Sometimes it comes in the form of an epiphany, a sudden revelation of what matters. Other times, it's a matter of evolution, the gradual realization that this is what must be.
Either way, any way, some people find themselves deciding, in a nation that prizes material well-being, that they are going to do without it.
What we're talking about here is people who have it within their grasp to make a nice, comfortable middle-class or upper-middle-class living, but who for one reason or another have decided to forget the brass ring and step off the merry-go-round. They're not people who haven't any choice about being poor -- that's a different and much sadder story. Instead the subjects of this story are people with good educations and abilities, people who have chosen a low-rent life when they could have opted for an upscale one.
Some of them do it for religious or political reasons, some because they're artists, and some simply to escape the confines of the 9-to-5 life. Whatever their reasons, they don't get much respect from the rest of society, which tends to label them as weirdos or failures. Still, most of them say they're happy -- not because they're making little money, but because they're doing whatever it is they find more important than money.
They only rarely recommend their difficult lives as examples for others, but just the same there may be something in their experience for anyone who's ever wanted to take his or her job and shove it. But after a decade of hearing about the rich and famous, perhaps it's time to hear about the poor and anonymous. Perhaps theirs are the more useful voices to hear.
IN 1986, LINDA GODDARD PUT AN AD in the paper. It read, "Found one good pearl; must sell everything to buy."
She was following the words of Jesus, Ms. Goddard explains, "where he says in order to follow him you have to sell everything that you own and join the poor.
"And that's what I did," she concludes, "and my life has been wonderful since then."
Before her turn to Jesus, Ms. Goddard had worked her way up from disc jockey to radio station office manager -- she has a Federal Communications Commission license but not a bachelor's degree -- but a drug and alcohol problem overtook her chances for a career. It was during the recovery from her addictions that she found her way to her present path of deliberate poverty.
Her choice of poverty is not only about personal and religious salvation: It also has a political side, since Ms. Goddard believes it expresses solidarity with the poor of the world. She worked with Washington's homeless advocate Mitch Snyder before his death, and she supports similar local causes and resistance to war. And when asked if she thought she couldn't do more for those causes if she made more money, she says no: "You make a lot of compromises when you make a lot of money. You kind of rob Peter to pay Paul."
Ms. Goddard, a sturdy-looking 39-year-old with pulled-back chestnut hair, now gets by with odd jobs and housecleaning. Her overhead is low: She lives in what used to be the dining room of a Bolton Hill mansion. Part of the room has been converted into a small kitchen and bathroom; the rest is divided into areas Ms. Goddard designates as office (a desk), living room (three thrift-shop easy chairs) and bedroom (a Murphy bed).
She shares these modest quarters with her partner, Brian Barrett. Tall, thin, reserved, with a long beard and hair pulled back in a ponytail, Mr. Barrett looks the ascetic and admits the appeal of that self-denying form of life.
"The ideal is just to cover your own needs" with what you make from paid work, he says, "and the rest is to give away." And when Brian Barrett says "needs," you know he doesn't mean "luxuries I've gotten used to and would find it hard to do without." The couple does not have medical insurance, for example.
Mr. Barrett graduated from a Franciscan liberal-arts college in 1971 with a bachelor's degree in sociology and then moved into a commune where people worked at building new housing for poor people in the city. That was how, he says, he set off on his present direction in life. To support himself, he does carpentry, house-painting, repair work -- "but more importantly I resist the arms race."
Doesn't this couple ever wish they were a professional pair renovating their Bolton Hill mansion instead of squeezing by in its living room? Don't they ever have any regrets over the choices they've made?
No, Mr. Barrett says, "not at least in what I was striving to do." He has made mistakes along the way, he says, but he doesn't regret his goals.
Ms. Goddard's response is less measured. "I have never felt one moment of remorse since I put my feet on this path," she says. "I know that I'm where I'm supposed to be spiritually, and that's a wonderful feeling. And there's no amount of money that you can buy that with."