On Minimalism

Readability | Instapaper | Download as .mp3

“As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.”

~ Henry David Thoreau

A few years ago, I got caught up in the minimalist movement. It was an enlightening time- the world was being shown the effects of its almost criminal level of excess, in the midst of which came an idea: live with enough. Not too much, and not, as some thought, too little.


Initially, the idea revolved around one’s possessions. Too much “stuff” was likened to too much sugar intake: it clogged the mind as sugar clogged the arteries.


I identified with this movement because I’d always harbored the notion that we placed too much emphasis on stuff. Having found a huge group of like-minded people, I sought them out, taking in their thoughts on how many possessions was the optimal number. I embraced it. When I left Tampa, I left behind most everything I owned. I gave a huge amount of clothing to Goodwill, leaving myself with only those that I cherished. I didn’t buy stuff for the sake of buying stuff; I began making very conscious decisions before a purchase as to whether or not an object would improve my life in any way. If it didn’t, I left it.


This realm of the physical, by and large, is where those minimalism blogs left off. Some threw in a few words on the virtues of an uncluttered desktop every now and then, and some, running out of things to say, applied the approach to a nomadic lifestyle- “leave your job and bring only your laptop and I will show you how to live.” The movement went in a direction I was uncomfortable with. Like it or not, they were selling bulky ideas with the tenacity that Nike sells shoes, embodying the very consumerism they condemned.


“Buy my ebook for only $4.99. It contains the secrets you seek.”


And here was the rub: the ebook contained instructions to make and sell others an ebook for $4.99.


Personally, I wanted to go another direction. I still identified with minimalism- or, at least, what I took minimalism to be- but I didn’t think anyone had taken it far enough. Stopping at possessions or your hard drive was only scraping the surface of what the minimalism mantra could do. Why not apply it to thought itself?


It’s been said that the world is comprised only of thought- that our reality is simply a construct of the ideas that, collectively, make our world the thing we know it as today. Whether or not you consider that a stretch, one can’t deny the significance of thought on our reality. Yet we have such a difficult time with the thoughts running through our head at any given time, and so rarely do we attempt to understand them. Of course, mastery can only come through understanding. If you do not understand your thoughts, what chance have you of controlling them? The alternative is ugly, and staggeringly common: until you control your thoughts, they control you.


I once wrote of my tendency to oversimplify things, saying that I had come to embrace nuance as a dominant force against a black and white approach to the world. But even within this very battle lies a nuanced story: the ability to decipher which moments in life begged for a subtle, nuanced approach from those which were, indeed, a simple question of yes or no, of black or white. Cultivating this skill seems to me the pinnacle of wisdom.


In deciding how to teach your child how to handle bullies, or the dangers of hatred, or even in convincing them to clean their room requires a balanced and thoughtful approach. The same can be said for examining communication within a marriage and countless other circumstances.


Sometimes, though, the ability remove all extraneous information is critical.


When a man and a woman are in the throes of true love, it is imperativega to recognize that love is the apex of human existence. If extenuating circumstances stand in the way of that love, they must be cast aside. Man and woman in love trumps everything.


If you’ve debated whether to attend your daughter’s recital or miss it- just this once- to get ahead at work, your judgment has been clouded by information that is, in the truest sense of the word, unnecessary.


If you’ve woken in the morning to the thought that you loathe the idea of going to work, you’ve felt the effect of the forces of which I speak. A man, or woman, should love what they do. Truly, nothing else matters, for your contributions to the world will be infinitely greater when you’ve a passion for what you do.


If you’re in a loveless marriage, your efforts to escape may be hindered by any number of factors that, ultimately, don’t matter. Loveless marriages don’t have an inherent right to exist.


Many things can, and should, be distilled to their essence. Some should be carefully judged within the context of their circumstances. As minimalism cannot be said to be a one-size-fits-all proposition, neither is the application of it to thought or deed. Navigating the balance between these extremes, and knowing when each is called for, is the height of human achievement, and something to which, if we’re serious about living, we should all strive.