how people on the street feel when it rains. Without Clarence I wouldn't know that not all homeless people are looking for handouts. Without Clarence I wouldn't think about how the changing seasons and temperatures influence the living conditions of the impoverished. Without Clarence I wouldn't understand what it means to love my neighbor. Without Clarence I wouldn't understand that I have more than enough.
I wish everyone had the opportunity to know someone like Clarence. When we become friends with people who have more or less than we do, like Clarence, it causes us to live differently.
It causes us to see more. It causes us to think about living with less.
At one level, this book is a way for me to share my journey of learning from people like Clarence and to introduce other friends walking a similar path. On this path, we've encountered people and places and situations that stop us in our tracks and cause us to rethink the way we live our lives. We've met people we have begun to love, places that desperately need the light of hope, and situations that beg for solutions. This journey forced us to make distinct and necessary changes in our own lives. Every story that you read is one that has caused me to change. I hope these stories do the same for you. Together we will ask questions, make hypotheses, and embark on some new experiments.
This is my story of change.
The reason I am writing is to share my experiences with you. To share with you a new understanding of what is enough in this life. I have more than enough, and I believe many people, possibly even you, have more than enough as well. Questions are the root of everything great I have done in life. The most creative ideas ever experienced are often conceptualized by asking simple questions. So that is where we need to start this journey: with a question.
I invite you to join me in a series of social experiments that challenge us to ask what is enough? in life. This question may begin to challenge the way you see the world today. That's okay. When we choose to draw a line in every aspect of our lives, we choose what is enough. We are given the opportunity to define what is enough. There is great tension in walking this line of more or less, but this tension creates great opportunities. Living on less creates the potential to do much more for others.
May we be known by the problems we solve.
It all starts with one question that changes everything: what is enough?
Visual Moment Watch the full story of Jeff and Clarence: www.moreorlessbook.com/#videosCHAPTER 2
ONE MAN'S JUNK
Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.
When Andre and I got engaged and started preparing for marriage, our community was extremely excited and encouraging. For some reason, all our married friends wanted to get together and have a meal with us. We soon understood that what they really wanted was to sit us down and give marriage advice. If you're reading this and are one of the couples that we had dinner with before we were married, thanks for the advice (it's been ten incredible years). There is always something special about sitting around a table and eating food together. Having a meal with friends physically fills you up, emotionally encourages your passions, spiritually lifts your soul, and naturally fuels the desire for laughter.
Coming straight out of college, a good meal and some valuable advice was a great engagement gift! But with all these wonderful opportunities for connection and advice, the extremely practical (and maybe opportunistic) part of me wondered what else we might gain from these great connections. I know that sounds like a very selfish statement, and it is. We had a dilemma: in just a couple of months we would be moving from our college dorm rooms to an apartment in Chicago, and we had nothing to move. We owned no furniture. So I came up with an idea to solve this problem.
Here's my theory: I believe all Americans with homes have a piece of furniture that they hate; all they need is for someone to take it away, and they will freely offer it up. My theory goes a step further: I believe that the family will cheer you on as you carry it away, as if a battle has finally been won among them and that ugly end table. They are dying for someone to take it off their hands. Every family has something in their home that they do not want, but for some reason it's still sitting in the living room or taking up space in the basement. Is my theory correct?
The beginnings of this theory started in high school. Once, we played this neighborhood scavenger hunt game with some friends—perhaps you've heard of it? Each team starts with a toothpick and a time frame for how long the game will last—usually about two hours. We went door to door through our neighborhood, hoping complete strangers would actually open the door. Then we asked them if they would like to make a "trade up." Would they give us something in their home for something that was in our hands? The winner at the end of the game is the person with the biggest and best thing. It's all, as they say, in "the power of the ask," which also happens to be one of my favorite phrases. The worst someone could do was say no. We asked them, "What would you trade us for a toothpick?" And it surprised us all how quickly the game progressed toward much larger items.
Let's play the game out to give you a glimpse of the progression. A toothpick might turn into a can of soup or a box of macaroni and cheese. It quickly escalates to a candle or an old beach towel. Maybe you get lucky and get an obscure painting from someone's basement or a necklace that someone doesn't like anymore. By the end of the two hours, friends run back to the starting location with the most surprised faces as they carry back a couch, a bag of golf clubs, a Ping-Pong table, or a lawn mower. There is a convergence of groups running down the street, trying to carry some big things together while dodging oncoming cars and barking dogs. One time when we played, a team returned with one of those mosquito zappers that emits a radiant blue haze of light. Where do you even buy one of those?
Years later, I heard this game played over the radio in Atlanta when the morning team of The Bert Show on Q100 played it with hundreds and thousands of morning listeners. They called the game "Tradio." They wanted to see if they could get a physical house by the end of the game. People would call in and trade up accordingly. By the time I had signed off, they had acquired both a hot tub and a horse. It is truly amazing to see what you can accumulate in such a short time. Once again, it seems that most of us have much more stuff than we actually use, need, or want. We seem to always be looking for a way to "trade up" from what we have, to get something better. Bigger. Faster. Stronger. We want more.
So back to our engagement—Andre and I would go to dinner after dinner, and at the end of the conversation our friends and mentors would ask us, "Is there anything that we can do for you? Just let us know." Most people wouldn't dream of actually asking for something, given the reality that dinner was already a gift—but not me. Remember my favorite phrase, "the power of the ask"? I would look at Andre, and she would glare at me, full of dread, and roll her eyes.
"Well, we have just graduated from college and don't have a thing for our new apartment," I began. "There is a theory that I have ... Do you have any furniture in your home that you are trying to get rid of? Well, we don't have anything for our new apartment, so we would love to take it off your hands."
As you can imagine, Andre's face would go beet red, and she would start to sink farther down into her seat.
Though it was embarrassing, my theory worked. By the time we moved into our apartment, we had two couches, three side tables, a brand-new queen bed with the head and foot boards, a washer and dryer, a couple of lamps, and a bookshelf.
I think I was told no only once.
Most people thought my theory was true. It became a great laugh over and over again. The couple sitting with us would instantly nod their heads, thinking of the exact piece of furniture they needed to get rid of from their home. And for the record, we still have that bookshelf in our living room and sleep in our free bed.
I HAVE EXCESS
What this little theory taught me was that many people have excess. Excess is that thing that we could give away today, and it wouldn't change a single aspect of our tomorrow. Excess is more than what we need—and in turn it may be exactly what someone else needs. Anything more than enough is excess. Excess is margin. Excess is more than enough.
We have an uncanny ability to accumulate things that are not essential to living, yet we lack the practice of releasing the acquired junk when it no longer serves a purpose. I am no different. I have gone from begging furniture off my friends to having a houseful of things I could give to a newly engaged couple trying to fill an apartment. While I may struggle to define what is enough for me, one thing is sure:
I have more than en enough.
I have more than I need in numerous categories: food, clothing, shelter, toys, books, blankets, TV channels, and maybe even friends.
Excerpted from MORE or LESS by JEFF SHINABARGER. Copyright © 2013 Jeff Shinabarger. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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