Nearly 10 years ago, Jen Hatmaker published 7, which she called “an experimental mutiny against excess.” Hatmaker and her family identified seven areas of life that had become subject to American consumerism and excess, and spent time, effort and energy cleansing those things.
Now, in 2021, things are a lot different. Hatmaker’s has seen her family change, her profile rise and her perspective transform. She’s still concerned about a culture of rampant consumerism and excess, but some of her thoughts on how best to deal with it have undergone a shift. With that in mind, she’s re-releasing 7, now called Simple and Free. She hasn’t re-written anything, but she has gone through and footnoted the new addition with letters to her past self, offering correction and edits where needed. It’s an interesting way of marking her own growth as a person, and she was kind enough to tell RELEVANT about the process.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Can you give us a brief overview of what Seven is?
About a decade ago, I had this growing sense that the degree of excess and consumerism in my life was out of control, just unchecked, so much so that I couldn’t have even formulated it. It was just mindless consumerism. And so, I came up with this, what felt at the time, outrageous social experiment. We took seven areas that, at least in my life, felt oversaturated. I think it’s fair to say these are probably the same categories for the majority of our culture.
It was food, clothes, possessions, media and technology, spending, waste and stress. And in every single bucket, the banner over it was just: too much stress, too much waste, too much stuff, too much spending. I spent one month on each idea and I boiled down my personal options to just seven things for each month.
It was in the spirit of a fast; a temporary check on appetites, just to see what would happen. What kind of space will that create? What will I learn? How could this be more in line with faithfulness and generosity and stewardship of the earth?
A lot of this has only become even more relevant. How does that change the way you approach some of these things in the book or with your people who read you now?
If we’re doing this life right, we’re not the same as we were 10 years ago. Certainly I have grown, I have changed my mind on some things, I’ve sat under different leaders in the last decade, as well we all should. That’s just maturity. If you revisit something you wrote 10 years ago, you’ll find some spots that rub and some things that I just didn’t know at the time. Some of them, I was outright wrong or erroneous or ignorant. Some things I just hadn’t experienced.
When I went back through and found places, words, paragraphs or even concepts that were problematic — and there were some — I decided not to take them out and just replace them with better theology, better practices, better understanding. I went back and talked to the first me that wrote it originally and said, “I want to tell you something you did not understand here. I’m going to teach you something that you don’t know yet, but you will.”
I want to ask about the apology that you made after you offered after the prayer at the inauguration. I was surprised, because it was, well, it was almost self-cancelling.
(NOTE: Hatmaker was one of many faith leaders who offered a public prayer at President Joe Biden’s inaugural interfaith prayer service, but later apologized for the first line of the prayer: “Almighty God, you have given us this good land as our heritage.” In a post to social media, Hatmaker wrote “He didn’t. He didn’t give us this land. We took this land by force and trauma.”)
Thank you for saying that. Had I put a much more careful, thoughtful eye on that in advance as I should have, that was an avoidable moment. The apology was warranted, even though it’s an old prayer, it’s a liturgical prayer out of the Book of Common Prayer. It’s been prayed over a lot of inaugural services. It aired that morning, and I didn’t receive any pushback.
But I texted my team that morning and I said, “Guys, I can’t. I can’t stand by it. This one line just goes so against my own personal spiritual convictions. I have to make this right.” And my team was like, “Do you? Have you even seen anybody getting mad out there?” I’m like, “That’s not the point. I’m not doing this in answer to criticism. My integrity is screaming at me to do the right thing.” They were like, “We could do this differently,” and I said, “I’m not going to.”
There’s a place for humility because the truth is, we get it wrong. Everyone does. What matters more than getting it right is making it right. I hope that I will never silence that screaming integrity when it’s hollering, because it’s always right.
Do you think about that when you’re creating the content you do now? Do you think, “Am I going to be coming back to this in my 50s or my 60s to edit that stuff too?” Is that scary?
Isn’t it just the dangest thing to be a leader, to be creating content, knowing full well we’re going to know more and do better in 10 years, in 20 years? It’s daunting. It does have the capacity to push us into our corners as a muzzle. But we can’t live like that.
As long as we prioritize this posture — that when I know better, not only will I do better, but I will address when I didn’t know better — then that takes the pressure off of getting everything right the first time, which is really and sincerely impossible. If we are waiting for that paradigm to be true until we lead, there will be no leaders.
What gives me confidence is knowing that I’m not afraid to say I was wrong, to make amends, to repent and to learn. With that firmly in hand, onward we can go.
You live a very public life and you’ve had some very public difficulties over the last year. How do you decide what to share with your audience and what is just for you?
I have built a community based on a lot of things and included in that package is that they can trust me as their leader. That’s really important that I have been faithful, trustworthy, that I tell the truth, even the hard truth. I want to, first of all, acknowledge the tension there.
When it comes to, for example, going through an unexpected divorce last year — which was not a thing in a million years that I saw coming, or certainly that my community saw coming in our family — I would not be able to continue to lead if I tucked that under a rug and pretended like my family was intact, that my heart was not broken and that we were not experiencing a shocking trauma.
Now, inside of that, there are 10,000 details that are not for the public. The day-to-day of that, the actual details inside, those are ours and they always will be. There is a very big difference between secrecy, which is often marked by shame or guilt, and privacy, which is just marked by discretion. I tried to figure out which is which. I get it right sometimes.
I would imagine there are lessons to be learned there that could be handed down to the rest of us who don’t have an audience your size. Especially around that idea of shame versus discretion. It’s not always easy to tell what’s what.
I cannot wait for the next generation to grow up and tell us how we got this all wrong. We’re the lead blockers here on this first wave of a digital age, and we just don’t know what we’re doing. It is still not just advantageous, but absolutely possible and even imperative that we shut it all down sometimes. We’re not going to die. Whether we have screen free days or whole sections of time, or even portions of the day. At this point, we shut it down. Burying our heads in the sand and letting our media and technology usage just run unrestrained is not doing us any favors.
As COVID slowly moves towards the rearview mirror for many of us as vaccination rates increase, do you think that there is going to be a re-recognition of how valuable our non-screen interactions are?
Isn’t it interesting to think about now that we have, essentially, been relegated to connecting via digital technology? I mean, we’ve had no choice. This is it. Zoom is my new life. We’ve pivoted every single human interaction somehow to a screen. I know for me, once we are vaccinated, I just want to run through the streets and just kiss people on the mouth. If I never see another Zoom again, I won’t miss it. It will be interesting to see what we do. We have this human tendency to over-correct for a minute, and then settle back into an equilibrium.
I’d love to see us emerge from the pandemic with a really fresh, long-term appreciation of even the capacity to turn it all off and to be like a face-to-face, eye-to-eye, human-to-human contact again. I hope that’s a lesson that sticks. I’ve missed people, and screens, as it turns out, they’ll do in a pinch. But they are not a substitute.
You can purchase Simple & Free here.