The prison of unrealistic expectations

November 15, 2010

Being thrifty brings a freedom to explore one’s talents, spiritually.


We were watching a house hunting show on TV, and were amazed at the size of houses that people look at when it is for a family of two or three.

My wife commented that her family of six thrived in an 800-square-foot home, with only one bathroom. I wondered when we began to believe that we needed so much more.

There was a time when families were forced to spend time together in the same room because that was the only room they had. People had to learn to communicate and cooperate in order for six people to share one bathroom.

I’m sure though, if given a choice, my wife would love to not have to share a bathroom with me now.

We didn’t choose to live with less. Some people choose a simpler life for ethical or environmental reasons, but many have a simpler life forced on them due to circumstances such as a divorce or job loss or disability.

Even when forced to live with less, we don’t have to be miserable. A famous English Civil War poem comes to mind, “Two men stared out of prison bars. One saw mud and the other stars.”

In our lives, we can go through periods where things are stripped away from us. We leave high school, and often those friends are stripped from our lives as we go in different directions. Every time we pack and move through life we literally and figuratively leave things behind.

When my wife moved to Edmonton from Florida, there were many things she had to leave behind — friends, family and material things that wouldn’t fit in a mailing box.

When we married, we also lost things. Newly married couples often lose out on activities that they did with their single friends. I also lost 20 per cent of my income and my home by marrying.

Marriage can be difficult enough without ending up homeless right in the middle of a crazy housing boom. God is good though, and gave us what we needed when we were in need. Connie Kennedy was able to find us a handicap accessible condo, in our neighbourhood, that we could actually afford. Without her, I’m not sure what we would have done.

We worked hard, and did without many things in order to pay off our mortgage quickly. It was a security issue for me. My wife gave up her country to marry me, and I wanted to make sure that she wouldn’t end up homeless in case something happened.

Once we burned our mortgage, everyone seemed to expect us to move into a larger place in a nicer neighbourhood. If you aren’t climbing the property ladder, many think you are being left behind. We learned to be content with “enough” and can’t imagine moving. We like to think of ourselves as not being on the property ladder, but rather the property plateau.

I realize a 650-square-foot condo in “that” part of town is hardly what most would consider a dream home. It would be in New York City or Hong Kong.

Our biggest problem is hosting large parties. We’ve had as many as 28 people to eat on holidays. We open our home at the holidays to those who don’t have a place to celebrate. Many have schizophrenia, and are either alienated from their family, or have no family to celebrate with. No one goes home hungry even if it gets a tad crowded.


I think we have been sold a bill of goods as a society. We are constantly blasted with images of things we need, and beautiful people we want to emulate. This economic crisis has allowed many to stop and re-evaluate the financial choices we have made. For some, they have been forced into this. It’s as if the entire world’s economy has done a hard re-boot.

As Christmas approaches, the societal pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” is especially difficult. For those with children, it can be crushing.

Last Christmas, the son of a friend of mine, feeling that pressure, committed a crime in order to raise money for Christmas presents. He was caught, and spent the next year in jail rather than with his family.

Many of us place ourselves in a virtual jail by going into debt for holiday spending. Being in debt can be a form of slavery. We may go to a job we hate or spend too many hours at our jobs away from our families in order to pay for things we don’t really need.

Having had everything stripped away from us by our disabilities, we have had the real gift of learning what are needs and what are merely wants.

(Austin Mardon received the Order of Canada in 2007 for his advocacy for schizophrenia that he has suffered from since he was 30. In September he received the highest award from the Alberta Medical Association for a non-physician the Medal of Honour.