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Institute for Jedi Realist Studies - The problem with minimalism - Institute for Jedi Realist Studies

The problem with minimalism

  • Jax
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Jax created the topic: The problem with minimalism

www.artofmanliness.com/2014/07/31/the-problem-with-minimalism/

I think this brings up good points. Not that it's 100% correct to me, but these are counter points that aren't often seen.

(copy and paste will miss some links, so please click through to the main link)

While taking most of this week off from posting in order to get through a backlog of to-dos, I’ve also been working on a post for Monday about how redundancies can increase your antifragility. While I’ll explain what I mean next week, I thought I’d anticipate one objection to such an argument: it contradicts the philosophy of minimalism – the commitment to not having any “unnecessary” stuff in your life. Long story short: I was going to address that in the redundancy post itself, but it’s become apparent to me that it would be better as a separate post ahead of time. So let’s do it.

Minimalism is a lifestyle/movement that’s been around for centuries, and waxes and wanes as part of the cultural zeitgeist. Several years ago it resurfaced in a big way. Blogs about being zen and simple living rocketed up in popularity, and people started taking the “100 Thing Challenge.”

Minimalism has even been touted a couple times on this very blog, and I really like the idea of it as a whole. There is something very inspiring about living Spartanly, and there are some definite benefits to doing so. It helps you not get caught up in the consumerism trap, and keeping your life free of excess stuff unburdens your mind from that weight, allows you to be mobile and travel light, and helps you save money and focus on that which is really valuable.

But, it’s one of those things that can be taken too far. Despite a desire I sometimes get to embrace minimalism wholly, there have always been a few things that have made me uncomfortable about it:

Strict minimalism is largely for the well-off…

What first got me thinking more critically about minimalism was an article I read a few years back in the New York Times, which begins thusly:

I LIVE in a 420-square-foot studio. I sleep in a bed that folds down from the wall. I have six dress shirts. I have 10 shallow bowls that I use for salads and main dishes. When people come over for dinner, I pull out my extendable dining room table. I don’t have a single CD or DVD and I have 10 percent of the books I once did.

The author of the piece, Graham Hill, then goes on to explain how his current lifestyle is a big departure from how he had formerly carried on. Having come into a huge windfall after selling an internet start-up in the 90s, Hill indulged in big-ticket purchases and found his life inundated with stuff. That all changed when he fell in love with a woman from Andorra, and he packed his possessions in a backpack to follow her around the world. By traveling light, he was able to reevaluate his relationship with mere stuff, and now intentionally lives “small.”

I both enjoyed Hill’s story and felt bugged by it, and I couldn’t figure out the reason for my latter reaction until I came across a little essay by Charlie Lloyd:

Wealth is not a number of dollars. It is not a number of material possessions. It’s having options and the ability to take on risk.

If you see someone on the street dressed like a middle-class person (say, in clean jeans and a striped shirt), how do you know whether they’re lower middle class or upper middle class? I think one of the best indicators is how much they’re carrying.

Lately I’ve been mostly on the lower end of middle class (although I’m kind of unusual along a couple axes). I think about this when I have to deal with my backpack, which is considered déclassé in places like art museums. My backpack has my three-year-old laptop. Because it’s three years old, the battery doesn’t last long and I also carry my power supply. It has my paper and pens, in case I want to write or draw, which is rarely. It has a cable to charge my old phone. It has gum and sometimes a snack. Sunscreen and a water bottle in summer. A raincoat and gloves in winter. Maybe a book in case I get bored.

If I were rich, I would carry a MacBook Air, an iPad mini as a reader, and my wallet. My wallet would serve as everything else that’s in my backpack now. Go out on the street and look, and I bet you’ll see that the richer people are carrying less.

As with carrying, so with owning in general. Poor people don’t have clutter because they’re too dumb to see the virtue of living simply; they have it to reduce risk.

When rich people present the idea that they’ve learned to live lightly as a paradoxical insight, they have the idea of wealth backwards. You can only have that kind of lightness through wealth.

If you buy food in bulk, you need a big fridge. If you can’t afford to replace all the appliances in your house, you need several junk drawers. If you can’t afford car repairs, you might need a half-gutted second car of a similar model up on blocks, where certain people will make fun of it and call you trailer trash.

