I don’t own a couch. There’s one chair in my living room, and there’s a small end table that doubles as my coffee table. There is a television, and there is internet/cable equipment, but there are no lamps and no decor.
Last night I watched a documentary on the resurgence of minimalism. It seems that after decades of rampant consumer frenzy, a small counter-culture movement in opposition to materialism is afoot. Initially, I felt an unearned sense of pride at being ahead of the trend, but then I had to examine whether or not that’s a valid claim.
I’ve never been a materialistic guy. I didn’t grow up with much luxury or excess, and I think that tends to affect people in one of two ways: Some learn to be comfortable living with less, and some spend their lives trying to ensure they never have to again. I’m of the former camp.
Over the years, I’ve prided myself on what I’ve considered to be my adaptability. Because I have very few material “wants”, I don’t often confuse them with my concrete “needs” which are then pretty easy to meet. This quality has enabled me to travel through some less comfortable parts of the world in a less restricted manner, free to experience environments organically instead of through the obscuring veils of privilege and convenience.
Spending time legitimately cold and hungry does change your perspective, it’s true.
Despite my silly self-righteousness, though, I was able to identify some significant differences between myself and the gentlemen in the documentary who had purposely chosen minimalism as their preferred lifestyle.
For one thing, theirs was a conscious and purposeful decision. It contained an element of sacrifice in favor of an ideal. I would like to say the same is true for me, but I certainly can’t say it is true in the same way. The two men in the video had already attained corporate success and had abandoned it for a simpler lifestyle that makes them happier.
“Still, there is an undeniable part of me that truly does embrace and accept the minimalist philosophy, especially when I’m alone.”
I never attained any real corporate or financial success. I dabbled in small business with enough success to support myself and my small family for a little while, and I at one point enjoyed enough professional success to be recognized by my peers and my betters, even if I wasn’t financially rewarded for my accomplishments. I never abandoned the “riches” for the “rags”, though, because I never acquired the “riches” in the first place.
Does that matter? You could certainly argue that it does. Doesn’t the person who’s willed their own way to a massive weight loss have a somewhat more legitimate claim to their subscription to a diet and exercise program than the person who couldn’t gain a pound if they tried? You could say I’m claiming to be a disciple of a process that concludes where I naturally started.
The second major difference between a true, practicing minimalist and me is that while it’s true that I maintain very little comfort, convenience, and property for myself, it’s also true that I spend a lot of time taking advantage of the material possessions that other people acquire and maintain.
For instance, I don’t currently own a car. I don’t like to drive, I enjoy bicycling, and I support the notion of a world with fewer personal motor vehicles. That doesn’t stop me from riding around with my girlfriend in her car, though, or even from borrowing it from her when it is just much more convenient for me to drive somewhere.
I started out this article by talking about my spartan living accommodations, but I left out that I currently spend very little time there, and instead spend most of my time in my girlfriend’s comfortably decorated, furnished, and supplied apartment. We’re moving into a new apartment together in less than a month, and I’ll be contributing very little to the new place while enjoying the convenience of a quite a bit of my girlfriend’s “stuff.”
I spent most of my adult life married (20 years) and in pretty much the same dynamic. There was very little in our marital home you could point to and definitively label as mine. That is not to say, however, that I didn’t benefit on a daily basis from the food processors and footstools, china and changing tables, appliances and accessories that threatened to burst our house at the seams.
Still, there is an undeniable part of me that truly does embrace and accept the minimalist philosophy, especially when I’m alone. When my ex-wife and I separated, I thought nothing of leaving the house and everything in it (except my clothes, and I didn’t even take most of them) behind with her. I happily signed the section of the divorce decree in which I claimed not a single household possession for myself.
What’s more, I’ve not felt any urge to acquire anything for myself, except a bicycle, in the three and a half years since. I don’t even own a microwave. I’m not rolling in stacks of money, but I could afford a microwave. Even when I’m alone and outside of a relationship, I just don’t have an internal desire to own objects.
It’s not even that I’m cheap or frugal. I’m terrible with money, and I don’t even want anything when someone else is paying for it. I’m notoriously difficult to buy for during the holidays, preferring to enjoy experiences rather than to receive material gifts.
Perhaps I do naturally have some ideological inclinations toward a minimalist lifestyle. Still, you don’t have to take a long or hard look at me to catch me enjoying the fruits of someone else’s more materialistic life. I suppose I land in some admittedly semi-hypocritical gray zone in between.
So, if you see me at a dinner party acting holier-than-thou, don’t take me too seriously. Despite what I may claim, even I am not 100% sold that my alleged minimalism is the result of some noble philosophical policy; it could just be that I’ve never really put forth the necessary effort to make it otherwise.