Decolonizing Harry

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If you are restricted in your range by poverty you are but confined to the most significant and vital experiences. It is life near the bone where it is sweetest.
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!
—Rudyard Kipling, “Gunga Din”

When I set out to live in a biblically-centered community four summers ago, I really didn’t plan to find myself in the role of a colonial master, attempting to control my darker-skinned minions with insulting benevolence. It just sort of happened that way.


Historians of India like to comment that the British conquered the subcontinent not out of malice or even a desire for a healthy profit, but in a simple fit of absentmindedness. For my part, I’d never expected that an attempt to live with my Christian brothers and sisters, more or less keeping our possessions and our earnings in common, would ultimately involve toting my own White Man’s Burden, trying desperately to keep a stiff upper lip with nary a pith helmet or gin and tonic in sight.

It was—somewhat ironically—in southern India the summer before that I’d had my first experience of giving up most of life’s physical comforts for the sake of a loftier goal and mission. In my case, I’d lived for seven weeks in a three-bedroom house on the outskirts of Bangalore, with twelve other American volunteers and the seven-member family of a white raiment-wearing, miracle-working Tamil Pentecostal preacher. It was The Real World meets Touched by an Angel crossed with Survivor. And it was great. As with most college short-term missions trips, it was pretty clear that we weren’t going to save the world by summer’s end, but we all managed to do a little more good than harm and to learn a bundle about grace, mercy, and community in the process. For my own part, the experience shook my then-understated faith to the core, rebuilt it on more solid foundations, and taught me how to sleep comfortably on a tiled floor.

When I got back from India, I leapt at opportunities large or small to recapture the lessons and experiences of that summer. With most of my co-volunteers living nearby, it wasn’t hard to have joyous reunion after reunion, reviewing our litany of inside jokes and reminding one another of the important lessons we’d learned half a world away. But even outside of these sessions I began pursuing a more active path of discipleship, experimented with fasting and new kinds of prayer, and in general did what I could to respond to what I perceived as God’s call to trust him more and more.

There were other effects as well. I noticed that I still preferred to eat my salads with my fingers, Indian style. A few weeks into the semester I abandoned my dorm room bunk bed for a small rectangle of carpet on the floor. And in the midst of a rather cold Boston winter, when my friends in our campus fellowship were abstaining from chocolate or from reading the paper for Lent, I went without hot showers.

I saw these moves towards a life of Spartan simplicity as having little to do with self-loathing or delusions about being able to impress God—rather, they seemed to flow naturally out of my spiritual state and my earnestness to know more of the grace and transformation I’d tasted the summer before. It was about knowing God, about trying to hear his voice and respond, about doing something instead of just sitting there. And, also, there seemed to be real value in pursuing a more austere existence. If I was to heed the biblical call to leave everything and follow Christ and to share all that I had with my neighbor, surely this was at least a start. And the more I saw that the God of Israel was a creator who cared passionately for the orphan, the widow, the outcast, and the downtrodden, the more it seemed that toning down my own life of opulence was appropriate, even necessary.

As the next summer approached, and I realized that I’d be staying in Boston to work, my mind raced to see how I could try to recreate, and share, some of what had been so meaningful about my time in India. So while most of my friends were just looking for summer roommates, I set out to form a community. At its core would be a few of us who’d volunteered together in India; invited to join were other friends who shared a desire to live in a household centered around the lessons of Jesus and the recorded life of the early church. In our planning meetings, we talked about having weekly Bible studies and daily morning prayers, and we devised a system to generously share our financial resources, each according to his or her need.

As the academic year wound down, we found a house not too far from campus to sublet and scraped together a deposit. The final roster of who’d be sharing our living space and signing our now-drafted community covenant wasn’t decided until a few days before move-in. It was, at least in some ways, an eclectic mix: five women, all from minority backgrounds and most from the lower range of the socioeconomic spectrum—and three white, upper-middle-class males, myself included. [Cue ominous music.]

My memories of the first few squabbles are somewhat fuzzy, but within a week or two it became clear that many of our household debates centered around just what we’d meant when we signed a covenant agreeing to live in “material simplicity.” Could we spring for Saran Wrap, or did we have to settle for the generic kind? Was it okay to have meat for dinner every night, or just once or twice a week? And who threw out those leftovers after just one day?

No problem, I thought, these sorts of issues were bound to come up as we learned to live together in mutual respect, Christian charity, and concern for the poor. But as we fell into our routines and the tension stayed, it became clear that something more was at stake—I just couldn’t figure out what. After all, the other guys and I seemed more or less fine. And while we with our neatly folded clothes were a bit disturbed at the way our living room decor sometimes tended towards “the inherent chaos of the universe,” we were willing to let that slide—hey, we could even spring for Saran Wrap if it would make things easier.

