At Large

A philosophy of simplicity

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Yesterday’s front page carried a story about a “barefoot” councilor—he literally walks around in his bare feet—who, even as he joins his fellow UNA candidates in a political rally in Zamboanga City, stands out for, in the words of reporter Julie Alipala, “looking like he needs alms.”

The reelectionist councilor, Rudy Bayot, leads a life as humble as his looks, preferring to take public transportation and thinking nothing of taking a tricycle to attend council sessions at the city hall— yes, garbed in T-shirt and shorts and shoeless.

The remarkable thing is that Bayot is said to come from comfortable circumstances, with siblings who live abroad who can presumably provide him with a pair or two of shoes, or even a brand-new belt. Alipala encountered him in the market the day before the rally shopping for a second-hand belt, saying he needed to look more presentable because his pants were falling off him due to the weight loss he was suffering as a result of his “stressful” work as a councilor. About the only luxury Bayot can afford, it seems, is his marriage six years ago to a woman decades younger than he.

As it happens, Bayot seems just part of a trend—one which we should encourage—of public officials and other leaders eschewing the trappings of power and office, preferring to lead simple lives and thrive in humble circumstances.

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Today’s most prominent example is Pope Francis, who has chosen to “live” his choice of name, after reformist St. Francis of Assisi who founded an order devoted to simplicity and poverty. Much has been made of the Pope’s preference for the bare and Spartan—refusing to wear the cape of ermine and wool and opting to face the crowd at St. Peter’s in a simple white cassock—and gestures like joining his fellow cardinals on the bus on the way back to their hotel after his election, packing his bags and paying for his bill himself.

Most symbolic, of course, has been his choice of venue for performing the “washing of the feet,” a ritual that recreates Jesus’ lesson on humility when he knelt before the apostles and washed their feet to show how the mighty must humble themselves.

Pope Francis chose to perform this ritual, usually done within the gleaming confines of St. Peter’s Basilica, in a home for young people in conflict with the law. Most significant, the “apostles” included two young women, one of whom was Muslim. The ritual thus sends messages not just about the need for leaders to humble themselves before their followers, but also about a greater openness to women and perhaps—perhaps!—a broader role for them within the institutional church.

The Pope accomplished much, in the simple act of washing the feet of young people, breaking tradition (and scandalizing traditionalists) and indicating a new trajectory that promises deep reform as well as a return to the roots of the Church.

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The return to a simple life is exemplified not just by Councilor Bayot and Pope Francis but also by the president of Uruguay, by the name of Jose Mujica, who took office in 2009.

An activist in the 1960s who joined a left-wing guerrilla group, Mujica was eventually captured and imprisoned for 14 years. He credits his long stay in prison for “solidifying” his thinking, presumably including his conviction to live a life of simplicity and humility. In 1985, constitutional democracy was restored in Uruguay, and Mujica got involved in politics, mainly with labor rights.

After winning the presidency, Mujica shocked everyone with his decision to stay in the humble farmhouse (owned by his wife) where they continued to tend to their garden. Though he receives $12,000 a month as his salary, Mujica donates 90 percent of the money to the poor.

Explaining his choice to live as simply and frugally as before, Mujica said: “This is a matter of freedom. If you don’t have many possessions, then you don’t need to work all your life like a slave to sustain them, and therefore you have more time for yourself. I may appear to be an eccentric old man… But this is a free choice.”

Addressing the United Nations last year, he expanded his philosophy of simplicity to global dimensions, asking the participants: “Do we want the model of development and consumption of rich countries? I ask you now: What would happen to this planet if Indians would have the same proportion of cars per household as Germans? How much oxygen would we have left? Does this planet have enough resources so seven or eight billion can have the same level of consumption and waste that today is seen in rich societies? It is this level of hyper-consumption that is harming our planet.”

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There you go, three examples of lives lived—by deliberate choice—in simplicity and in humble circumstances. I would add P-Noy if it wasn’t for his penchant for guns and fast cars (even if second-hand), although the example he sets is certainly a far cry from all his predecessors. We know why we believe his rallying cry for good governance and accountability, because we know he doesn’t need or want much by way of material possessions.

The people profiled in this piece may stand out as oddities, human interest items in a sea of politicians and leaders whose love for luxury and thirst for power and pelf have set the norm rather than the exception.

But the day may yet come when the power of their example will remake our expectations of those who presume to lead us. It’s not too late to start now.

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