Minimalism

I’m not a minimalist. Though I look like one. I think possessing superfluous objects can improve your life, even though I don’t own any yet.

I haven’t lived in the same place for more than 12 months since I was 16 years old. And when I move I sell off, give away, and throw most of my things out. I’ve never decorated a room. I own two pairs of shoes. I wear plain, solid t-shirts absent of pockets or logos. I have three pairs of pants, and a drawer full of one type of sock and underwear. I have a couple hoodies and sweaters, a full-length black cashmere coat, one winter hat, a couple of pairs of shorts, and that’s it. Oh, there are a few rarely-worn shirts, ties and suits in a closet at my parent’s house for special occasions.

I use these clothes to go to class, climb mountains, go to the beach, sit around the apartment, fix houses, and everything else I do.

If it were socially acceptable I’d just wear the monastic brown robe with a rope belt.

My father has asked me about my lack of variety, “Don’t you care about what people think about how you look?”

My response is, “Yes, I do. I want to be thought of as utilitarian, and confident enough to be unconcerned with the types of people who might think less of me based on my wardrobe.”

I like showing up for a group mountain hike where inevitably everyone’s wearing specialized wicking techno-clothing, boots that cost more than my monthly rent, carrying giant back packs, and usually someone even has carbon-fiber walking poles. Meanwhile I’m there in my sneakers, cotton t-shirt, with my lunch stuffed into the leg pockets of my cargo pants and a big bottle of water in my hand. Guess who’s usually the first to the summit?

My other possessions are few. Some kitchenware, some second-hand furniture I’d be happy to abandon if I was moving again, less than 30 books, some bathroom stuff, a 5 year old laptop, a top-of-the line gaming/media pc that I built, and a desktop humidor for my cigars. I have a small, well-maintained ten year old sedan and an “old-fashioned” cell phone. And a small toolbox for refurbishing houses.

But I don’t keep things simple because I think it’s virtuous or liberating. I just do it because I move so frequently, it’s not worth hauling everything around, and since my number one goal at this stage in my life is freeing myself from the necessity for paid work, I only buy something if it is fulfilling a specific need that I can’t otherwise fulfill without buying it. That winds up being very few things.

Which is why I find a few posts on Leo Babuata’s beautiful site where he writes about minimalism a bit surprising.

Consider what I wrote above, with all sincerity, and then consider Leo’s musing here:

There are people who claim never to want stuff anymore, who just don’t care about cool clothes and gadgets and bags and notebooks, who have moved past desiring things.

Those people are lying.

Unless you’re a certified Zen Master, you never move beyond wanting stuff (and even the Zen Masters have their temptations, I’m sure). We’re humans, and we have desires. When the new iPhone comes out, I lust over it just as most technophiles like me do.

Apparently I’m either a liar or a Zen Master. He writes in another post about his desire for consumer gizmos:

Christmas has come and gone, and in its consumerist wake thousands of people are left holding shiny new Kindles, iPads, iPhones and iPods. New toys that are fun, useful and beautiful all at once.

And while I see the attraction of these devices — I’ve been tempted myself many times — I also know that they are some of the best marketing devices ever.

I have absolutely zero desire for any of the stuff he’s mentioned. But if I did, I wouldn’t have some inner struggle to keep me from getting it, I’d just go buy it.

I once took a history class with a professor who was quite interested in museums, curation, and how people relate to objects. He wanted us to think deeply about why people go to museums and why we value all this stuff. When I go to the Museum of Fine Arts and look at King Henry VIII’s suit of armor, isn’t that kind of a silly thing? It’s just a bit of metal that someone fashioned and an historical figure wore on a few occasions. Yet we build multimillion dollar cathedrals to house all this stuff so that we can all just go look at it.

We admire the craftsmanship of the metal work, the beauty of a painting, and somehow the objects help the imagination and provoke thoughts that might not otherwise ever have occurred to us. There’s something pleasant about being next to something real that connects us to a past that often times can feel more like an imagined novel than an actual series of events that has lead up to our current state of affairs. King Henry’s helmet was removed form his head, placed in an armory, sat in a collection, crossed the ocean on a ship, sat in storage, and then was put on display where it was so close to me I could smell the metal it was forged from. It makes him more relatable, more like a human and less like a character.