My desire to live simply came out of a sense that there was something wrong with living with too much. And now, it turned out, that was wrong too.

Finally, one of my female housemates—a close friend and veteran of the India experience—took me aside to set me straight. “Some of the women feel like this whole idea of living in material simplicity is insulting and racist.” She didn’t name names, but I got the hint that the most vehement objectors were those who’d actually grown up in poor areas, those for whom consistent financial need and occasional scarcity had been a reality. For them, our vision of identifying with the poor simply by being cost-conscious with our overflowing budget seemed both patronizing and pointless—and had little if anything to do with what it actually meant to be deprived. Beyond that, there was the feeling that this whole, probably flawed idea of simplicity was being more or less forced upon them by those who were contributing the most financially to our community budget. Among the eight of us, those who objected least to our intentional pursuit of the simple life were—to a (white) man—the ones with the wealthiest upbringings.

Hello, colonialism.

I was floored by the accusation. I’d seen our covenant as an exercise in trust and idealism, of going the extra mile with one another in community for the sake of our faith and our service to God. And what shocked me most was not that we’d failed to live up to our (my?) stated ideals, but that the ideals themselves might be seriously flawed. My desire to live simply came out of a sense that there was something wrong with living with too much. And now, it turned out, that was wrong too. I just didn’t know what right was.

To grow up white and upper-middle class in America is to live a life mostly free of social, racial, or economic tension. It’s a life that, at least on its own terms, pretty much makes sense. Your parents are prosperous because they work hard—hence the nice house. Race isn’t an issue because you’re not a racist—or at least you wouldn’t be if you knew many people of another race. So your racial consciousness is nil because you don’t think of yourself as white but rather just “normal,” and your class consciousness is next-to-nil because though you happily identify yourself as middle class, to you that also just means “normal.” And while you’re aware that there are others who don’t share your fate—the poor, who are down on their luck and maybe don’t work that hard; and the rich, who are lucky and definitely don’t work that hard—neither group makes much of an appearance in your world.

So because you’re not used to sitting with tension in the realms of race and class, when someone suggests there might be a problem—not in the distant nether-realm of CNN, but in your own life and relationships—your responses are either to ignore or to deny it, or to say, “Oh my God, they’re right!” and make and implement a quick plan of action to address the problem (that is, your own sense of tension, not the ethnic or economic phenomena that triggered that tension).

My own desire to live simply, and in community, had some of its roots in a genuine desire to follow God in significant and costly ways. But it also sprang from my own need to be beyond critique. In three years of college and a summer in the developing world, I’d learned more and more about the gross racial and class inequality in the world, in my country, heck, even among my Harvard classmates. Suddenly there was tension, and I realized I was on the wrong side of the “blessed are the poor” equation. Suddenly I was the bad guy. My forays into material austerity came in part from a desire to tip the balance back in my favor, to lift the tension I felt, and to grant myself immunity from accusation. And it was these very attempts to justify myself that left me accused.

Which is how I wound up sitting alone one night on the back porch of our summer rental, tears in my eyes, asking God why he’d cursed me with white skin and a life of material comfort. As I stayed there in my sorrow, it came to me that my question was probably an inversion of the sort of questions that God gets all the time from people of other races—only they’re asking him, Why wasn’t I born white, or wealthy? If I really wanted to identify with the poor (and not just absolve myself of racial and class tension) then maybe it wasn’t a bad start to find myself feeling like the color of my skin and the way I grew up were somehow, at their very essence, incorrect.

Whatever value there is in sitting with this tension, of giving up on the quick solution and waiting on God as you suffer, I certainly reaped some of it that summer. In hindsight I don’t think I’ll ever figure out which of our household troubles were due to class, and which to race, gender, personality, poor theology, et cetera. But I think I began to see that we—or at least I—had been trying to be poor in a way that is only available to the wealthy.

So I do the only thing I can do at this point: blame Thoreau. True, I hadn’t yet read Walden when I embarked on my own experiments in simplicity, but I might as well have, for I’d been breathing his ideas for quite some time. In fact, as I skimmed the New England Transcendentalist’s magnum opus in preparation for this article, I was struck by just how familiar his ideas sounded. At first it occurred to me that old Henry David had simply cribbed the true sources of my own inspiration—Jesus, John the Baptist, St. Francis of Assisi, and so forth. But I realized that Thoreau actually expresses my ideas much more completely than they do:

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but are positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have even lived a more simple and meager life than the poor.

