This past weekend I watched Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things. I was already pretty familiar and with the growing trend of Minimalism, where people strive to live more intentionally with the bare minimum number of possessions needed. It’s always seemed quite attractive in theory. However, I was mostly drawn to the documentary because of all the hype I was hearing. I assumed it would simply affirm our need to be more calculated and resourceful with our possessions, and I assumed I’d be happy that so many people were celebrating this message. But, instead, it left me with a nagging tension all week. I eventually realized that Minimalism is more than just a call to simple living; it’s an entire ideology that comes with a lot of implications and repercussions. Ones that we’d be wise to consider before wholly swallowing this excessive idea of Minimalism.
Now, before I get started, I’ve got to highlight Minimalism’s positive points. Having moved four times in eight years of marriage, Josh and I have a low tolerance for “stuff” that we have to pack, move, reorganize, and maintain. We also have an equally low tolerance for spending excess money. We spent our first year of marriage in 2008 in a $350-per-month garage apartment, eating off $25 a week, and (thanks to medical school debt) we’ve had an acute awareness of line items and materialistic values ever since. This doesn’t mean our budgeting is anywhere near perfect, but we’re cognizant of our need to wisely steward possessions, and therefore see a lot of merit in Minimalism.
Also, aside from its reminders to steward possessions well, another positive point of Minimalism is that it reminds humanity of the important things we should be considering:
We’re wired to become dissatisfied.
We can live more deliberately with less.
People are longing for meaning and purpose.
We should love people and use things instead of vice versa.
Having fewer possessions helps community living.
There’s clearly room for a positive range of responses to Minimalism, so I’m not so bold to think I’ve arrived at the answer, but I do feel committed to parsing out all sides.
So, here we go. My problems with Minimalism–
It’s Not Realistic
Relevancy is everything, right? It seems 99% realistic for a California bachelor to be a minimalist–especially since he doesn’t need seasonal wardrobe variety and cold weather gear. The documentary makes a few nods to people with small children, but it’s marginal, and they appear to be generously spaced apart in age, living in picturesque California (or the like) with the glorious, sunny world as their playground. I’d need a lot less for indoor living, too, if I lived with that backdrop.
However, this idea loses traction with a midwest momma, hunkering down in her home through freezing temps with three kids under the age of five. I’ll submit myself as case study.
If I get rid of 95% of my toys, I will pay a price. I’m sure a true minimalist would look in my playroom and get heart palpitations. But, despite assumptions, we purge our toys often. Our goal is to keep toys open-ended and purposeful, but still, some are played with infrequently, yet they still serve a purpose in our rotation of helping my children develop, create, and engage. The many options help us survive the long, hard days of winter.
And, dare I get rid of something that one child loses interest in? I was on the brink of donating our space-eating Megablocks set last winter, but my husband convinced me to wait until our youngest could give it a chance. He was right. After moving the blocks and stand out of my “donate” pile and into my 1-year-old’s space, I learned that his love for building Megablocks keeps him busy for an entire HOUR. In case you’re unfamiliar with a 1-year-old, please note this is magical.
Despite my desire to free up space, it would be wasteful in many situations to discard items during periods of disuse in order to gain more personal sanity and physical square-footage.
I’m also reminded that time is our most valuable resource. If I were to try and be a minimalist at the zoo, I would certainly save material resources, but it would come at the expense of my time, and therefore nullify many positives of my minimalist endeavors. Consider taking reusable wipes and diapers to the zoo with three small children. I would spend half the zoo trip washing excrement out in the sinks. Just lovely.
I’d also have to take whole foods in glass containers for lunch. Eating in those glass containers would, of course, be an ordeal since we’re dealing with glass, toddlers, and washing. If the weather is hot, we obviously need lots of liquids, bug repellant, hats, and sunblock–all reasonable items to carry in a knapsack. But, if the weather is cold, I need gloves, hats, car seat jackets, and coats with me. To carry this, I need a stroller, lest I resemble an overstuffed yak trying to become my own zoo exhibit.
Couldn’t I just rent or borrow strollers, so I’m not adding to the mass consumerism of stroller production? Sure, but that eventually adds up to the price of a stroller and is therefore fiscally irresponsible. Borrowing a stroller would likewise consume my fuel and time in my efforts to acquire it. So, buying a stroller (especially a used one) is the most responsible move. Now, please hear me: Minimalist principles are helpful when packing for a zoo trip, but when I become slave to them, allowing guilt to reign and reason to recede, it’s problematic. And, quite miserable.
It’s Self-Centered, and a Touch Self-Righteous
I’m sure it feels really good to know where every item belongs, how big your family will ever be, and ultimately feel like you’re the captain of your ship. At several points in the documentary, there’s a call to “recognize that this life is yours” and that this movement is “all about finding happiness.” The implication is that living in such a controlled manner essentially frees you up to please yourself, but it stifles our ability to offer much to others.
