On Defining Minimalism
There’s at least two ways of looking at nearly anything. Minimalism is no exception: is it the ultimate cynical luxury of the privileged, or is it mindfulness and appreciation of essentials? Or a mix of both?
Has the plug been pulled--or is it simply not plugged in?
How about when we look at a house without much stuff in it: is there very little by choice, or by misfortune? Regardless of which, could there be equally appealing results? Is there no flat-screen plugged into the wall and hooked up to cable because it is mental clutter, or is it because it is physical clutter? Or because it is budget clutter?
No matter what began the lifestyle, or what the lifestyle is called, living well with only what you need is a philosophy that brings good things to those who share it. For the privileged, it brings a keener appreciation of the costs involved in being a consumerist–the time, the money, the global impact, the personal sacrifice, and the dissipation. For the less-privileged, it enables satisfaction by taking one out of the desire trap: the lone chipped cup still holds tea as much as the flawless one from a set of twelve. It’s a change in values, and not just an aesthetic.
Even if it isn’t a permanent lifestyle, the exercise in awareness remains. Maybe you are a Minimalist nomad at the moment, relocating frequently for work or just because. Traveling light and not owning much is logical. Not only is it easier, but it allocates funds more logically, as well. Or maybe you’re broke, just starting out or starting over, a clean slate with a nearly empty abode. That might change over time, and you could end up with a sofa and a piano and throw pillows and a curio cabinet. But the chances are greater that you’ll acquire those things deliberately, not mindlessly.
Living well with only what you need gets fuzzy in the area of aesthetics vs. philosophy. Minimalism as an aesthetic style really is clean-lined and sparse, almost always airy white spaces with no baubles or tchotchkes catching dust. However, if your personal style includes more furniture and visual elements like textiles, art, books, family photos and hobbies, you might not be aesthetically Minimalist, but you might still be philosophically Minimalist if nearly everything is there for its purpose and enjoyed as such. The aesthetic Minimalist might well have a storage unit full of old stuff or crap that they can’t bear to part with or can’t face dealing with. They might still have a consumerist problem (a second storage unit crammed with various “single perfect vases”) and they might still be in debt because their aesthetic (a single pair of jeans, $3,000) exceeds their income.
It isn’t just the not-buying of stuff that determines Minimalism. A person with little money can still be packrat, or a scavenger dragging home every chair found at a curbside whether a chair was needed or not. Shopping doesn’t always involve money. Many “frugal” people are guilty of misdirecting their time and energy toward the acquisition of more stuff than they actually need. They’ll spot an item that would be “good as new” with a bit of repair or painting, and it joins the ranks of other such projects (four other toasters?) in various stages of completion, not a single one of which was actually needed.
Similarly, the accumulation of just-in-case items is not always non-Minimalist. If you own a home, you will need stuff to take care of it unless you can afford to hire a caretaker, yard service, cleaning service and repair service. You might only need a plunger once every couple of years, but boy it’s worth the space it takes up when you do need it, and to get your hands on it pronto. But we all know folks who take just-in-case to the extreme, and have so much stuff that they can’t find the plunger when they need it. Or the hammer. Or the duct tape. Or the fire extinguisher.
This suggests that Minimalism is a relative value, with as many flavors as there are individuals. Two people may each have the same only-the-essentials philosophy, but one would become psychotic spending too much time in the all-white and virtually empty home of the other. There are also Minimalists who have only the essentials, use everything they own, and their homes look like cyclones hit them because they don’t feel the need to put their things away. Perhaps they feel their time and energy are best spent on other pursuits?
Speaking for myself, Minimalism is now mostly mindfulness. It began after re-organizing stuff in storage in the basement a few too many times, when I realized several things:
- I had too much stuff for our small downsized house, even if it was nice stuff
- Most of the stuff was probably never going to be needed or enjoyed again
- It was too hard to find the things I did need amid the stuff I didn’t need
- It was getting harder to deal with it as I got older
- It wouldn’t be fair to leave the sorting job to my family if I became ill or died
- The sentimental things were only sentimental to me, but I never looked at them
- I kept accumulating more stuff, because I shopped recreationally
- My value system was seriously out of whack: bad for the budget, for time, for the environment, for posterity
With every cleanout of the basement, garage, closets, cupboards, file cabinets, shelves, drawers, wardrobe–and I’m sure I’m forgetting other places–clarity increased. Next came streamlining my working life, getting rid of credit cards, and sorting out not-unrelated health and personal issues. I ended up with a very simple lifestyle, frugal in many ways, rich and cozy in others, and one that suits me and mine perfectly. It’s easier to write and create now than it ever was at any other time in my life.
In the end my kind of Minimalism is my own, and may or may not be similar to yours, but it doesn’t matter. Or maybe it does matter, maybe that’s the whole point: shucking off everything unessential and becoming acquainted–or for that matter re-acquainted–with your true self. Without all the clutter, distractions, and busy-ness, there’s so much more room to come into one’s own.