The Myth of Minimalism

It’s hard not to admire minimalists. Those who are content to live with the barest of material necessities must indeed find that there is much more room in their lives for other, more important, non-material non-things. But I also think the purists might be missing out on something big: experiences made more rich by those unnecessary material objects.

For awhile, I romanticized the ideals of minimalism and began to fancy myself a minimalist-in-training, but then, one day, I took stock and realized that Laura and I would never qualify.  We own far too much glassware.

There’s a rack above our kitchen sink that holds 20 glasses – five sets of four each: red wine, white wine, champagne flute, tulip and martini, each hanging elegantly upside down from its stem. We cleverly added three metal hooks to the middle section of the rack and have three Irish Coffee glasses dangling dangerously by their handles. On a shelf below the rack, there are four coffee mugs, four espresso cups, four water glasses, two Belgian beer goblets and the last three surviving Pilsener glasses we had custom-printed with the name of our imagined home brewery fourteen years ago. A pantry shelf nearby holds four tea cups. It’s just the two of us, yet we have 44 drinking vessels available for ready use and displayed out in the wide open. Still, when friends visit our home for the first time, they look around and always ask, “So how hard it was to get used to living with so little stuff?”

It’s all a matter of perspective, of course, and minimalism is no different. That’s why it’s ultimately a myth. Except for those forced into it by abject poverty, or the handful of religious devotees who have sworn to live without material comforts for piety’s sake, there are no minimalists among us. It is in our nature to derive satisfaction from owning something frivolous. I am reminded of the passage from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn that describes a ritual where Francie is given a cup of black coffee by her mother each day. She dislikes the taste of coffee, so she never drinks it, always pouring it down the sink after the cradled cup has given up its warmth, but simply being given that unnecessary thing each day makes her feel that her life is not entirely bleak.

Of course, most everyone reading this blog can and does afford much more superfluity than a single cup of black coffee. Even those with piles of debt will accumulate rooms full of things not necessary to their lives.

Minimalism entered the public lexicon as an art movement in the 1960s and ‘70s and earned much more widespread recognition as an architecture and interior design style in the 1980s. It was faddishly popular for awhile, then fell out of fashion, giving way to McMansions filled with kitsch in the ‘90s. Now it’s back in fashion again, not as a style, but as a mentality.

A multitude of arguments rage online regarding what truly constitutes the so-called minimalist lifestyle. Well-known pundits and gurus bash one another over alleged materialistic indulgences, each one trying to convince the world that he or she lives more sparingly than the next. Of course, they don’t mention that those lambasting blog posts were composed on iMacs, and are accompanied by photos or HD video shot using their $3,000 DSLR cameras.

I say good for them and their technology! Also, everyone should calm down and save their virtual breath, because minimalism isn’t what we should be striving for anyway. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that certain things add value to our lives and make us happy. Unnecessary things add flavors, textures and experiences that would otherwise be lacking from our lives. Extravagance, frivolity, even excess all have a place. The danger, of course, comes when we surround ourselves by so many of these excesses that we can’t even see the life we’re trying so hard to make better.

We bombard ourselves with technology, saying that it’s fun, entertaining, useful. But while we’re looking at our screens, we ignore the full and vibrant world just on the other side of the wall. We create prisons for ourselves out of busy-ness and debt. We burden our very bodies with layers of too-much, weighing ourselves down, masking our own beauty.

It can be tempting to rail against these prisons, swear off all things unnecessary and join the discipleship of minimalism. But flying to one extreme does not rescue us from the other. We would do much better to step back, carefully examine what we truly value in life, determine which things help cultivate those values, and then strip away everything that does not.  It’s your life…Choose wisely!

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