Please, if you are rich, stop explaining the idea of freedom from stuff as if it’s a trick that even you have somehow mastered.

The only way to own very little and be safe is to be rich.

Basically, minimalism is largely something only well-off people can afford to pursue, because their wealth provides a cushion of safety. If they get rid of something, and then need it later, they’ll just buy it again. They don’t need to carry much else besides a wallet when they’re out and about; if they need something, they’ll just buy it on the fly. No sweat. If you’re not so well-off, however, having duplicates of your possessions can be necessary, even if such back-ups ruin the aesthetics of owning just 100 possessions.

…and philosopher bachelors.

It is true that there have been exceptions to this rule throughout history — men who have been both intentionally poor and dedicated minimalists. They simply do not care for possessions, or what will happen to their bodies if they lose them; if they have to live on the street and beg for their supper, so be it. Certainly there is something inspiring about this kind of commitment, but it comes with a couple caveats.

First, these men have almost invariably been bachelors – philosophers, monks, spiritual teachers, and the like. Still today, the vast majority of lifestyle design gurus and minimalist converts are men without children.

Now people can debate all the day long about whether this is perhaps the way every man should go – holding on to the freedom to do whatever you’d like, indefinitely. But for those who are immovable in the conviction that family constitutes the greatest happiness in life, strict minimalism becomes, if not impossible, then highly undesirable. I could have my children sleep in a cardboard box and use a twig as a teething toy, but there are a good number of accouterments that make rearing one’s rugrats infinitely easier.

Second, the ranks of even history’s most supposedly hardiest minimalists are fewer in number than legend might have us believe. For just one example, Henry David Thoreau is often looked to as the high priest of minimalism (“Simplify, simplify, simplify!”). While he did indeed live sparsely while at Walden Pond (though his family often brought him meals), he spent most of the remainder of his life occupying the attic of his parents’ comfortable, well-appointed home! He enjoyed quite the safety net. So too, he amassed a large collection of both books and natural specimens that cluttered his living quarters, and he took much joy in these collections.

Minimalism still makes stuff the focus of your life!

The great irony of minimalism is that while it purports to free you from a focus on stuff, it still makes stuff the focus of your life! The materialist concentrates on how to accumulate things, while the minimalist concentrates on how to get rid of those things…ultimately they’re both centering their thoughts on stuff. It’s like a compulsive overeater and a bulimic. One thoroughly enjoys eating, and stuffs his face whenever and wherever he can. The other eats, hates himself for eating, and then purges it out. But they’re both obsessed with food. The satisfying “high” one gets from decluttering has always struck me as a little unsettling (though I experience it myself!); you accumulate stuff, and then revel in purging it out of your life, only to quite often repeat the cycle once more. What a weird First World phenomena.

A Moderate Minimalism

As I said at the beginning, I think minimalism is a great thing, just not when taken to extremes. A man should have a healthy relationship with his possessions, and that means getting into the right mindset about them, and then not thinking about them very much at all. Most of the great men I admire from history knew what they needed and enjoyed (check out their libraries and studies). They accumulated things that were both practical and simply brought them pleasure. They bought things that were well-made and wouldn’t have to be replaced over and over. They didn’t hoard or surround themselves with junk. They didn’t go overboard and stretch their budget to keep up with the Joneses. And they didn’t have to make a philosophy on stuff central to their lives, because they had too much else going on to need it. They didn’t have time to worry if 103 possessions might be too many, if their huge library of books should be reduced, if their studio full of art supplies was too cluttered, or if a room dedicated to hunting trophies might be weighing down their psyche. But they were minimalists where it mattered: in paring down the time-wasters and soul-suckers that would hold them back from creating a rich, manly legacy.
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Katie (StormyKat) replied the topic: The problem with minimalism

Very timely. I have been trying to pare down the stuff in my life for the last few years. Every once in a while it flares up again, this strong desire to purge. And that's what it is, a purge. I go through stuff and just get rid of things. It feels amazing. However, at this particular moment I am slightly regretting a poster I recently donated to an animal rescue organization for their yard sale. Mind you, I know that in 10 years I won't care about this poster, nor am I likely to ever display this poster in my living quarters. It was just a totally awesome poster.

