The Five-Minute Guide to Minimalism
We live in a culture obsessed with stuff…or do we?
How many shirts do you have? What spices are in your cabinet? Can you remember which “keepsakes” you’ve held onto are stuffed in a little drawer somewhere?
Like many people, I had a vague sense of how to answer many of those questions. I wasn’t quite sure how many t-shirts I owned, but I knew that I kept some packed away because I didn’t wear them anymore. I knew if I was running low on salt or pepper, but usually couldn’t remember if I actually had oregano at my apartment. I kept a few small boxes of things bound up with precious memories, but only ever stumbled upon them by accident. I almost never knew what I really possessed.
We tend to associate minimalism with people who do not care about things. There’s that terrific story about the Greek philosopher Diogenes, for instance, who owned nothing in life but the rags on his back and a small bowl. Allegedly, when Diogenes saw a child cup his hands to drink water from a stream, he shattered the bowl. For most of us, I think Diogenes strikes us as what most minimalists are chasing: A life without possessions.
In truth, though, minimalism is not about simply ridding oneself of material things. That strategy is not minimalism, it is spring cleaning. Think how often you and I undertake such a task, trying to neaten our living spaces, only to discover that a few weeks later things are back to their previous state. Soon, we shake our heads and give up, feeling defeated by our own inadequacy. That vicious cycle certainly does not feel like minimalism. In fact, I think many of our cultural problems with possessions do not stem from loving things too much, but from respecting them too little.
Perhaps we have confused minimalism with something else. In fact, I think for many people the word minimalism is secretly intertwined with “asceticism.” An ascetic is someone who spurns all material or bodily pleasures in pursuit of a goal, such as Christians who practice severe fasting during Lent. For most people, a minimalist is really just a modern ascetic, fleeing from the material world.
Properly speaking, however, a minimalist is not an ascetic—and the clue is in the name. A minimalist is someone who seeks to reduce their belongings to the minimum needed to thrive. In other words, minimalism seeks to embrace those things which are good for us and set aside those which are not. Consider how much freedom that definition leaves you. After all, while most of us know what we need to survive, what each individual needs to thrive is much less set-in-stone.
I have a friend who likes to joke that she is a “maximalist.” The walls of her apartment are covered with things she finds exciting or beautiful. She even possesses—much to my horror—a piece depicting Scooby-Doo as the Mona Lisa. She calls it “the Scooba Lisa.” I call it a nightmare. I must admit, though, she thrives in this environment, surrounded by things that spark her creativity and make her feel at home. Despite what she says, I secretly believe my friend is a minimalist—or quite close to one. She has found things which delight her and filled her home with them. Like the world-famous slogan of organizational guru Marie Kondo advises, my friend has filled her life with things that “spark joy.” It does not matter how much one owns—only that one enjoys all of it to the fullest.
Compared to her apartment, my own looks quite barren. Yet my own space is also now one of comfort and delight to me. Just looking around, I can see many of the material things which are most important to me. I can see a picture of some of my close friends from college. The Bible I read from when I became a Christian sits next to where I sleep. A handmade coaster from my older brother rests on my desk, just next to my computer and microphone. All these things are wonderful to me because they all have a common purpose: Assisting me in my walk throughout life.
Beginning the shift from to minimalism is not always easy. We are possessed by our possessions, usually because we do not know what all of them are…and that ignorance worries us. That transition can begin, however, by simply noticing how the things you own affect your life. Do you have so many dishes that you simply pile them up because washing them would be too time consuming? Are your shelves packed with books that do not really interest you? Are you unable to name the items in your closet without checking? Taking stock of what you own will likely show you which things move you closer towards becoming who you wish to be…and which things with which you are ready to part.