Edmonton doctor Jeff Gusdal says that he recently calculated that he and his wife, Hanae Kiyooka, could have been among the “one percenters,” the wealthiest segment of the world’s population.
Although there is still a huge range of income within that one per cent, according to a 2014 Credit Suisse report, the entry level net worth is US$1 million. Gusdal and Kiyooka met while studying at the University of Alberta. He became a family doctor and she became a teacher. Their lives could have revolved around the idea that “we could be rich here; let’s just go for it and see how much we can pile up,” Gusdal says with a little chuckle. By now, they and their two teenage daughters could be living in a grand home, driving an expensive car or two and regularly flying off to exotic destinations. Instead, they chose a different kind of lifestyle.
They live in a modest, 100-year-old home that they have worked hard to renovate to be energy efficient; recently they added solar panels. For five years, they had no car. They now drive an old car they bought from friends, but they still try to walk and cycle as much as possible. They do some travelling, but often spend their holiday time camping just a few hours from home.
Their faith (they are members of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Edmonton) and concern for the environment have shaped their way of life, but neither speaks of their choices as sacrificial. In fact, they say, their choices are liberating.
For Gusdal, one major freedom was a decision to work half-time. He discovered in the early years of his family practice that, as an introvert, intense days with his patients left him feeling drained. “Hanae said, ‘Why don’t you work less?’ So I tried it, and when I worked less, I felt better,” he said. “And I can do my job better because I am not as tired by the end of the day.”
They have found that his reduced income has been more than enough for their family, even after Kiyooka left her job in the public school system to care for their children, and as they grew, to home-school them. Gusdal says he has experienced a sense of abundance. “I work way less than my colleagues, yet at the end of the year, we’re able to give away tons of money to charity,” he said, adding that he hears other doctors, who make two or three times as much money, complaining that they can’t afford to take vacations because they are paying off million-dollar homes.
Working less has allowed Gusdal to not only spend more time with his family, but has also given him time to “be more of a citizen and less of a consumer,” getting involved in projects to promote more sustainable housing and the preservation of agricultural land in the city.
Kiyooka says that decision was key for her, too. “I don’t know if I would have chosen to home-school if he hadn’t had that balance in his life.” But she says she also felt a need for balance “and space for myself and my own pursuits, as well as giving my children that opportunity.” (Emi, 15, and Siri, 13, have focused on artistic interests including music, theatre and literature.)
“Most of us are so busy just going about our daily lives that we don’t have a lot of time built in where we can really ask ourselves, ‘Is that what I really value?'”
Kiyooka says. “I think that’s the gift I’ve had in my life…time to contemplate some of those things and research them and make those decisions that made sense to me.” Aside from home-schooling, Kiyooka has also devoted time to changing the family’s diet to one that has little meat (Siri became a vegetarian when she was seven), establishing a community garden at their church and replacing the conventional lawn around their home with indigenous species of plants and trees that not only provide food for their family but also attract beneficial insects such as bees and butterflies.
Gusdal adds that balance allows time to be creative. He is writing a book that argues that an economic system dependent on infinite growth on a finite planet has to change to something more like a steady state economy, with a more equitable distribution of wealth. His writing draws on their family’s experience that consuming less has increased their quality of life.
He acknowledges that a doctor’s income allows some choices that are not possible for others. “If you are making minimum wages and you have three children, to work half-time is not really an option. But in an economy…based on interdependence and sharing, a belief in abundance, there would be a much more equal distribution of wealth, and everyone would be able to live comfortably.”
Both say that their faith has shaped their choices. Gusdal says he likes the biblical story of the rich young man who asked Jesus what he should do to gain the kingdom of heaven. “[The story] says Jesus looked at the man and loved him, which I think is a beautiful thing…[and Jesus] said, ‘Go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor and come and follow me.’ And the man went away, grieving because he had many possessions.” Gusdal emphasizes that he continues to struggle with consumerist desires in many ways, but says that Jesus’ countercultural messages have given him “a platform to consider alternatives.”
Kiyooka says the message she has always heard as a part of her faith is a call “to be conscious of who we are in creation…We are stewards, and our lives are gifts, and so how do we live that life?”