I have felt bad when I was done with purging and didn't get rid of more stuff. For example, I have a storage container under my bed filled with blankets. (I went through a phase in high school when I collected blankets...idk?) I don't use half the blankets in there, so by the philosophy of minimalism I should toss them. I shouldn't hold on to them if I haven't used them in 6 months or more. Problem with that is lots of them have sentimental value--the quilt made of my high school theater t-shirts!--and one day, when I am eventually on my own, I will need blankets. Blankets are essential. I felt bad when I couldn't get rid of blankets. I was failing as a minimalist. Yet, I had that voice in my head that said, "what if you need them in the future. You spent good money on them. Do you want to spend more money in the future?" I love that the article talks about minimalism being something for well-off people to pursue. I have had similar thoughts, "what if I need to buy this again in the future?" and then felt guilty for holding on to things. Yet it had never come across to me in just the same way the author mentions it!

Having said that, I will also say trying to be a minimalist has been one of the best things I have done. I now am much more prudent about what I buy, especially related to books. Instead of going to the bookstore, I go to the library first. I am much more aware of what I buy beyond clothes and food. When I went to Comic-Con last week I was very, very aware of what I was buying. I looked at stuff and went "do I really want that?" "What am I going to do with that?" and "I don't want that" to just about everything I saw. It is such a better way to live. Yes, I still pick up stuff that I don't need--that tiny plush Tuskan Raider and Bantha, not essential--but I am much more alert to what I accumulate.
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Jax replied the topic: Re:The problem with minimalism

That's the real goal to me. Be aware of what you buy. I'm still learning how to cut down because I don't want things wasted , but many times no one wants random little things. I try to use that to help me make better choices going forward.
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Luminara replied the topic: The problem with minimalism

Ah ha! I understand my ex one degree more.
He was constantly wanting to pare things down (especially my things, of course) - if an area got too cluttered, he "solved" it by removing the storage that was in the area.... If something got ruined due to his inattention, it was a "good thing" because it meant less stuff.

Several things were consistently disregarded.
1. We were raising four kids in a house about 700 sq ft. and a yard scarcely the size of the house's footprint.
2. Kids = stuff... growing kids = more stuff. (He refused to move to a larger house.)
3. Stuff destroyed/removed may end up needing to be rebought...

However, knowing other things about his odd behaviors, I understand that his desire for minimalism was among many of his other desires - to pretend to be rich... To buy the expensive cheeses, and things like that - and then not understand where the money was going... To expect me to step in for the non-existent maid to make lavish Sunday roast meals every week, like clockwork - it was another status thing - from a man who had grown up in the US, believing that the "proper" English gentleman was like a cross between Henry Higgins and George Banks - both wealthy men... Although neither of those men were minimalists, the modern signs of wealth must have rubbed off on him in other ways (he has since taken up smoking the occasional cigar - very odd for someone who had never smoked.)

Writer, photographer, astrologer, student of the universe.

All that we are is the result of what we have thought.
The mind is everything.
What we believe, we become.
Buddha
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Brandel Valico replied the topic: The problem with minimalism

Okay a few thoughts on this. I think the idea of minimalist living for myself is more about attachment to things then it is about getting rid of things and only having a 100 items. (LOL I have more then a 100 books alone) It doesn't matter how much stuff you have or how big your house is or what you carry. If you need it or it serves a purpose or you honestly feel it does then keep it.

I mean really consider what the objective is.... Is it really about getting rid of things and living a spartan life? Perhaps it's actually about learning that stuff isn't really the measure at all. It is about learning to let go of things and not desire and crave them and let that desire drive you to hold on to them. If you need something use it. Once you no-longer need it let it go.