For me, simplicity was about aesthetics as much as it was about spirituality or social justice. Given a choice between a simple or a cluttered life, I’d take the former on aesthetics alone. I pursued it because I thought it might give me elevation of some kind—austere beauty, or at least the satisfaction of smug rebellion. And I’m hardly the first or the only one to think that way. Whole industries have been built around the aesthetic of simplicity—from beach resorts where you live in third-world style thatched huts (with indoor plumbing, of course) to magazines like Real Simple, which runs articles about how to simplify your life and get back to what’s really important opposite advertisements for the latest luxury cars and upscale fashions. Meanwhile ex- and neo-hippies tout their own aesthetic of simplicity in venues like Mother Earth News and Natural Life Magazine. These, with their mix of cash-saving tips and environmental admonitions, are certainly less laughable than companies hawking SUVs to Real Simple‘s readership, but they still exhibit more of the spirit of Thoreau (simplicity as aesthetic aid to self-fulfillment) than the spirit of Christ and St. Francis (simplicity as the non-negotiable cost of following God and being able to love one’s neighbor).

When simplicity is an aesthetic decision, it is implicitly one that involves the luxury of choice. I slept on the floor for three years not because I couldn’t afford a bed or didn’t have one—in fact, I went out of my way to move the beds that my college dorm provided into storage—but because I simply liked the idea of sleeping on the floor. Ditto for the years I spent buying my own clothes in thrift stores and bargain basements—I was going for a certain look, and didn’t mind saving the money, but I always had the option of spending more. Simplicity was just one choice among many, one I could make when it suited me and happily avoid when it demanded real sacrifice.

Call it karma, but what began in India eventually found its way back home, this time in my own growing interest in the history of British colonialism. I find myself digging through library stacks for hundred-year-old travel guides, searching on eBay for antique maps, and meditating on selections of colonial literature like Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, or E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. It’s a morbid fascination, I admit. I know too much of the horrible effects of colonial rule on native peoples, and yet I can’t deny the glints of good, or at least good intent, in the motivations of the colonizers.

Take just one chain of events: in 1905, in an effort to simplify local administration and ensure that underdeveloped areas were getting proper resources, Lord Curzon, the British viceroy, partitioned the eastern state of Bengal into two administrative areas—one mostly Hindu, one mostly Muslim. Forty years later, at the end of World War II, when it was at last clear to the British that colonial prospects in India were doomed, negotiators working to ease the transition to independence made a similar decision, this time carving two separate countries, India and Pakistan, from the former colony. Historians still argue about whether anything could have been done, by either the British or the Indian independence leaders, to keep the nation united. But it does seem clear that British good intentions contributed to partition’s aftermath—an estimated one million killed in communal massacres, with a further ten million uprooted from their homes and forced to flee to their respective religious states. Two wars, resurgent violence in the still-contested region of Kashmir, and a regional nuclear arms race constitute lingering side-effects of the British-sponsored policy of partition.

It’s a similar sort of hubris that feeds my fascination with people like Rudyard Kipling, whose poetry and prose wobble between outright racism and impressive sympathy with the plight of the oppressed. Should I admire the British soldier in the poem “Gunga Din” for the fact that he respects the loyalty and heroism of his native water-bearer, or deride him for the abuses he heaps on the selfsame man? I don’t know … probably both. But I’m drawn to Kipling because he’s neither right nor wrong—and in exploring his ambiguous middle ground I find something of my own class confusion.

Whenever we attempt to make a significant change from the status quo, we bump up against the baggage that was always there.

One of the central lessons of the burgeoning academic field of postcolonial studies goes something like this: that while it’s relatively easy to remove the structures of colonialism, it is far harder to address the power dynamics that grew under those structures. A nation can win its freedom, but true independence is a far harder thing to come by. Take, for instance, our own citizenry’s love affair with British accents. When an American fakes a British accent, chances are he is trying to convey some combination of class, wit, and intelligence. When our British counterparts mimic us, they almost invariably do so to convey stupidity. Two and a quarter centuries have passed since our revolution, and by all accounts the United States stands wholly on its own. But something of the old colonial inferiority complex still remains.

As with nations, so with individuals. We are the product of our ancestors, and of our own pasts. Both sins and blessings, the Scriptures say, are visited on generation after generation. Whenever we attempt to make a significant change from the status quo, we bump up against the baggage that was always there—both our own and our culture’s. I knew little of my own penchant for racism, classism, sexism, you name it, before I embarked on my own attempt to leave the mainstream of my culture and live a simpler life. But through the angst of it all, I’ve learned that forgoing the comforts of certainty and easy self-justification is a lot harder than just abstaining from Saran Wrap.

I still hold on to the notion that there is some good to be found in pursuing simplicity, at least in its best sense—not as an aesthetic or quick fix, but as a true cessation of power. These days I live more lavishly than I did at the beginning of my ascetic craze. I sleep on a mattress now, but I’m a lot less comfortable in other ways.

Originally published in re:generation quarterly, Fall 2001

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