Thursday, August 25, 2011

Minimalism - an update on our progress (or lack thereof)

A number of people have been asking us about our attempts to simplify our lives by getting rid of stuff. Others have been understandably silent on the matter. The whole notion, after all, can sound a bit preachy or, cringe, trendy. But hey, it's my blog, and I'm not forcing anyone to read it.

The truth is, the whole movement can get pretty extreme, almost religious in its zeal, and we're not the religious types. But like most religions, there is at least grain of human truth, of wisdom at its core. Taken to its extreme, the minimalist movement is a rejection of modernity, a rebellion against consumer culture, a search for something more, well grounded, rooted, natural. And well I appreciate the sentiment, humankind has been searching for ways to return to what is simple and true for a long, long time.

The desire to get back to something more real, more true, is nothing new. Neither is the idea that we're extraordinarily alienated in our modern, secular world, worshiping false idols in the form of consumer goods or celebrities or sentimental tragedies. As Leonard Cohen sings, "everybody's got this aching feeling like their father or their dog just died." But we don't even need it to be our own dog any more, it can be our neighbour's dog, or the dog's puppies who are being left without a mother. Or it could be some drunken singer or a flighty princess - it's all tragic.  But what about dear old Dad? Well, if a dog can evoke such strong emotions, how much can be left to elevate Dad's tragedy. But that's o.k. The dog, the princess, the singer, it's all so tragic. 

But I digress. What I'm trying to get at is that I completely agree with the perspective that the world is full of lost souls trying to find their place, their meaning, their identity, and eventually a little internal peace. And in the absence of these, they languish in sentimentality, abnormal devotion, and mass consumption as an alternative. I can't help but agree, because I'm one of them (every day I'm tempted to buy one more coffee, one more muffin, whatever little thing will pick my day up a bit, even though I know it won't last). But the search for meaning, for truth, for beauty and simplicity, has been going on for years, since long before mass consumerism, capitalism and television. Just look to the Romantic poets - perhaps the minimalists of their time.

What inspired Julie and I about minimalism was the idea of getting rid of some of the noise, the static in our lives. We thought about our house, the toys everywhere, the stuff that just kept coming in, the difficult time we had keeping the place clean, and how much we wasted - how little we actually used. And we saw that it wasn't good. Moreover, we saw that it was a bad example to set for Chloe and Emily (it's funny how their clutter of toys was what brought us to our realization - not our stuff). We saw that the empire of crap we were creating was not fulfilling, was not helpful in our lives. In fact, it took away from the time we had to spend with each other, with our kids, with ourselves. It was, at best, a distraction. At worst, it was controlling what little free time we had. My Grandfather has said for years, "if you don't rule over stuff, the stuff will rule over you. And you don't want to be ruled by stuff." Maybe this is the best argument there is for a more minimalist lifestyle.

I agree that consumer goods do become false idols when they're owned simply for the sake of owning them; when they're guarded and kept close out of some fear of losing them - as if by loosing our stuff, we loose ourselves. But not buying what we don't need, is that all we require to discover truth and fulfillment?  I don't think it's quite that simple. Of course not. But once we're no longer quite so distracted, we might have more space to pause, to think, to reflect, and that's probably a good start.

By turning down the noise, slowing down the blur of  things in our daily lives - the empty calories, maybe we'll discover a few joys that have been right there in front of us all along. In the end, maybe it's not as much about evil modernity as it is about freedom of choice and self-control. After all, we all created this world we live in - this world of mass-consumerism, and we continue to create it everyday. We can change it too, and we don't need to start cooking over campfires to do it.

So, back to where we're at. How hard can it be to throw stuff out? Well, it's surprisingly hard. And I don't mean making the choices. That part has been easy for both of us. But in a household with a two bag garbage limit and just one car to take things to the Salvation Army and the garbage dump, it takes a long time to get rid of stuff. I'm absolutely stunned to find just how much stuff we've been accumulating during the 5 years we've lived here and how long it takes to go through it. We're taking a one room at a time approach, and we're getting there.

Meanwhile, and this is the most important part, we're both being careful not to bring anything new into the house until we've talked it over and established that we either really need it or really want it. The result is that very little is actually entering the house. It's a start, and we are starting to notice a difference. But what we thought we'd be able to pull off in a month will probably take a few years. On the upside, we're making our next move, whenever it comes, a heck of a lot easier.

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