What Is Minimalism?
What is minimalism, exactly? I could give you a straightforward summary, but that wouldn’t be any fun. So here is the first post of a 3-part series. Part one begins 300 years ago…
Minimalism: a collection of unique stories- an often unconnected community of people living in intentional defiance to a story common to us all. This common story is one that doesn’t like to be told, at least not explicitly. It prefers to remain quietly in control, unchallenged. It is the story of materialism, consumeristic modernism in the marketplace. It is the story of Western privilege purchased at the expense of the unnamed and unknown. The Materialist story is made up of it’s own mini-tales of greed, envy, opulence, discontentment, tireless striving, isolation, hoards of material things that always fail to satisfy our relational souls.
We are at our core relational beings. We each order our relational priorities a bit differently, our responsibility to nature, animal life, God, family and friends…But what we can’t deny is the centrality of relationships in our life. Listen to the radio, step out your front door, think on your own story… love and loss will always be at the center. Nothing compares to the joy of new life or the sting of death.
I don’t think any of us would say that our relationship to our stuff, the inanimate objects of our lives, tops our list. And yet, our priorities always seem to drift out of place. We work 20 hours more than necessary in a week, losing sight of our children as they shrink from sight in our oversized houses. Somewhere amidst the accumulated clutter- surely warmed by the possessions we’ve purchased them. We are mesmerized by the glowing screen in our hands, promising to connect us to new people and information, even when we sit a foot across from a beautiful, breathing soul with stories and secrets untold. We have dreams of making a difference but we unwittingly press play on the next Netflix episode, again.
I worry sometimes that we’ve lost our ability to see things as they really are because the lies have become so fundamental to our truth. And the fact that we don’t like to talk about truth in our culture makes it all the more convoluted. The fact is, our culture has common practices that prove what we value. Because the things we treasure- what we invest our time and energy in- is always the best indicator of what we love most. Whether we pursue these things consciously doesn’t really matter. It’s our habits which dictate our actions, which color our lives. This is what’s on the record when the day is done.
We want to believe we are independent, creators of our own destinies, but we fail to realize that our ideal destinies will always be influenced by the culture around us. Our life goals are radically different than what cultures through space and time have considered worthy of pursuit. In many of those cultures, there’s less depression, less loneliness, less sadness, less stuff. But we are the progressive ones, the enlightened ones.
Immanuel Kant in “What is Enlightenment?” (1784) summarized the 18th century movement’s motto: “Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!”
Modern Philosophy that dominated the West for centuries was centered on the pursuit of knowledge. This knowledge was set above tradition, above community- above love- as the highest aim. Knowledge was the key to advancement, to progress. And progress was our right and responsibility as humans. This progressivism gave credence to the unrestrained nature of the industrial revolution. Knowledge, industry, power, progress. There was an untamed synergy in this Modern period that has overwhelmed the West for centuries. Little by little, we could manufacture clothes, automobiles- even food- with impressive efficiency. We just had to convince generation after generation that the stuff being produced was the source of happiness. The industrial revolution made the West rich and gave us something to spend all of our money on.
I know what you’re thinking: the enlightenment gave us advances in medicine and technology that has forever changed reality for the better. Undoubtedly true. But we already know that, so you don’t need me to rehash modernism’s benefits. What we do need to realize though, is that materialism alongside the pursuit of knowledge and progress are legacies of the enlightenment that are fundamentally written into our culture’s DNA. They are the default story we will live within unless we chose to do something about it.
A place to start is realizing that knowledge and progress are not an indisputable “good” in all places and times. In many cultures, if you know all about farming but you don’t put your hand to the plow, that knowledge is useless. As Paul, the author of 1 Corinthians puts it, “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” Knowledge-for-the-sake-of-it is a luxury of affluence, but it’s killing us. We are political experts but we don’t exercise our civic duties. We make sure to post on Facebook about the injustices around the world, but we don’t invest our time, talents and resources to really do anything about them. We know a whole lot about people, even people we don’t know. But we have the hardest time really knowing and being known within relationship.
A dissatisfied, fractured, disharmonious, fickle existence.
Our postmodern generation may have shifted its focus from knowledge to experience, but we still love knowledge, and we still don’t know how to love. We do know enough to know that we are more than just our reason, we are feeling beings. And we don’t feel good most of the time. So we bow ourselves to the bottle: the prescription to the emptiness that remains despite our greatest efforts to chase happiness. We incessantly distract ourselves with noisy music and bright screens, scrolling through statuses not our own, ceaselessly consuming something to ensure that we’re alive, not just existing.
But do we ever stop to ask: If we have to numb and distract ourselves from our own reality, could it be that the reality we are pursuing is fundamentally flawed? That we have been lied to somewhere along the way? Is it possible that another reality exists? One in which our relationships, our work, and our leisure are deeply satisfying, coherent and meaningful to our lives? One in which we face the terrors and brokenness of our world- not by shrinking back in fear or apathy- but by pressing in and actually making a small-but-significant impact towards the way things should be? A reality where our pain doesn’t have to be ignored but is lamented, mourned in a community that actually cares and is committed to us?
Minimalism won’t fix our problems. It doesn’t have the secret to the Universe that will cure our hopeless hypocrisy once and for all. But what it has done is carve out a sliver through which light can shine and illuminate our darkened eyes. It is a small bit of common grace that is good for the common man.