I believe beautiful objects in a private home can serve similar noble purposes. Whether they be historical artifacts, pieces of art, or objects with an inspirational level of craftsmanship. – Whether it be a hand-carved humidor or the world’s best designed flatware. They can inspire us to the greatness of their craftsmen and constantly remind us of the beauty that humans are capable of.

When I do finally settle down with some sense of permanence, and when my investments have secured my retirement with some confidence, I would enjoy acquiring some well-made objects of antiquity and works of art. And I would like every object in my home, down to the most trivial of things, to be of the greatest quality available. Whether those be things I make or things I purchase. Though my objection to general clutter and the extra cleaning and maintenance duties that come along with more objects and more space will likely, naturally keep all my possessions to a minimum.

But I certainly don’t “lust” after these objects I’m not ready to acquire. – Never mind lusting after modern productions of consumerism that are marketed at me. That’s something I not only don’t feel, but I don’t even understand. How could anyone desire something that takes them further from their greater goals? – Especially something as silly as a telephone.

I suppose, in sum, my point is that the real value of minimalism might not so much be in the ease of living that comes with having few possessions. But rather, in the ease of living that comes with not even desiring those possessions.

I appreciate that minimalism is largely a backlash to consumerism. And I agree that chasing consumer fads will ultimately leave anyone unsatisfied and worse off. But not all objects and possessions are the result of living in a consumer-based society. And I do think the possession of some objects, even the superfluous ones, has the potential to improve life.

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14 Comments

  1. Posted February 4, 2012 at 4:50 am | Permalink

    wonderful post here, and like you I’m either a liar or a Zen Master.

    I’ve never cared for owning things, it simply doesn’t appeal much to me. Feels burdensome and heavy. This requires no effort on my part.

    One the few occasions when something struck my fancy I’ve bought it. our bronze“Esperando un Camino” which I’ve recently written about is one. It brings a smile and inspiration each time I look at it.

    We’ve a few rugs acquired during our travels in Nepal and India that are beautiful and hold memories.

    A few years back Sue was offered at auction. If I’d had the spare 10 million lying around I’d have a T-Rex on display in my home. Of course, I’d also need a bigger house….

  2. fhwdgads
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Hey, your post got linked to on Reddit:
    http://www.reddit.com/r/Frugal/comments/paod3/minimalism/

  3. caracully
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    I can understand not wanting an electronic gizmo, but if you tell me you don’t wish you could wear a big metal codpiece EVERYWHERE you are a very depressing person indeed :crossedarms:

  4. Andy
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    I can relate to some of this. what do you ask for for Christmas? Serious question, this has been my problem.

  5. Posted February 4, 2012 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    @Andy I made a deal with all my siblings not to exchange gifts. I just get stuff for my nieces and nephews.

    I’ve told my parents to not give me anything but my mother insists on giving me some new article of clothing every year and a gift certificate to a restaurant or something.

    My friends usually give me scotch, beer and cigars.

  6. Andy
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    That sounds right. I usually ask for consumable things, which means I get a lot of beer. I have no problem with this.

  7. Posted February 4, 2012 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    @jlcollinsnh A t-rex would be great! I wouldn’t want to have to dust it though. Maybe you could buy it and I’ll just come look at it once in a while.

    @caracully Hey thanks! I forgot to mention my 4 codpieces in my list of clothing…

    @reddit “…he made fun of the hikers with gear in one paragraph, then said the bit about his “top-of-the-line gaming pc” I tuned out… does he not see how hypocritical that is?”

    I don’t.

    If the hikers use that gear to go climbing a couple of times a week and it makes an appreciable difference for them, then I understand why they’d want to spend their money on it. But most of these people are casual, weekend warriors who, like me, only go hiking maybe a half-dozen times a year. Getting the gear is more about being a fashionable, trendy gear-head than it is about getting the proper tools you need to do what it is you want to do. It’s almost like going for a hike is another excuse to go shopping.

    I built my PC entirely with utility and cost-effectiveness in mind. If I could play video games without it, I would.

    “Also decent hiking gear is seriously important…It can literally save your life.”

    Well, considering these are 7-14 mile day hikes going up to 3,500′-5,000′ in elevation I’d say I’m pretty safe.

