John Woolman’s Remedies for a Disease

Department: 

Until a century ago, the term “consumption” referred to the disease we now call tuberculosis (TB). The understanding was that the illness consumed the lungs, which was why people got a persistent cough and eventually coughed up blood. “Consumptive” people were often sent to sanatoriums in the hope of healing and to prevent the spread of the disease to others, but most died. There was no effective medical treatment until the mid-twentieth century. TB is now rare in the United States though it is still a problem in many poorer countries, including Honduras, where I live. At the same time, another type of disease called “consumption” has fully infected wealthy countries like the U.S. and is quickly spreading to other parts of the world. This is the disease of consuming too many products. I am afraid that, without adequate treatment, this illness will continue to consume individuals and societies until all good qualities in our cultures die.

Obviously, we have to consume some things to survive; humans need food and shelter. But overconsumption is harmful to everyone. Blood is already being coughed up around the world. Our health, our planet, other people, and our spiritual lives are all suffering from this malady. In the U.S. (last I heard), one-third of the adult population is overweight and another third is obese. That leaves only one-third at a healthy weight – or too thin. The consumption of too much food – and unhealthy food – underlies all sorts of problems, like diabetes and heart disease.

Overconsumption is destroying our planet as through the human extraction of natural resources at unsustainable rates – not only to satisfy our real needs, but also to fill our desires for convenience, comfort, luxury, and entertainment. These luxuries are produced through the oppression of poor people around the world, who work at low-paying jobs, often in inhumane conditions. Moreover, the excessive search for natural resources – like land, oil, or other raw materials – is a common cause of violence and war. Sister Alegría and I see this in the town of La Ceibita, not far from the monastery where we live. A construction project is underway to prepare to mine the iron from a nearby mountain. Honduras doesn’t have enough jobs for its citizens, so many young men and their families are happy to be employed there. Yet most of these jobs, although they offer decent wages, are temporary. Some local people oppose the mine because they believe that it will contaminate the river and fields. For the last two years, continual killings and other violence have been perpetrated by both sides. Yet the corporation that owns the mine continues with the project, only concerned with obtaining iron to export for manufacturing of more steel.

Most insidiously, overconsumption weakens our spiritual lives, as we become complacent and seek the comforts of the world instead of the comfort of knowing we live in line with the Spirit of Truth and Light.

John Woolman had something to stay about all this. His eighteenth-century example can help us to treat the disease of overconsumption in our own lives and in the world. Woolman sought the Spirit’s guidance in all his doings. He made changes in his life so that he would be living in sync with Truth, even though it meant others would criticize him. In his Journal, he advises us to “attend to that Holy Spirit which sets right bounds to our desires, and leads those who faithfully follow it to apply all the gifts of Divine Providence to the purposes for which they were intended.” When his business prospered, and he felt encouraged to expand and earn more money, he decided instead to cut back, realizing he didn’t need more income to support his family at a reasonable level. Moreover, he saw that working harder, just to gain more wealth, is not God’s vision for the world. A simple, healthy lifestyle without too much work – nor too much leisure ­– is a remedy for the overconsumption that leads to ill health today.

John Woolman’s constant advice is to not indulge in “superfluities” – things that are not necessary for a healthy life of integrity. He asserts that “every degree of luxury hath some connection with evil.”

Noticing that he couldn’t keep up hard physical work for long periods led John Woolman to have compassion for other people and even animals that are obligated to work so hard that they suffer. Slavery was widespread in his time, and Woolman avoided purchasing items made by slave labor, such as cotton and sugar. He also chose not to ride in coaches that worked their horses too hard.

We need to be conscious about the sources of the products we buy and use. Do they involve the oppression of the poor, of animals, or of the environment? Woolman states, “We cannot go into superfluities, or grasp after wealth in a way contrary to [Divine] wisdom without having some degree of oppression . . . which frequently brings calamities on countries by parties contending for their claims.”

One positive response in today’s world is to purchase fairly traded goods, which ensure that the producers receive fair compensation for their labors. We can also raise our voices to advocate for change in the world as we are led. John Woolman wrote some widely controversial essays, including one against luxury called, “A Word of Remembrance and Caution to the Rich,” as well as many tracts against slavery. Trusting in God’s moment-by-moment guidance, Woolman spoke carefully to slave owners and other perpetrators about his concerns.

Sister Alegría and I live in Honduras in part because there is less consumption here. Like many of our neighbors, we live in a house built with simple boards and without running water or electricity. We scrub our laundry by hand. The monastery’s seven acres provide enough firewood for our cooking needs. Rather than own a vehicle, we travel locally by catching rides from those who do, we walk, and we use public transportation. We believe we are using only our fair share of the world’s resources. You in the U.S. face a greater challenge when you decide to cut back, since so many people around you have more and better things. But change is called for, and John Woolman offers encouragement: “We may see ourselves crippled and halting, and from a strong bias to things pleasant and easy, find an impossibility to advance forward; but things impossible with men are possible with God; and our wills being made subject to His, all temptations are surmountable.”

The rest of the world is watching. Most Hondurans would like to live as well as folks in the U.S., but such rates of consumption are unsustainable. A study by the Global Footprint Network estimated that it would take five Earths to support everyone in the world if we all consumed as much as average Americans currently do. What is the example you want to give to the world? John Woolman gave a good one to us, conscientiously seeking the Spirit’s guidance and living accordingly. Our health, our planet, our fellow human beings, and our spiritual lives will all benefit when we consume less. Consumption is a curable disease if we are faithful in taking the treatment.

John Woolman offers us this query: “Do I in all my proceedings, keep to that use of things which is agreeable to universal righteousness?”  ~~~

Sister Confianza and Sister Alegría have lived simply at Amigas del Señor Methodist-Quaker Monastery on the North Coast of Honduras since 2006. Learn more about their life at https://amigasdelsenor.weebly.com

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