When people think of the word “poverty”, it usually has negative connotations. You might think of starving children in Africa or the slums of Calcutta. The idea that people have in mind is that one has less than one needs. But even more important, a person has less than he or she wants. When we relabel the word as “simplistic life” or “minimalism”, it is viewed in a more positive light because it is a choice. And yet, there is something very akin to this minimalism while still being entirely within the realm of poverty; it’s what the religious call “holy poverty”. But before I get into what that means for the religious, let me first address what it simply means to humans in general.
Being a choice, the simplistic life or minimalism is not only self-imposed – as it could be if one were punishing oneself – it is desired. I often hear people complaining about how certain things are too complicated. This is in part because people want things straightforward – we want to keep delving into something without feeling like we must “get back to” those sidetracks, those other details that are so critically important to the whole, whatever it may be. Thus, the simple life or minimalism is attractive in that sense. But in modern, complex society, people still live happily. People have come to cope with complexity, at least to some extent. While no one can grasp the complexity of any major world government much less the complexity of the Linux operating system, we aren’t forced to swallow it all at once (and most of us will never have to swallow the entirety of it for the rest of our lives). Thus, the increasing complexity alone is not enough to drive people to become simpletons.
One important benefit to the simple or minimalistic life is the lack of dependency on things of the world. This is perhaps the most attractive aspect for several reasons.
What inspired this post this evening was a man named Travis Davies (or at least that’s his internet name) who recently followed me on Twitter, listing Seattle on his website (maybe because he likes the place – I don’t know). I find it ironic since this night I happened to find myself watching the Seattle Seahawks. What’s ironic? Well, Davies happens to be a minimalist (as testified by his website, mnmlist), and not only that, someone who has found quite a bit of joy in it. One thing that I found pleasant was that he, like me, found wearing the same clothes everyday to be perfectly fine – he’s not dependent on the opinions of other people in this respect. While in the business world, there is some code of honor for respecting the other person, in one’s own daily life, there’s no one to please. Hence, there is no necessity to get the latest and greatest gear, device, or car. There’s no obligation to buy expensive clothing. What will pleasing people with your cloths gain for you? There are plenty of people in the world who will be your friends if all you do is wear a t-shirt and khaki pants. Now, I’m not saying go out and dress immodestly – that’s another subject – but I am saying that fashion is a waste of your time and money.
On the other side of the screen was professional quarterback in a professional sports league in front of thousands of yelling fans. He was and is in a very difficult situation, and not just because 300-pound men wanted to mash him into the mud. Culture has idolized him and those like him, and as a consequence, he is given thousands maybe millions of dollars to do nothing more than run around, call shots, and throw the ball (other details aside). For him, minimalism probably wouldn’t sound so appealing unless he had started there and wanted to go back to it.
That being said, the people who find it easiest to live as minimalists are those who have never had much wealth to lose. If you have a ton of wealth, you have to find ways to get rid of it and, more importantly, you have to want to let go of it. The problem is that people think wealth adds something to themselves when really it doesn’t. I’m sure some philanthropists and millionaires would be very depressed if they went to bed every night knowing that if they died that night no one would remember they existed but their wealth would be divided amongst those who wanted it and never cared about them.
This idea of losing everything is commented on in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, which rhetorically asks again and again why man toils under the sun when all will be lost. “Everything is meaningless – a chasing after the wind.” The wealth you have is going to disappear, so it’s pointless going after that.
But what’s important is that it never added anything to you. I think those who are minimalists may understand this. You don’t need everything your eye sees or your mind dreams of. You can still live a happy life “just getting by”.
There’s a difference between minimalism and abject poverty. With minimalism or the simplistic life, you have what you need. While this in itself is a form of poverty, it is only poverty relative to what you compare it to. You are poor with respect to your neighbor if your neighbor possesses more than you. You are poor with respect to others in your nation if your wealth is less than the average family. You are poor with respect to world economies if you have less wealth than the wealthiest economies in the world. And so forth.
I would not consider myself a minimalist, though no doubt I have dreamed of it because I do long for it for certain reasons. I possess various things – some necessary for daily needs and some not necessary. From experience, I can tell you, even without being a minimalist myself, there are definitely real advantages to it. The first advantage people think of is mobility. You can go any where and have all you need. But a more important advantage is something not so obvious.
Being minimalist is freeing. In order to be minimalist, you will have to be frugal. In other words, don’t spend money when you don’t need to spend money. Actually, though, a mild habit of frugality (as I believe I have) is quite fitting. I will buy ice cream and soda pop etcetera, but not very often. Once, at a moment rarer than a blue moon lining up with Pluto, I bought cotton candy. It came as a shock (albeit a pleasant one) to my family who never thought I would make such a purchase. I haven’t repeated the same stunt twice, though I dearly enjoy cotton candy. Why? I don’t need it. It’s nice to enjoy, so I enjoy it when I am given the opportunity (noting that I have had cotton candy since then), but it isn’t something to pursue.
There’s a thought I want you to dwell on: Not pursuing what you don’t need. If you can accomplish this, you will be free. If you can accomplish this frame of mind for at least one thing, you are free in that respect.
