Thursday, August 12, 2021

...but I'm not a minimalist

I've discussed my love of Marie Kondo's philosophy of tidying before, and I will do so again. Perhaps it is because I loved her books so much and read them so closely that I'm always dismayed when she's characterized as a minimalist. No, no, no. She specifically says that when you tidy, your focus should be on what you keep, not what you cast off. Kondo writes about people experiencing a "click", wherein they will feel that they now have the right amount of possessions, and that's when they should stop tidying. (She also does not say that everyone should limit themselves to the thirty books that she feels comfortable with, but the internet loves repeating its bs, so don't let facts stop you.)

Before Kondo arrived at her method, she was obsessed with throwing things away, and wasn't sure why she was still miserable even after discarding bags and bags of things. It was only when she had the insight to focus on what she was keeping that her method was truly born. I bring this up to explain not only why her work resonates with me, but also why I am not a minimalist.

If Kondo wanted to know why she was unhappy no matter how much she got rid of, others want to know why they were miserable no matter how much they had. For them, minimalism, or getting down to the brass tacks of what they needed to survive, was what they needed to break free of consumerism.

Believe me, I sympathize, and maybe other Gen-Xers do as well. Many of us were born when things were tight in the 1970s, and were alternately dazzled and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff in the 1980s. (And for those of us who could not afford all of the trappings, many of us felt and sometimes were bullied.) I appreciate the luxury of being able to say "No" to stuff you don't want and don't need. If I'm going to take on a label, then the one I want is Anti-Consumerist.

Perhaps it is because I am reflexively atheist, but there is just too much of a vow of poverty and the promise of salvation to the current cult of minimalism to appeal to me. It is the opposite side of the coin of consumerism: if one fetishizes things, the other venerates not having them. Neither appears at all to be helpful or healthy.

I am reminded of the Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode, "The Saint"/"A Person of Interest". You may know this as the one that starred Stephen Colbert as the villain, James Bennett (I am not making this up), but what I think about is his character's mother, Betty. The detectives figure out that she was suffering from a form of depression which made her vulnerable to wanting salvation, and the church she was a part of took advantage of that by encouraging her to donate beyond her means even when she had a child to raise. This is what so many minimalists look like to me when they focus on how little they have.

Focusing on having almost nothing as a way to salvation seems, to me, to be indulging in as much magical thinking as those who buy into marketing and advertising. The underlying premise of just about all of it is that you will be happier merely because you possess said thing, whether that's a piece of software, an item of clothing, or a hard-to-find ingredient. The promise of minimalism is that you will be happier merely by not having it. As I said, two sides of the same coin.

I find both minimalism and consumerism to be automatic and unexamined. Both are, in their own ways, belief systems. One says have as little as you can (and you're helping the environment), the other says have as much as you can (and you're helping the economy). I like belief systems -- they're very simplifying -- but neither reflect the messiness of reality. In every day life, we need to make choices that reflect the nuance of our options.

I need to eat, therefore I need food (the ultimate disposable consumption category). That's a primal need, so much so that most people don't argue that is a need...but you will get people who will tell you that you should eat so much, or only so much, of this ingredient or that ingredient. You should eat at home, of course, because cooking for yourself is cheaper and more customizable, but that's not always helpful advice for someone with a busy work schedule. (Well, why are you working so much in the first place?) You should be willing to make an investment purchase and get only the most pristine, organic, locally produced option available, but that's not always possible for someone who has a limited budget.

Then there's shelter, clothing, healthcare, and transportation. Those are essentials, and the decisions about them always come with trade offs; sometimes it makes sense to consume, and sometimes it makes sense to think about consuming as little as possible. But for the majority of people, no one philosophy makes sense all the time.

I am right now reading The Day The World Stops Shopping by J.B. Mackinnon and re-reading The Complete Tightwad Gazette by Amy Daczyzn. The exploration of these topics and the proposed solutions feel like the middle of the road between minimalism and consumerism, because they require thought and reflection. Those things are exhausting, and sometimes we don't have that luxury. All I can say is that with practice, it become more of a habit of mind than a conscious exercise. Maybe?

But there's no easy answer.

Deb in the City

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