Just my thoughts

HOMO SUM HUMANI A ME NIHIL ALIENUM PUTO
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Kol Drake replied the topic: The problem with minimalism

I originally had this over on recess for morale... but this seems to fit right in with the thread...
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Kind of the polar opposite of a minimalist and yet, the same idea that having LOTS of things can bring more happiness -- just as having zero 'things' would bring less anxiety and more happiness. As Brandel notes -- it is not the 'things' that determine your happiness or lack of; it is YOU that determines your happy level.
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Luminara replied the topic: The problem with minimalism

In leaving the UK, I learned a LOT about what things were actually important to me. I couldn't afford to ship many things, eventually getting it down to 2.1 cubic meters, I think the final was.

I do not wish to have too many things again. Instead of collecting movies, I plan to do netflix or something as soon as I can afford it. (In the mean time, I see what I can find for free... or trial...) I would rather use the library more and the book store less (though my mother loves buying books!)

Hobbies which require a lot of investment (money/time/space) are more likely to get a pass this time... I'd rather buy acrylic paints and learn how to alter them for different uses rather than buy the same colors in several different mediums. No more one-use appliances... (If it had been totally up to me, I wouldn't have a popcorn popper either - as I can do it in a pot just fine.)
There are things which help you to be more frugal - as someone mentioned.

Having appropriate canning/freezing/storage equipment can help you spend very little on food and learn to be semi-self-sufficient. Having a good, modern sewing machine will help keep you clothed - and with a little extra creativity make old clothes new again... Board games to share with the family (good ones, not the faddish ones which tend to be terrible) help bond the family together and produce good thinking skills... (I've had some ideas recently on how to make some of these games oneself - for use outside or wherever - including some recent inspiration from a Hawaiian festival.)

Some things are good to have. Minimalism should never become a goal in itself, but a measuring stick to remind yourself of what is really necessary and/or useful - and what is just clutter.

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All that we are is the result of what we have thought.
The mind is everything.
What we believe, we become.
Buddha
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Jax replied the topic: The problem with minimalism

Lots of great examples and perspectives. Thanks everyone!
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Katie (StormyKat) replied the topic: The problem with minimalism

Everyone has fabulous comments! I love them all and everyone's take on minimalism.

Part of my goal is to live a simple, "spartan" life. Perhaps not super spartan, but more than I am now. When I travel I love staying in hotels because they are always so sparse. There is no clutter on the dressers. No knick-knacks. There aren't thousands of pictures hanging on the walls. You generally aren't tripping over furniture, or shoes or stuff like that. I come home and my desk is covered in papers--for Jedi classes, for bills to pay, for things to look into. My dresser is cluttered with cat medication, mail, a few knick-knacks. My book shelves have books, pictures, toys and lord knows what on them. Things just look messy. I want a simple life. I don't want walls covered in so much stuff that the room looks five times smaller. I don't want stuff overflowing. I want to be able to fit everything into a handful of boxes when I finally move.

Getting rid of items that are potentially useful though is not a good idea, especially when you are not a rich (wo)man. I spent damned good money on those blankets. I don't want to spend more money on more blankets in the future unless those blankets wear out!

One tip I have found is for things that I don't need or particularly want, but that have sentimental value is to take pictures of them. I have also tried putting things out of sight for a few months to see if I really miss it. These have both been helpful ways that I got rid of belongings that became just "stuff".
In the mean time I am more mindful of what new things I buy.
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Katie (StormyKat) replied the topic: The problem with minimalism

I got to thinking about this topic the other day. I recently joined a Facebook group called "The Life-changing Magic of Tidying up" inspired by the book of the same title.

I asked if anyone there ever feels like they get to a point where they are getting rid of things just to get rid of things. I used the example of blankets. I have a storage container with blankets in it. I use two of the blankets regularly, one less regularly, one hardly ever and one I completely forgot was in there (I gave that one to my dad to use)! I don't feel it would be wise to get rid of the blankets I don't use. One day I will have my own place and I will need extra blankets. I'm not all about holding on to things "in case" however, BLANKETS! You can always use blankets!! Clearly I am not going to run out and buy more blankets right now, I also just don't feel like it would be wise to get rid of blankets that I will use one day in the future.

It so felt like everyone in the group was "ganging up" for lack of a better term. Like they had all become tiddying junkies!

How does everyone else feel about that fine line between saving something that will be useful in the future vs holding on to something "just in case" when it just becomes more clutter!
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