Freedom is something pursued by every human being. It seems we have a vague notion of the idea and most of us have never truly gotten it right. “Freedom isn’t free,” goes the slogan, which you might see on a bumper sticker of a white pickup truck rolling down a Texas highway. But all really means is that politically you are confined to the laws of a higher authority and are granted several permissions (most of which are unwritten). It’s a superficial form of freedom that is dependent on whether or not someone points a gun at your head or wrestles you to the ground when you disobey their command. If freedom is life without consequences, then what was freedom before government? What was freedom before their was oppression? Real freedom has nothing to do with political authority, though no doubt it has to do with some kind of authority.
Are you your own master? It sounds like a line from a movie, and maybe you’ve heard it in one. It’s one of those peculiar ideals that mean nothing to the listener as soon as they close the book or leave the movie theater. Whatever the writer’s intent in presenting the statement, I think it does point out a fundamental, internal characteristic of human beings – we want to be our own boss.
How do we achieve becoming our own boss? I think the simple life is a major step in that. If you can learn to live without things, you can learn to “stand on your own two feet”, be your own boss, control the “consumerism” that usually overruns the mind and tells you to buy the first shiny object that catches your attention.
Once upon a time, this idea entered the religious world. Going as far back as Buddhism, we can see that the religious understood one must abandon one’s desires for things in order to come to a better understanding of what the world is and to come to a more thorough control over oneself.
People are naturally inclined to become attached to what they seek and attain. This is particularly evident in the phrase “cat person” or “pet person” – someone who has become obsessed with taking care of an animal who neither returns their affection out of love nor who, these days, can provide much more than a fury back and some irritating noise once in a while. The minds of people have been captivated by these possessions.
Christ Jesus once observed that “It is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” What He meant by that was the mind of the rich man was captivated by the idea of clinging onto his possessions, meaningless worthless items that would eventually become dust but were, at the moment, treasures that gave the rich man some momentary pleasure. The point is, the rich man wasn’t free.
The idea of being free, as I have been insinuating up to this point, is the control over one’s mind. This means that you can both enjoy a good thing and yet be able to refuse it if you so will to do so. Make no mistake – it is not self-denial. It is the potential for self-denial. It means that if I choose to not seek something, to not obtain something, it is final. And if I choose to do seek it or obtain it, it is final. There is no indecision, no being torn apart by different compulsions or obligations, no mental hassle. It’s a “done deal” so to speak.
I’m sure there are several people out there who are under the delusion that they are free. I haven’t met a single person who I can say is truly free. The excuse most people give is, “I could do it, but I just don’t want to” or “I could refuse to do it, but I want to”. By their own words, they confess their addiction without realizing it. The fact that they “want” to do it means they are driven to do it.
At this point, you might be asking yourself, “Do I want to be free (according to this random blogger)?” Perhaps not, though you’ll miss out on the perks. Most people are more or less content to be driven like the sands.
But then there’s minimalism. What I’ve more or less been explaining is a freedom that comes with what the Christians call “holy poverty” – where one chooses to live a bare minimalistic life in order to become free in body and mind. This lifestyle may not be suited to your liking, but that doesn’t mean all minimalism isn’t.
There is something I would call “moderate minimalism”. This isn’t deep poverty, but it isn’t walking around the world with a backpack. In fact, I think many people wouldn’t mind moderate minimalism because it’s not too unfamiliar to what they are living now. What is it? Food, water, and shelter; a few pairs of clothes; a few conveniences (such as a dishwasher, refrigerator, and car); a few items for comfort (maybe a couch/sofa and television set); and necessities for work (paper, pencils, pens, computer, printer, etc.). It’s a lot more than minimalism, and no doubt you’re at the point where you have something to lose, perhaps from taxes or fire. A savings account and fire insurance may be necessary. But at any rate, you have a place to sleep, a place to welcome guests, a base to start your operations, and a storage place where you can keep various items until they are eventually passed along to those who need them.
And hey – it’s a heck of alot easier to clean!
In conclusion, while minimalism isn’t the “modern” thing to do, what’s “new” doesn’t matter anyways. Appreciate minimalism. Pursue a life that finds fulfillment in something other than material goods and eventually you may start hearing about other people doing this “new” thing of living on nothing. And no, I don’t mean just the hippies or hobos.
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Given how I’m getting used to placing Table of Contents headers at the beginning of my articles, this one looks like one big run-on sentence. That’s not a bad thing, although honestly, I’m not sure what people prefer. I suppose I prefer having sections because it’s easier to take a breather between them, but at the same rate, sometimes sections doesn’t flow together very well (which is why they are there in the first place). This article was more or less one continuous idea, which I prefer to have. Typed straight through with no serious editing. (Oh boy…)
I really would have liked to have commented more on holy poverty. I don’t really have much more to say on it, unless you happen to be Christian, in which case I would emphasize that the freedom you get helps you more free to love God, if you so choose.
Having thought about it abit more, I think moderate minimalism may more or less exclude things like daytime television since television is full of commercials that promote a materialistic (and therefore anti-minimalistic) mentality. What I had in mind was movies whose purpose was meant to take your mind off the stress of the day or entertain your guests.