The Existential Minimalist
The other day, my husband said, “You’re really not a minimalist at all.”
And he was entirely correct. I’m not. I’m not a natural-born minimalist in the least, and that’s why minimalism is a “thing” for me, and so effective.
Finding one’s way in the fog.
My basic nature has a huge appetite for stuff. I’ve always been vulnerable to acquiring new or better or prettier or more interesting things in my life, not so much for the sake of owning them, but because owning them was usually the only way to utilize them. As it did and probably still does to most Americans, earning money to spend money this way seemed perfectly normal. In the meantime, I kept old things because I’d often bring them back into rotation when I fancied a change or when there was a particular need for them. Or I’d keep them for sentimental reasons, or just-in-case reasons. That also seemed normal, even logical.
But when things changed, and earning money became hard, the spending was forced to stop. Suddenly, a lifelong way of being in the world could no longer be sustained. I could either feel demoralized, even trapped–or I could change my relationship to consumerism.
Seven years ago, I underwent a minimalist-driven purge and refocus that changed the way I lived, worked, and shopped. The end result was phenomenal, reining in my next-shiny-object attention span to zero in on writing four novels of over 100K words apiece. And it went a long way toward enabling me to live within my means and to live comfortably in a small house. In short, it made me happier and more productive. I felt more in control, which is a real luxury, and much freer.
The topic of freedom has been on my mind of late, thanks to participating in a philosophical discussion about an Albert Camus quote affixed to the wall of the local coffee shop:
The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.
Camus, of course, was an Existentialist philosopher who gave us the notion of the Absurd. For him, there was no intrinsic meaning to life–there is no purpose, divine or otherwise. Searching for meaning in religion was a cop-out. But so, too, was nihilism and committing suicide because of that lack of meaning. Instead, the greatest thing was to go on and live life as if there was meaning to it, despite the great Absurdity that there was no meaning to it. It was the ultimate way to rebel, and thus to be free.
The freedom comes from the sense of control over one’s life choices, which in turn is possible because of one’s awareness of the Absurd, rather than some tenuous belief in one’s self or divine destiny. Toward this end, one is free to utilize constructs, such as learning a trade, or running for office, as long as one doesn’t believe in them, or turn them into the meaning of life, or a religion.
Minimalism is one such construct. It has no objective existence, like a cat or a fish, but is constructed by the mind and experienced within the context of one’s culture and society. This lends it well to individual interpretation. But I am far from the only one to say that it’s an excellent way to achieve a sense of freedom in a consumerist culture, by giving us a way to reframe our relationship with what we own and why.
As a practice, minimalism helps us to stop believing in consumerism, that we can buy ourselves a meaning for our lives. This is the danger of the Kon-Mari decluttering method, in my opinion. It’s still embedding meaning into our possessions. Now, this might work in Japan, where the culture is entwined with Taoism. But American culture is capitalism. Newer and better and bigger and shinier and trendier is our way of expressing to ourselves and others who we are and where we’re at in life. It’s the entire meaning of existence, the entire purpose for choosing our life’s paths, for a vast number of people. When it’s difficult to achieve, it’s demoralizing, and freedom and happiness are elusive.
The Great Recession was a clarifying moment for many people, when the difficulty in achieving traditional material security turned out to be nearly insurmountable for everyone from Baby Boomers down to Millennials. We were, and for the most part still are, faced with the great Absurdity of Capitalism: working hard and following the rules of the game is the way to achieve financial security/happiness, but the rules don’t actually exist, or are arbitrary, at best. There were no government regulation safety nets. God wasn’t providing, or rewarding your hard work, either. You’re on your own, pal.
Perhaps it was natural to downsize and start detaching from “stuff” at the same time that we detached from the above illusions, and reinvented our lives with reliable constructs, constructs that involved controlling our desires and how we spend our time. In essence, with minimalism, we can become so free, that our very existence is a rebellion against the snares of consumerism.