This year, I have donated more than 1200 items so far, and I will likely break 1500 by the end of the year.
My family has been throwing away on average one to two kitchen trash bags…per day. This is unlikely to slow for months.
I have Freecycled several dozen items and will be giving away even more.
We weren’t hoarders. Compared to the houses of our neighbors and friends, we had a slightly less than average number of things.
But it was too much. Far too much. And it’s too much for them, too. In America, parents are constantly battling the mess–when they don’t surrender to it, giving up space for the avalanche of toys. Garages cluttered. Closets full.
A group of researchers from UCLA documented the condition of American homes in the book Life at Home in the 21st Century. For this book, they selected 32 middle class families in southern California with two working parents to get a cross section of how a significant segment of America lives. With the eye of the anthropologist, every single thing in the home was documented, every cabinet opened, every nook and cranny explored.
The results, though in some ways expected, are nevertheless horrifying. You can see a feature article as well as links to the accompanying YouTube documentary here.
The average family owned 300,000 separate items. Their possessions were so numerous that a large portion of their house was devoted just to storing them. Clutter was overtaking their lives, filling all their closets, cabinets, and boxes and even creeping into the open areas of the rooms themselves. Mothers, particularly, were often stressed by the constant battle against their stuff and the time suck that it represented, but they often tried to solve the problem by buying even more stuff…stocking up on massive amounts of convenience foods or organizing supplies.
I, too, was caught in my own version of that cycle. In fact, between the stresses of running my own business and keeping the household running, the overwhelming stress of stuff almost became the determining factor for me with regards to the size of my family.
Finally, I shook myself free. I stopped trying to organize the “nice things” and started to get rid of them and to encourage the rest of the family to do the same. And the result was like a massive weight being lifted off my back. Getting rid of things made time for so much else–time for all the important things that all too often were pushed to the side.
Yet I’m not a true minimalist. And I never will be.
Why not? If getting rid of some–well, a lot–of my things made my life better, why not pare down even further? Cut down until there’s nothing more that can be taken away?
It seems that it is human nature to take everything to an extreme. If some is good, more is better. That’s how we got into this mess in the first place.
But sometimes more isn’t better. Even when that “more” is “less.”
Everything in your life should serve your life. It should bless you. If it doesn’t, it should go.
But if it does, there is no reason to rid yourself of it just to cut your possessions down to some arbitrary number. At some point, ridding yourself of more things makes your life harder. It depends on your current (and also future) lifestyle. If you want to become a digital nomad, travelling across the world as you work remotely with all your possessions in a backpack, the things that will help you and the things that will be a burden are extremely different from the things that would make your life better or worse if you live in an apartment in New York City or the suburbs of Des Moines or on a ranch in the Texas panhandle.
There is a kind of compulsive aspect to many people’s quest to shed things, one that is at odds with their lifestyle, all in the name of minimalism. Their purging of their possessions–their materialist bulimia–creates difficulties that are completely unnecessary, ones that they often “solve” through extra expense or elaborate workarounds. For example, many aspiring minimalists focus much of their attention on their wardrobe, often to the point that they are forced to change their clothing-wearing habits or their laundry habits. When an office worker begins having to spend extra time doing more laundry so that you’ll have something clean to wear, or worse, begins looking for shirts that will stink a little less despite the bacteria, sweat, and skin cells that collect on them every day, he has taken things too far.
This is why I don’t aspire to true minimalism. I don’t try to own as little as I can possibly get away with. There’s no benefit to me in that. Every item has a cost. Every item (should!) have a benefit. I choose not the least but the best.
I am striving for essentialism: making room for the important by clearing away everything else.