Monday, December 26, 2016

The Question in Minimalism

I’ve commented before on the increasingly popular activity of ranting against minimalism.  One writer calls it oppressive, another unsustainable.  My knee-jerk reaction to these comments is admittedly negative, perhaps because I remember spending three days jamming possessions into boxes when, as a 11-year-old, my family was forced to move from a large house to a tiny apartment due to my parents’ divorce.

The relief of knowing I can lose all my possessions and easily replace them all is a boon to me.

Anti-minimalists – because they aren’t just not minimalists but are public critics of the lifestyle – seem to be struck by terror that the minimalists are coming to take all their things away and force them to live with a single pea on their plate.  As shown in this graphic.  The horror.  They resist the fact that there is no Minimalist Inquisition arriving, and even hoarders are unlikely to be strapped to the rack and tortured until they deny their faith and take up the cross of minimalism.

While minimalists may practice decluttering or frugality religiously, it is, for the long-term minimalist, because these activities produce a greater sense of peace, prosperity, and even joy.  Nowhere is it written that, once minimalist, no person may ever purchase an extra pair of socks or eat a steak, though the self-righteous editorialist may decry him as heretical.

That said, I was struck by half a sentence in the single-pea article that made me view minimalism a little differently: “There’s an arrogance to today’s minimalism that presumes it provides an answer rather than, as originally intended, a question”.  The article goes on to (arrogantly) provide “the question” for the reader.  But the idea that minimalism is a question rather than an answer captivated me.

When I began self-identifying as a minimalist (long after my minimalist tendencies had taken hold), I found it annoying when minimalists would disclaim items they owned.  “I still have a TV,” some would say, or, “We eat out,” or, “I have a collection of lipstick.”  It was as if, by owning these items, the person was less valuable as a minimalist.  It seemed to me they were stating the obvious.  After all, nobody is ignorant enough to believe that all minimalists own only a single chair, or no furniture, are they?  Only a friendless minimalist is likely to be content without seating for guests.

The assumption seems to be that, when a person tells you she is a minimalist, the minimalist is ordering you to get rid of everything and live as a monk.

In Japan, I lived without a bed for two years not because I was a proudly sacrificial minimalist; I had never heard of minimalism.  Rather, it is culturally normal in Japan to sleep on a futon, fold it up and put it away every morning, as one might make a bed.  The act of placing the sleeping materials tidily out of the way was refreshing.  I “made my bed” daily in Japan because it reduced visual clutter, even though I wasn’t aware of the concept yet, and provided more space to live my life in until bedtime.

Back in the US, Lizard Boy and I have a bed.  Not only do we have a bed, we have a Sleep Number bed.  And we love it.  And yes, I am still a minimalist, not a Buddhist monk.

Why do I have a $3,000 bed?  For one thing, my husband and I like to sleep together, but do not like the same firmness of mattress.  For another, we saved our cash to be able to buy one, so by definition we were able to afford one.  In a way, sharing an adjustable bed instead of buying two separate beds is an act of minimalism, but minimalism was not the driving force in our decision.

So, what is this big question that minimalism is supposed to represent?  As the style of minimalist art was created by men and women who wanted to provide a new way of looking at art, the lifestyle of minimalism is about providing a new way of looking at life.  Minimalism is embodied in the question, “Should this be important to me?”  Sometimes, the answer is yes, and we keep the relationship, hobby, memorabilia, or $3,000 bed to share with our spouse.  Other times, like fearful and arrogant attitudes, the answer is no, and we shed those unimportant aspects of our lives and move forward with a feeling of freedom.

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