    My god, what would these people think if they knew I use to run up a mountain every single day of the summer in nothing but a pair of running shorts and sneakers? Apparently I was taking my life into my hands. It seems like some people think they need a first-aid kit to walk anywhere outside of a parking lot. It’s a good thing they didn’t read about how I lived alone in a tent in the middle of the desert for a year. I didn’t even drop $600 at REI for specialized desert-clothes or have any band-aids with me. It’s a wonder I’m alive.

  8. Matt
    Posted February 6, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Nice post, thanks for writing. I have subscribed to a few minimalist blogs before, but wound up unsubscribing because it just felt too much like ‘austerity for the sake of austerity’ – which I see as the equal but opposite ‘trendy gear-head’ you mentioned.

    Regarding “How could anyone desire something that takes them further from their greater goals?”: I always think of rich food while trying to lose weight when I come across this question. You know that bacon/ice cream/pizza is going to take you further away rather than closer to your goals, but you still have the desire for it. It is possible to weaken this desire with enough thinking about the long-term effects, but for me this is a perpetual task and one that cannot ever be truly complete. The same analogy fits for cars, motorcycles, electronics, houses, etc.

  9. Posted February 6, 2012 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    @Matt

    You’re right on with your food example. I think it actually crossed my mind as I was writing. Though I did say “greater” goals, not “long-term” goals. If one of Leo Babuata’s goals is to own few possessions, right now, how could he also simultaneously want something that is contrary to that goal? It’s not necessarily an issue of short-term vs. long-term desires since either goal can be realized immediately. They are simultaneously opposed desires.

    I suppose it’s something akin to trying to be virtuous. e.g. I think immediately forgiving everyone for every transgression would make my life better. Or that being able to love everyone, even my enemies, would make me all the happier. Yet I still sometimes get irked when people tailgate me on the freeway. I could choose to just forgive instantly and be immediately happier when someone follows me too closely, but sometimes I give in to my instinct to roll my eyes and think, “WTF is wrong with that guy!?!?” It’s almost fun to allow myself to feel anger. Even though I know that fun will only last a minute, whereas embracing love fosters a better train of thought and a serenity that lasts much longer.

    I suppose Leo, in his clear-headed moments, believes minimalism will make him happier. But like me dealing with a tail gater in my weaker moments, when he sees well-designed technology he indulges, for a moment, in an almost instinctual desire to possess the beauty before him.

    But I’m not sure the dynamic is as simple as short-term vs. long-term goals. But may be more akin to rational action vs. instinctual/emotional action.

    What makes me and Leo different, is that I’m fortunate enough to not have that instinct to possess stuff. Though, on the same token, I’m sure I have to fight other instincts that Leo doesn’t have to struggle with.

  10. Posted February 7, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always had a problem with Leo. I see him as a hypocrite catering to the masses.

    I think he suggests that it would take a zen master to truly want less because most people on his site want more, not less. So he is pardoning them and saying “don’t worry about it, even a hardcore minimalist like me still wants gizmos.” And then he sells them a book or subscription.

    I like your example about the hiking gear. When I was big into trail running, people always joked because the only “gear” I had was a decent pair of trail running shoes, which I wore for about 1000 miles between replacements compared to the recommended 300 miles.

  11. gzt
    Posted February 8, 2012 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    The serious answer to your liar vs Zen master question is that, yes, you are a Zen master.

  12. hadashi
    Posted February 10, 2012 at 1:07 am | Permalink

    Re hiking and running gear. I only wear shoes when I need them – not often. Not even for some mountains and marathons.

  13. Posted February 10, 2012 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    @hadashi That reminds me of a friend of mine who prefers not to wear any clothes at all when he hikes. Makes for some awkward moments though when you run into others on the trail.

    I admire you guys who can go without footware. It looks terribly impressive to me.

  14. Znmstr253
    Posted February 21, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    You are a zen master. You’re a weirdo hippie drifter with 3 tshirts and a half dozen pairs of sox. Don’t confuse your lack of desire confused with that of a normal human. Though you are right in the idea that you are not special. There have been thousands of weirdo hippie drifters before you, but realize that when someone writes something on a website, they aren’t addressing you. So when you say “hahahaha, that person said that most people think a certain way and you’d have to be a freak not to. Boy is he wrong”. No, you are that freak he’s talking about