Minimalism—The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
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Minimalism is a new, super old, movement. It is both a reaction against consumerism and all of the perils wherein as well as an ancient human belief that to live simply, modestly, and without a constant thirst for more is to live richly. Antiquity is filled with poets, philosophers, and priests admonishing the virtue of the simple life. Today, there is a movement by the name Minimalism. Roughly, it extolls the goodness of not being ruled by our consumer-driven society—to not base one’s worth on material possessions or material wealth—or believe that buying things will fulfill you. Environmental issues, capitalism and its need for constant growth are also drivers behind the movement. After exhaustive research—the Minimalism rabbit hole is fascinating—I have come to see the good, the bad, and the ugly regarding this current big moment for Minimalism.
What started this journey was through an Aussie YouTuber with the handle Sugar Momma; she is this awesome mix of financial, lifestyle, beauty, and philosophy guru. Though, she does not come off as a guru—rather as someone who has learned through hazardous times the importance of having a good eye on personal finance, life management, and whether or not you are actually enjoying your life. She is a professional financial planner, single mom, and dedicated Minimalist. After watching a few of her videos, I decided to check out this whole Minimalist thing. On the whole, the three best tenets regarding Minimalism are de-cluttering and organizing your home, becoming a conscious shopper (only buy what you really need or truly will use and value), and seek self-worth outside of societal, material expectations. These can be life-changing virtues as long as they are grounded in some pretty mundane though important rewards. Without a doubt, decluttering and organizing your home, dramatically cutting down on shopping, and no longer working towards ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ will have a huge impact on your finances. Personally, I am a big devotee of setting personal finance high on my priority list. Not because I’m inordinately materialist; rather, I’m a pragmatist. Debt is a crisis in the West. We not only are cramming our houses with useless purchases—we are even spilling over into the massive self-storage industry. Living within one's means, investing for retirement, and putting aside money in case your world falls apart or if a loved one needs full-time care are, for me, the ultimate luxuries. Stuff just won't help you if you lose your job or when its time to retire.
Decluttering and organizing your home is pivotal as it will save you time finding things, make your home a place of beauty and serenity, and is a known de-stressor. Consciously shopping or only purchasing things that you genuinely need or value helps with your finances, helps keep your home decluttered and organized, and it helps with the last, awesome tenant of Minimalism: not trying to compete with the world using material wealth and possessions. Learning to ground your self-worth and value on your virtues, rather, your possessions is like finally being freed from prison. It is not to say that if you enjoy fashion, cars, or interior design that somehow you should feel bad or ashamed for wanting the very best. It is to say that if you can afford it, enjoy it, see its value, and do not see it as a symbol of your self-worth, then go for it; however, often consumerism and heavy debt are signaling a very different message. We are constantly signaled that to be happy we must try to replicate the wealth and luxury we see in not only advertisements, but virtually in every media, and we are all drenched in media.
The movie Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things was an (and continues to be) important catalyst in the Minimalist movement (at least as getting it out to the mainstream public—the movement itself is ancient and longstanding). The movie revolves around two young males who have written a book about Minimalism and who are touring the country preaching their message about living a simpler life, less based on materialism and more based on…and here’s where we hit a problem. I’m all for the reduction of clutter in your home, the clamping down on mindless spending, and not trying to keep up with the more equals better equals self-esteem equation. However, it becomes clear they are preaching that Minimalism can solve depression, anxiety, and can give one a sense of purpose and happiness. That is the bad: the movement is being sold as a religion and not as a good practical virtue to weave into your life. Why is making Minimalism a religion that will cure all of your ills bad? It is bad because Minimalism will not cure your depression, anxiety, or give you a sense of purpose and happiness. It will work for a while—especially if you go all out and quit your job, get rid of all of your stuff, and perhaps build a tiny house on wheels. Of course, it will work for a while—just like binge buying or drinking or falling in love—while you are in the adventure of mania you will not feel depression or anxiety. You will have a wild sense of purpose and people usually feel euphoric when high—that’s why drugs and religious movements draw in masses of people. However, people will and do come down. I spent hours watching “Why I’m no longer a Minimalist” videos on YouTube. One of the saddest videos was of a young woman who admitted that Minimalism taken to the extreme, had made her feel ‘sad,’ ‘burdened,’ ‘stuck,’ ‘guilty,’ and ‘unable to express herself anymore.’ The truth is, for the people who pursued Minimalism to free themselves from despair, stress, and meaninglessness found they ended up a little worse off than when they began. In other words, like all manias, there is a Minimalist hangover.
How could making Minimalism a religion get any worse? It can, and this was the genuinely dark side of the movement: Minimalist bullies. One thing I learned after spending hours and hours searching Minimalism on Youtube (which I heartily suggest you do one rainy afternoon) is that Minimalism is not a very open-minded or inclusive community. There is a lot of bullying going on. It seems that unless you go to the extremes, you are a fake, a materialist, a loser, and well, a very bad person. So sadly, while consumerism does couch our worth in materialism, Minimalism couches our worth in anti-materialism. Both, in my opinion, are unhealthy prisons. Basic virtues such as kindness, punctuality, honesty, and thrift are good sights to set. Living in a tiny house with a compost toilet while bullying YouTubers who have indoor plumbing or cannot fit all of their possessions in a backpack is not virtuous.
For the most part, Minimalism is a movement for the young and unattached—especially for young men—who so far seem to be in the majority. However, once live-in partners, spouses, and children get in the mix, things get complicated and sometimes even dark. There were two fathers in the documentary Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things that stood out. One was very cool, and when asked about his wife and kids, he gently smiled and admitted they were not on board and it was not a good idea to force them. There was then another father who creeped me out. He claimed that his young son was on board (he was about four). He then admitted that his young daughter was completely opposed but that he was ‘OK’ with it. The stress in his voice and his facial expression signaled disapproval and anxiety, and it was clear there were a lot of battles of will going on in that household (there goes that whole serenity aspect of a decluttered and organized home). Lastly, he then says that his wife was on board, though he added, just not as quite as intensely as him. He then went on to say a lot of philosophical garbage about how awesome it is he’s become a Minimalist. The funny thing is that his wife looked miserable, and when he said she was on board, she smiled as though to say, “Somebody help me.”
I think decluttering and organizing your home, being mindful of your shopping and spending habits, and grounding your self-worth in virtues rather than material worth or possessions are all great things, and that is the positive side of Minimalism. However, when it develops into a religious movement promising personal salvation I believe it overreaches and can cause harm—especially to those who are genuinely suffering from mental and psychological problems, and when it grows into hurting other people, it becomes very dark and ugly.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.” You can follow Jennifer on her Instagram here.
Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.