"Let It Go" is not just a runaway hit song from a highly lucrative Disney movie. It's a minimalist call to arms, a new way of being, a hot trend, and it's striking people of means everywhere you look. So what's it all about?
Minimalism, it cannot be said any simpler, is about minimalism. It's been cropping up for years in trend pieces, and has always been a battle cry of the anti-consumerist, but lately, actual regular people I know with jobs and means are talking about it. This one woman I know just quit her job and sold everything to hitchhike this summer. My husband works with a woman who is retiring soon to a tiny house. In the last couple days alone, I've read a piece on XOJane titled "Not Owning Stuff is the New Owning Stuff" and an interview at Slate with the authors of a memoir about getting rid of their stuff who are in the midst of a kind of minimalist moment as so-called evangelists of living with less.
Call it downsizing or down-stuffing, shit-elimination, going low-main, decluttering, nothing-core, demaxifying, thing-lite, Thoreau-ing it or any other assorted turns of phrase I just made up that absolutely no one is using, but the message is still the same: Life is better with fewer things. Less is more. You don't need stuff — even the stuff you think you need. Especially the stuff you think you need. Look, man: "Stuff" is just a security blanket you surround yourself with to distract from the big picture, the real point, the actual purpose, and all that jazz, don't you see, man? And it's suffocating you. Lighten your load = lift your burden.
Part of the recent surge in press coverage on minimalism is because of those aforementioned evangelists: Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, childhood friends, owners of few things. Their blog "The Minimalists" feeds two million readers, and they are on tour currently for their recent book on the lifestyle, Everything That Remains. The duo, says Slate, grew up poor in Dayton, Ohio, had six-fig jobs in corporate America by 30, got tired of all the bullshit and decided to untether at 32. Weary thing-owners at 32! That is telling.
Turns out that these weary thing-ridders have pretty smart stuff to say. They talk of asking themselves "Does this thing add value to my life?" before discarding, and the realization that once they got rid of a few things, getting rid of more stuff only got easier from there:
I didn't just "declutter," though. As far as I can tell, decluttering alone is sort of a farce, a trend promulgated on daytime TV and in trite magazine stories like "67 Ways to Declutter a Messy Home." What we're not told is that decluttering by itself doesn't solve the problem, not long term anyway. Discussing how to get rid of our stuff answers only the what side of the equation, but not the why; the action, but not the purpose; the how-to, but not the significantly more important why-to. In other words, the what is relatively easy. We all know instinctually how to declutter—how to get "organized." But that's just one part of the larger issue. Instead of "get organized," I've decided I need to start thinking of organizing as a dirty word, a sneaky little profanity which keeps us from really simplifying our lives.
Whether our homes are strewn with wall-to-wall junk or we have a color-coded and alphabetized methodology to camouflage our mess, we're still not dealing with the real problem. No matter how organized we are, we must continue to care for the stuff we organize, sorting and cleaning our meticulously structured belongings. When we get rid of the superabundance of stuff, however, we can make room for life's more important aspects. I can now spend my day focusing on that which is truly important—health, relationships, writing—instead of re-reorganizing my basement. Once the excess stuff is out of the way, staying organized is much easier anyway; it's like getting organized without the stress of actual organizing.
Right on. I can't take issue with any of that. We've reached a critical mass of consumerism, with everything deliverable available everywhere within days or even seconds. And yet, even the concept of the cloud — everything you need is up there somewhere — perpetuates the idea that physical copies of books or records or photos are pointless. If everything that matters can be accessed from the rectangle in your pocket, it only follows that'd we'd start scrutinizing the rest of our possessions eventually.
But, like pretty much all earnest endeavors in existence, it's also easy to mock. But Millburn and Nicodemus have already anticipated your backlash with this tongue-in-cheek paragraph:
So what is this whole minimalism thing all about? To tell you the truth, it's quite simple: to be a minimalist you must live with less than 100 things, and you can't own a car or a home or a television, and you can't have a career, and you have to be able to live in exotic hard-to-pronounce places all over the world, and you have to start a blog, and you can't have any children, and you have to be a young white male from a privileged background.
They're kidding! Millburn only has 288 things. But seriously: Yes, maybe everyone can do some kind of minimalism. Maybe you are already wealthy, at least, wealthier than you think. And maybe you don't have to throw away your prized possessions like some people do, you can just do little minimalist things, like cutting your cable or just getting rid of old clothes.
But let's get a few things straight: Tiny houses can still be expensive. They require land, resources, and mortgages. And those "tiny mortgages" are only tiny to the middle class. $400 a month for a 15-year-loan to build a 130 sq. ft. house on wheels may as well be Versailles if all you can afford is a trailer/have no credit/bad credit/no job/bad job. No matter that the house only costs $16,000. It's nothing to someone who was expecting to spend $150,000, but it's still everything to someone with nothing.
More significantly, getting rid of things requires the having of things. If minimalism is a kind of voluntary thing-poverty, then real poverty is involuntary minimalism. Some fans of minimalism have considered such accusations and insist they aren't true, that anyone can "pause, breathe, and decide to live life differently" and that minimalism isn't just for rich people and we could all just not buy an iPad, especially when our old Macs are working just fine.
I'll let this response to that quote from Bike Snob NYC answer that:
To be fair, an interviewer does ask Millburn this very question:
Weld: Minimalism comes from choice, though. People must have the option to choose to be minimalist — to choose which items are necessary and which are not. In order to say "no," you have to have the opportunity to say "yes." Would you say this way of life is only for the privileged? For instance, many Birmingham residents live in low-income neighborhoods. Is this book for them?
JM: It's about asking quality questions. No matter what situation you're in, good thought comes from asking better quality questions. That's what I had to start doing in my own life. When I grew up, we grew up poor in a crappy little neighborhood. The house I grew up in is boarded up now. We didn't have a lot of money, so by the time I left the house when I was 18, I realized, you know what, I don't want to live that way, and I assumed the reason we were unhappy and had so much discontent in our lives was because we didn't have much money. I didn't really realize that the time, half a lifetime ago, was that the reason we were poor wasn't that we didn't have much money. We didn't have much money, or we were poor, because we were making poor decisions consistently.
But even quality questions are a luxury, as are quality responses. As is quality in general. Quality wages. Quality living quarters. Quality neighborhoods. And so on. And Millburn's own choices upon leaving home were likely different than the choices of even his own parents. I'm not saying that people in poverty can't act deliberately or that there's no way out, but there is a bootstrap mentality that often goes with success — I pulled myself up, why shouldn't other people? Sometimes, the only choices you have are shit ones. And it will always be easier to say having things doesn't matter when you have too many things.
Image by Jim Cooke.