Also, my sentimental, gift-giving heart mourns a bit at the implications of a minimalistic lifestyle on celebratory functions. Aunt Rose, for instance, now feels the pressure to find her beloved nephew the perfect gift that will be received for its deepest meaning and everyday usage. Our focus has shifted from being an appreciative recipient of a gift to being the arbiter of a gift’s worthiness. Don’t get me wrong–it’s clearly okay (and even responsible) to donate gifts we won’t use, but we can become so caught up in justifying each item’s inherent worth that it takes away from the enjoyment of simply receiving an item with gratitude.
Also, the minimalist experts admit that this lifestyle means they must “be hanging out with the people with the same values.” There’s a tacit vibe that they believe they’ve found enlightenment while the rest of us simpletons flail around excessively at Walmart on Black Friday.
Going back to my and my husband’s story, we’ve learned that a basic fallback question when making purchases is, “How do we save the most money while keeping the least amount of material possessions?” And, you know what? That question often requires us to purchase more than we’d like. Because, cash-strapped folks can’t afford to be picky about what they buy.
As easy as it is to dog the consumerist, one has to realize the immense privilege of being able to buy fewer high-quality items and toss out unworthy possessions ad infinitum. For example, I present our upstairs closet. I’d like to toss the nebulizer, the humidifier, the air filter, extra blankets, and half our medicines. They don’t propel me to think about life’s meaning, nor do they give me excess joy. I only use the nebulizer maybe once every two years, and I only use the humidifier a couple months out of the winter. But, what if I just waited to buy/borrow a $50 humidifier for my congested child only when I absolutely needed it? I’d end up with a suffering child due to my stubborn refusal to give up precious real estate in my home. As for the blankets, I could start telling house guests to bring their own linens. But, that won’t work if they’re a singular suitcase-carrying minimalist, too.
Also, if you have a truly good capsule wardrobe (i.e. 33 pieces like suggested), it will need to be high quality. Do I have a few pieces in my closet that I wear repeatedly? Yes, I have one pair of Buckle jeans that I’ve worn for years, as well as an amazingly warm, red, goose-down vest that everyone in my family is sick of seeing. Both of those items were well over $100 originally (Price is relative, but $100 is a whopping lot for me), and it took several months of waiting to snag them at a reasonable price.
My point is that well-fitting, good quality items require quite the price tag and/or a great time investment to find them at an affordable price. Even then, if one can afford to pay those prices upfront, the cost-per-wear is often still more expensive than having double the wardrobe from Target, for instance. Consequently, it takes a privileged person to say, “I have a well-curated capsule wardrobe and will therefore not be buying another dress shirt at Target.”
Another privilege is to have the personality that can pull off this vagabond living. Those documented had charismatic personalities, which I conjecture helps them greatly in spontaneously finding resources and shelter.
It’s A Slippery Slope
Down with the big corporations! Down with free-market advertising! Down with inequality!
This is a bit loaded and worthy of its own essay, so I’ll try to keep it brief. The end of the Minimalism documentary brings it home with the natural implications of a wholly minimalist philosophy: We want communal, equitable, lovey-dovey living. Communist ideals are elevated as the poster child minimalist decries Western materialism. There is no celebration for the freedom we have in navigating a free market, but rather a vilifying of an excessive free market. As enticing as some of these thoughts may be, I think we’d all be wise to remember they lead to oppression. And, as outrageous and twisted as some of our commercials are, I’d still like to be the one in control of deciding to turn it off, not having the government be the arbiter of what is meaningful for me. So, until it gets to the point that an advertisement physically grips me and makes me stand there slack-jawed in consumption, I must, for the sake of freedom, take ownership of my own media consumption.
It’s a Dead-End
I absolutely give a resounding “yes” to the idea that bondage to stuff can smother our ability to really live life to the hilt. But, by the same token, our commitment to a movement like Minimalism also serves to distract us from answering life’s bigger questions. Yes, it starts conversations, but–like materialism–it’s only a facade, and so it never finishes the conversations. If you pursue this idea, note how many times you hear a minimalist say he is trying to find more meaning. Yet, no one reports actually finding meaning. Instead, the journey of Minimalism itself becomes a futile gospel.
Friend, I’m here to testify that I’ve felt that longing that the minimalist claims to pursue. It’s an aching need for something beyond this world. And, I’m here to testify that it’s the only the height, love, and depth of the immense all-consuming love of Jesus Christ that will fill our aching hearts. There is no hole he cannot fill. There is no height he cannot reach. There is no depth to which He cannot go. I know because he has met me there, and he has filled it overflowing.
Go forth and purchase guilt-free and wisely. Guard yourself from possessions or false ideals. And, remember that there’s a purpose worth pursuing. And, it’s far greater than Minimalism.