Minimalism, My Journey With

I have long been reluctant to label myself a "minimalist." As the movement surrounding the concept of living with less has moved further into mainstream culture, it's become sensationalized, often times by the very people practicing and/or preaching it. This lifestyle choice becomes easy fodder for consistent eye-rolling: the touching stories of how wealthy bankers, stockbrokers, and various others of varying degrees of privilege suddenly recognized the hollow pursuit of material wealth and threw it all away to live "deliberately." Minimalism has become exactly what it fights against: another preferential style that advertisers can capitalize on. The capitalism giant has consumed it and, ironically, made it part of the problem it's trying to stop.  

Another reason for my reluctance to label myself a minimalist is that I'm not really one. I've often preferred the term "compulsive declutterer" --someone who strives to only own things that get use/improve my life, which admittedly is more or less the definition many people use when referencing minimalism. Minimalism, to me, has always implied that you're going without something. I don't feel as if I'm going without anything. I have clothes, shelter, a music collection, access to books, a computer, a guitar, a cell phone, etc. I might have less clothing than many people, but a minimalist? No. I think it's an insult to people who are forced into a lifestyle with less due to their economic realities --much much less than what I have in my quiet little room, or that 95% of us have living in the United States. 

That's what is often difficult to reconcile with many of the proponents of minimalism. It isn't a doubting of their sincerity, or their abilities, or even the truth of the belief; it's that their idea of what it means to "live with less" is warped.

Here's the part of the story where I may modestly surprise you given my semi-snarky tone up to this point: I'm such a staunch believer in this way of life. Even the public faces of this movement who I struggle to connect with offer me a sort of acceptance. Not as members of some exclusive club, but of the idea that minimalism is exactly what you want it to be. If that means owning 33 things, then fine. If it means making an effort to make less garbage, or use less plastic, that works too. Or maybe it just means you're trying to not be controlled by the pursuit of the material goods you own and consume. I appreciate that sentiment, and believe underneath all of ways we can nitpick those who preach this lifestyle (like what I did in the first several paragraphs), that's the point most of these people are making. And there are, hypothetically (I say "hypothetically" because I doubt many people will read this), countless people who would read my story and have the same kind of objections to the sincerity of my pursuit given my own advantages and warped view of the world. 

In that spirit, I'll give you a little look at that story.

I'm not wealthy by bank account measurement. I have a job as a blood courier for the Red Cross that I love, but it will not change the first statement. I have a job that helps people, people I never meet, or know anything about. It's hard not to get some perspective when you're tasked with delivering a "stat" blood order to the children's hospital. You realize your problems are mostly nothing. In short, I'm fulfilled doing this job. Fulfilled despite the pay, despite the frugality it requires of me, despite that I hit a deer last week.

I did not quit a six-figure job to become a minimalist. I never had money. The last job I left was a year ago, where I was making about $12,000 more per year than I'm making now ($28,000 v. $16,000). I left that job because I wasn't fulfilled. I even liked that job; I got to write almost all of the time, got to dabble in pop culture, run blogs, control the content of those blogs, and was made to feel valuable by my bosses. But the end result wasn't if I felt valuable, it's whether or not I felt what I was spending my time doing was valuable. I decided it wasn't and left.

I had $40,000 in student loan debt at that time (I have $28,000 at the present time) and had saved up $8,000 from my nine months of working there. I immediately paid $7,000 on that debt. I list these numbers not to give you more personal information than you wanted, but to show that I didn't have $150,000 in the bank, or a nice two-bedroom condo to sell. I was/am just like most other struggling college graduates, trying to reconcile my finances with my debts, obligations, and far-too-numerous trips to McDonalds.

No, my advantages take on a slightly different look. My advantages stem from things like the ability to live in my parents' attic as I pay off those debts, and having parents who allow that, regardless of the headbutting that inevitably occurs from three adults living in the same house. Sure, that's not quite as sexy of an advantage as having that $150,000 in the bank, but it's an advantage nonetheless, and I'd be blind not to recognize it.

I am a single man with a dog. That's much different than a married man with a wife and three children. That's not to say anyone can't practice their own form of minimalist living, but there are undeniably more obstacles in a family setting. 

