There’s a catchy title for you, hm? Seriously, though, it’s been a while since I’ve taken a step back and thought about why I’m a minimalist. Now is a good time, especially with spring cleaning coming up, and Courtney’s Project 333 is about to have another seasonal go-round. And, incidentally, if you are new to minimalism, Project 333 is an excellent way to start, a real mind-opening experience that I can’t recommend enough.
It’s Time to Do It.
There are as many variations on minimalism as there are minimalists, and that number seems to be increasing, hopefully faster than the number of useless items in our respective junk drawers. Far from dead, minimalism appears to be seeping into the mainstream. Earlier this month, The New York Times featured an article by Treehugger.com’s Graham Hill, entitled “Living With Less. A Lot Less,” which is an account of how he became a minimalist, and the high-end way in which he lives it. In turn, it triggered a recent post by Katy Waldman on Slate.com, “Is Minimalism Really Sustainable?” which expressed the feelings of many that minimalism itself may be okay, but Graham Hill’s version was just a variation on conspicuous consumerism. The Hill article also inspired Dana Feldman of BreakThruRadio.com to remind us of Barry Schwartz’s TED talk ‘way back in 2005 on Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, and the relationship between minimalism, pessimism, and the delight in things that comes of lowered expectations (and many thanks to Dana for mentioning this blog).
The Hill article generated many impassioned comments, and I was struck by the number of people who did not understand the most fundamental element of minimalism: it’s a choice. Minimalists choose minimal consumption, possession, footprint, waste, and stress. Their motivations include ethics, green living, finances, pessimism, optimism, aesthetics, being married to a minimalist, boredom, creativity, disgust at consumer gluttony and waste, or any combination of these. You could probably add to the list.
There was also a lack of understanding that minimalism is relative. For instance, those who live in rural areas, such as on farms, are fully justified in minimalist terms if they have barns full of old tractor parts and lumber and whatnot. They are recycling, plus saving a lot of time, energy, and fuel by having on hand what would otherwise be costly to replace anew. The same goes for families and other collectives. What one needs is relative. A homeowner will need more than an apartment dweller, a single person will need less than a family, a younger person will not need the creature comforts of an older one. An office worker will likely need more clothes than a home-based worker, and certain professions require uniforms. None of these issues of what and how much are the right things to focus on.
The real issue is why you have what you have, and is it really adding anything to your life? Is it really saving you time in spite of caring for it and storing it? Does it still mean as much to you as it did in the past? If it wasn’t around, would you miss it or would you appreciate the added space, time, and lack of clutter? What you have and how much of it you have will vary from person to person.
Choosing minimalism is also a great way to get past fears of not having enough of anything. Courtney Carver calls it “embracing fear,” getting past the self-consciousness, the worry that people will think you are crazy for getting rid of stuff or not going on shopping sprees. Once it’s done, the fears don’t seem so large anymore. It’s liberating. If you don’t buy and keep so much stuff you don’t really need, you’re much more likely to not run out of money, run out of space, run out of time.
Where does the fear of not-having come from? One answer would be our culture of consumerism, the way any natural tendency to accumulate is stressed to the point of neurosis, a neurosis which has long since been rendered socially acceptable. Everywhere we turn, advertising tells us that he/she who has the most bling wins, whether the bling is diamonds or power tools. Those who grew up under the frugal influence of the Great Depression or in circumstances of deprivation often have a heightened need to keep everything “just in case,” no matter how unlikely the need will come about. It’s an attitude that has often been passed down through generations. Those who have managed to break free of the mindset when it is no longer needed experience a tremendous sense of freedom.
Most minimalists are not millionaires like Graham Hill, who have sold an Internet business and can afford to buy aesthetic minimalism, which has always been expensive. Most of us are run-of-the-mill folks who simply came to the realization that consumerism is fundamentally unsatisfying. We’re tired of running out of space for the things we’ve accumulated, tired of spending every dime we’ve earned at tiresome jobs for these things, tired of trying to find what we need amid the piles of what we don’t, tired of trying to take care of things we don’t really need and use, tired of the sense of being owned by our stuff and not the other way around, tired of the time lost in shopping and the stress of making a choice among too many choices, tired of keeping up with the tiresome Joneses, tired of reining in our families’ expectations, and tired of the sheer wastefulness of consumerism, of its impact on our environment and our health.
Minimalists come from all socioeconomic strata, not just the privileged. We shop anywhere from Target to Neiman-Marcus, drive 20-year-old Fords and next year’s Audis, wear $500 jeans and $2.50 ones from the 50% off Saturday Sale at the Salvation Army Thrift Store. It doesn’t matter how much the stuff cost, or even what quality it is: too much stuff is too much stuff. The handyman homeowner is going to have more stuff than his brother the Internet entrepreneurial millionaire who can afford to hire someone else to do the repairs, and more stuff than his other brother the nomadic couch-surfer who lives out of a backpack, but it doesn’t mean he has less potential to be a minimalist. But the millionaire who doesn’t use a garage full of power tools because he hires everything done is not a minimalist, and the nomad who borrows without giving back and imposes his way through life isn’t a minimalist but a moocher.
Minimalism for minimalism’s sake is just as much of a trap as blind consumerism. There can be a neurotic, compulsive sloughing off of possessions just as there can be compulsive hand-washing, or certain kinds of masochism. There is also reverse consumerism, an obsession with counting the number of possessions and not allowing them to go over that number. All of these are stress responses, too, just as compulsive shopping and hoarding are. Annie Brewer lays out the dangers of this in her post, “The Slavery of Extreme Minimalism,” warning of losing friendships by being a moocher, and of and impoverishing yourself if you refuse to own the basic things needed to sustain yourself.
It can be argued that minimalism is strictly a luxury for those who have enough. But there are degrees of enough. There are those who have nothing–the truly poor, the homeless, the dispossessed. Their enforced lifestyle is not minimalism, because, with very few exceptions, there was no choice. This leads to something which really ticks me off: people who sneer at minimalism, saying it is an insult to the poor. The comparison is contemptuous and should simply never be made. One is a choice, the other is not.
The choice of minimalism should be celebrated, when the “haves” don’t take up more of the world’s resources than they truly need–and maybe even use some of their own resources for the betterment of the “have-less.”
This post was originally posted under the title, “The Choice of Minimalism,” on March 31st, and reposted under the current title due to a glitch in the feed and email notification service. Apologies to anyone who received a duplicate. M.