The Illusion of Better
Why do so many things, places, and people seem better than what we have or what we are? Even those of us with a pretty good sense of self-worth can occasionally feel there is something better out there, enough to give us pause–or to even completely upend our entire lives.
Simplified and Intensified
The messages we receive from the world around us shape us, at least to the extent that we are receptive to them. To begin, consider this opening definition of the word “message” from Wikipedia:
A message in its most general meaning is an object of communication. It is a vessel which provides information. Yet, it can also be this information. Therefore, its meaning is dependent upon the context in which it is used; the term may apply to both the information and its form.
A common informational message from minimalist writers is “clutter is bad.” Other messages concern over-consumption, mindfulness, etc. But there are more subtle messages, such as “this is the path to serenity.” And still more subtle (or at least it should be) is the idea that the writer is “a superior, enlightened being.” It is a short line from that sort of message to thinking, “geez, you gotta get your shit together,” and “you wanna be like me.” Not everyone will get those last examples of messages–they aren’t receptive to them. Others will take them to heart and fling themselves off a lifestyle cliff. The middle ground consists of those who see the possibilities and simply try things out in a considered way.
The vessels of these minimalist messages usually consist of simple, serene writing couched within simple, uncluttered layouts. The total effect enhances the informational message, and sends nonverbal signals that convey the subtler messages, “this is the path to serenity,” and so on. Both good design and marketing utilize this technique.
These two aspects of message–the form of the message and the information in it–combine to give meaning that we perceive on an emotional, and possibly subconscious, level. Sometimes that is intended, and sometimes not. Marketers of any kind fully intend the subtle message. Some of them actually believe in the message, and not all messages of this sort are bad. Writers, whether in marketing or not, whether in fiction or nonfiction, write to create a state of belief in the reader, to persuade the reader. We have information we really want you to have, information we think is worth having, information we’ve distilled so that you can get the heart of it and benefit from it. The messages may be good or they may be bad, but you have the right to decide that for yourself.
When messages are bad for you, the fault lies within you, not in the message. This doesn’t make you a bad person, just one who is too open to looking for answers from outside of yourself rather than looking deeper within for those answers. The needier we are, the more receptive we are to subtle messages, including messages that weren’t intended, and it sets in motion a feedback loop that is very difficult to break.
Consider the reader who is inundated with clutter and a fierce shopping habit: he or she has been imprinted in a culture of acquisition, of self-consciousness, of shopping as a form of entertainment, and has been completely snookered by advertising that plays on a sense of inadequacy and creates new ones. This reader discovers the minimalist lifestyle or some variation on it, and sees in it the answer to prayers, a relief from clutter, debt, stress, and information overload. Oftentimes the tangible results are so positive, there are emotional and psychological benefits, as well. But sometimes it isn’t enough.
When the conscious benefits are not enough for us, we are vulnerable to looking for paragons, for perfection, for gurus, for ultimate guides–all outside of ourselves. When this happens, we are only replacing the hopes invested in buying the latest designer whatnot with the hopes we have in becoming more and more like an idealized minimalist. They seem so happy, so serene, so together, so effortlessly under control. They are, in short, better than us and we want to be them.
Trust me: you don’t want this. Consider the package, the vessel of the message: the written word. Writers are writers because they know how to effectively deliver an intended message. Just like the neon cupcake in the photo above, the message is stripped of anything extraneous–only the outline of an idealized cupcake remains–and the vessel is designed to enhance that message–neon light. Pure, iconic and imprinted cupcake calls to us, triggering the potential of bliss. Writers do this because doing it any other way risks losing the message altogether.
But the message is almost never the whole story. Nearly every minimalist writer has made a transition from consumerism. That back story often consists of debt, poor relationships, poor health, unhappy working life, etc. There is hardly one out there, including myself, that hasn’t come right out and said that they were, to one extent or another, fuckups. Getting from that point to where they are now was a journey, and staying on that path required them to develop a certain amount of mindfulness, along with new habits. Many blogs, including this one, were started as a way of staying on that path, as well as recording the process. In the course of conveying the message of the benefits of minimalism, simplicity, etc., it can give the illusion that the writer has become a better sort of being, or at least someone who isn’t a fuckup at all.
Speaking from personal experience: while my life has improved greatly since this whole “minimalism thing” started, that does not mean that it is perfect. In many ways I am just as much of a fuckup as ever: I’m still neurotic, still prone to emotional ups and downs, still vulnerable healthwise, still scatterbrained, and still longing for even more stability than I already have in my life. In short, a lot is still business as usual, where I’m my own worst enemy. It’s better than it was, much more under control, and that light at the end of the tunnel is much less likely to be an oncoming train than it has been at any other time of my life. The excesses of my personality no longer lead to destructive shopping or exhausting and time-sucking activities. My diet and health are better. Happiness grows as I come to terms with a lot of personal baggage, which couldn’t happen until the other things got out of the way. Things are better, yes, but better is relative to one’s personal experience and temperament.
You don’t want to be me, and I hope that you don’t want to be any other minimalist or writer, either, other than your own sweet self. One of the purposes of my blog is not to sugarcoat minimalism to the point where it looks like the answer to everyone’s prayers, because it is merely an actionable mindset, not a personality transplant. The benefits are real. It’s worth doing. But you will no longer be able to avoid your personal issues and quirks with the distractions of clutter and consumerism. When that happens, you will have the chance to deal with the skeletons in your figurative closets just like you dealt with the clutter in your literal closets. You will still be yourself, but yourself with mindfulness and purpose and a chance to find the answers within. And that really is better, don’t you think?