We all have our own conglomerate of advantages that defines how we are, or are not, able to operate throughout our life. That's why no one else's journey with minimalism is relevant to your own, but it's also why everyone's is relevant to your own. We share in the reality of having unique circumstances, and each of us show how we're operating within ours.

I was never a pack rat, or a compulsive spender. I never wanted to climb the corporate ladder. However, I still downsized a great deal of what I did own. I sold/donated all of my DVDs and Blue-Rays, all but four or five of my books (I'm not much of a re-reader) and started using the library again, most all of my clothes (no one needs 12 different light jackets --even me, who would wear jackets 365 days a year if Midwestern weather didn't forbid it), got rid of any CD that didn't add value to my listening tendencies (this was tougher than it should have been), and got rid of all of my video games other than the one I'd be currently playing. As of now, that's Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and it's fantastic. 

That last point was a big one. Video games were/are an immensely important part of my life --my first book is specifically about that exact thing. I was selling the deepest, most powerful types of memories. But over time, I watched as each of those games collected dust on my shelves, some sitting in excess of ten years without being picked up. They stood as a monument, not as a useful part of my life. Monuments are hardly useless, but the monument that you're holding onto is not in the physical game itself, but your memories surrounding it; you still have those memories when the physical piece is gone. When I combined that realization with the sentiment that I could sell these games and give someone else a chance to love them as I had, it was an easy decision.

My mattress was something like 25 years old -- I don't even know how old exactly. So, when it came time to replace it, I replaced it with a $94 full-size, roll-uppable, floor bed. As long as you are able to handle something so low to the ground (bad backs and other factors might make that a very unattractive option), I have felt no difference in the amount of comfort or usability. The biggest regret this created was that my border collie seemed legitimately upset she could no longer get under the bed. 

It wasn't a "look how minimalist I am!" purchase. It was a cost-effective one. And we've already been over why cost-effective is as much a survivalist decision as it is a minimalist one. The two really do go hand-in-hand. Furniture that sat unused in corners; second, third, and fourth guitars that hadn't been played in years, are the kinds of things that found themselves donated in the hopes that someone would find a purpose for them. I donated an acoustic guitar to Goodwill and the man accepting the donation said; "Oh, are you giving up the guitar?" I responded by saying I wasn't, but that I had another one and didn't need the one I was donating. He said, "Oh. Wow. Well, this is going to make someone really happy." That made me really happy.

This max exodus of stuff didn't happen overnight. When I first started having the urge to go this direction, there were things I was ready to ax on day one. There were other things --like some of those video games-- that I 100% resolved there was no way I would ever get rid of. It was the process of realizing that, despite feelings to the contrary, I continued to exist after things I thought were indispensable were removed from my life. I was still here. My story didn't vanish; my memories didn't vanish. I just had some more shelf space, sometimes reaching the point when I no longer even needed the shelf.

I thought that the goal: More efficient use of space, less concern over material possessions, decluttering your life means decluttering your mind, all the sorts of things that normally sit alongside minimalist chatter. And those things happened. The unexpected, but now unsurprising, response was how much this changed my relationship with the way I consumed things. I find myself having to argue with myself as to why I should buy just about anything. I have to convince myself why I need something, as opposed to why I don't. Some people might find that tiring, or as evidence that I'm actually a schizophrenic, but it offers an opportunity to recognize the type of things that truly improve your life, and it cuts down dramatically on things that don't.

The incessant barrage of commercialism --along with the reality that we have to consume to survive-- makes this an uphill battle, a battle that I still lose on a semi-regular basis. There's no right way to do this minimalism thing, if you have interest in doing it at all --it's more a lifestyle preference as it a case of right or wrong. But as with many things in life, one thing begets another. I find myself with an attitude that begets a lifestyle with a lower financial requirement for survival, which allows me to work a job I love for less money (even if I had an apartment or small house), thus keeping me from a job I dislike for more money and longer hours, which allows me to follow more of my passions, which makes me much happier. But that's just me. That might not be what's right for you. But if you try this minimalism thing within your own circumstances, you might be surprised at the results.

As surprised as I am that you read this all the way to the end.

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