Although I have advocated for simple living, living with purpose, the cozy life, etc. for many years, I’m not a fan of the term “minimalism” at all. To be honest, I find it depressing. I never really took the time to think about why I reject minimalism until recently. Somehow I landed on this article and the author summed up perfectly what it is about minimalism that I dislike.
The Dangers of Minimalism
In Say Yes to Excess! Why Decluttering Can Be Bad for You, Jeannette Kupfermann tells the story of what happened when she asked a minimalist friend to help her clean out her house in anticipation of the company she would be hosting when her daughter was married. She writes:
As my origami dragon – an offering brought proudly home from nursery school by one of my children more than 30 years ago – was thrown in the bin, I knew I was about to lose something irreplaceable: the memory of a milestone in a child’s life. These hoarded items represent the history of our dreams, our loves, our losses. Why should we want to destroy the archaeology of our lives? Nothing says more about us than the possessions we surround ourselves with, and sometimes only we can read their meaning.
I’ve no quarrel with Einstein’s ‘out of clutter find simplicity’ – which I’ve always taken to mean finding patterns amid chaos – but I suspect that the current decluttering obsession reflects something harsher than a search for order in a world increasingly overwhelmed by choice. It’s a rejection of history, an attempt to make everything homogeneous, with everything from diet to furnishings dictated by a small group of lifestyle experts determined to impose one neutral style.
Later she observes:
Imagination versus organisation. Those leaping dolphins on a plastic stand: hideous, chuck it. No, I can’t – it was my mother’s last birthday gift to me. Let it go, we’re always being urged. It belongs to the past. Yet the most fulfilled people acknowledge their past and incorporate it into their lives. I love to go into a home where old photos, medals, china and other memorabilia are on display, as opposed to a neutered place devoid of personal history. Memory is a precious resource: we should cherish it rather than aiming for bare walls and empty spaces.
Of course, the feng-shui experts will tell you that clearing the clutter is like weeding a garden to let the flowers emerge. Clear the decks and you’ll make space to let new things into your life. But they also urge you to get rid of all old love letters, postcards, invitations, birthday cards, bad photos – anything significantly human or individual.
I have to admit that my friend had done a good job: her uncluttered surfaces looked pristine. Yet I hated the emptiness and felt a deep sadness – a sense that part of my soul had been scoured away too.
As for me, I felt older – as if I’d moved on to the next stage of my life – and, far from being liberated, I felt as if I’d been cut down to size, reduced to someone else’s thinking. I was too drained to do anything that night, but the next day I rescued the origami dragon and reinstated him, along with several other items. This was my personal archive, a record of my history and individuality, and I wasn’t going to let anyone diminish that or me. It’s time we hoarders started to fight back. Less is not always more: sometimes it really is less.
I thought her observations about two things were particularly important.
Minimalism and the Loss of Our Individuality
First, I appreciated her observation about getting rid of the things that are tied to the individual. A vocal portion of our culture seems obsessed with making everyone the same. In trying to make everyone the same, we lose the individual quirks, histories, and more that make us such interesting people.
When I go into someone’s home, I almost always ask about the photos and mementos that are out. They tell me the story of the person’s life and I find it fascinating. A home with nothing personal out and about feels sad to me. It doesn’t feel like a home. It feels empty.
Minimalism and Erasing History
I also thought her observation about erasing history was thought-provoking. We’ve become a culture obsessed with the now and the potential of the future. History is something that is considered negative and embarrassing. People are obsessed – and, yes, I mean obsessed – with pointing out every perceived flaw or problem with the past without taking any big picture perspective into consideration. I think this attitude is spilling over into a rejection of the past when it comes to keeping materials items as well.
There is a steady stream of articles online about how younger generations don’t want to inherit anything material from their parents who are retiring or dying (such as here and here and here). They declare that it doesn’t fit their lifestyle and they don’t want to be weighed down by possessions. Obviously that is their choice and they have the freedom to do so. What I think will be interesting to see is what their children and grandchildren think of this in the future. There will be no family history to share. No special letters, pictures, books, antiques, etc. to pass along. Nothing.
Decluttering articles advise you to take pictures of things and then dump them. You don’t need the item to remember it or the person or the event. You can look at the picture and remember it. But it’s not the same. Taking a picture of a card given to me by a friend now in heaven is not the same thing as holding the card in my hand, seeing her handwriting, and remembering the gracious hospitality she extended to me time and time again. It’s not. Sure, I could take a picture of the little tea cup my grandmother gave me that sits on the piano next to her photograph and get rid of it, but looking at the picture is not the same as remembering my grandmother each time I sit down at the piano and see it there. If I took pictures of them and stored them on my computer, how often would I see them and be reminded? Almost never.
What Kinds of People Reject Minimalism?
Maybe people with different love languages see material items differently. Even twenty-one years after our wedding, I can tell you which friend or family member gave us which gift that we still use. Or maybe it is people who love history who understand the value of items and the stories they compel us to tell. Maybe it is the homebodies who enjoy their cozy nest and being surrounded by things that make them feel happy and peaceful. If any of these are the case, then the homebodies with the love language of gifts who love history would be especially loathe to part with the items that tell our life story all around us.
When you see this item from my bedroom, what do you see? A fuzzy ultrasound picture?
When I look at it I see my friend and bridesmaid, Amy, who was married seven years after me. We both waited on God for wonderful husbands who He decided we should meet online. (Totally not what you would expect from either of us.) We then had our first babies four months apart. We both had girls. She bought this frame for me and one for herself. You see an ultrasound picture. I see a series of miracles and God working for both me and my friend.
What do you see here? A bunch of dust collectors?
I see a collection of pansy teacups and saucers, primarily purchased for me by people who love me and sought them out in out-of-the-way places before eBay and shopping online. I could go online today and buy a dozen pansy teacups, but not when these were purchased. There were bought by people who made special trips to antique stores “just to check” if they might be able to find a hard-to-find pansy teacup and saucer for their pansy-lover friend/relative/daughter. I see love and thoughtfulness and pretty things. (And the baby’s breath from the first rose David gave me.)
What do you see here? An apple? Two people out in the fall?
I see a high school graduation gift carefully wrapped and shipped from California from a second cousin who has been like an aunt to me. In the picture I see a husband who took one of his rare personal days when he was still in a corporate job so he could spend time with his wife who was lonely to the point of tears after quitting teaching and being at home alone all day in an apartment. I see a representation of a husband who has loved me sacrificially for over twenty-one years.
What do you see here? A Precious Moments figurine?
What do you see? Outdated furniture, photos, and silk flowers? And a reprehensible doily, according to the minimalist police?
I see my grandmother’s antique dresser that I refinished many years ago and a doily crocheted by my other grandmother. I see a picture of David planting my pansies at our first house the first time we planted them. A job he still does for me twice a year (spring and fall) without fail and out of love. I see the picture we took before we left for Caroline’s two week well baby appointment after she was born. I see a beautiful floral arrangement given to me by my friend, Amy, for my birthday many years ago.
My home is filled with the people I have loved and who have loved me as represented by material things. And all of these things remind me to tell Caroline about the people so they will be real to her as well. My guess is that unless you are a natural storyteller, you won’t tell your children the stories of your family unless you are reminded by the physical presence of items in your home to jog your memory.
I can already hear some claiming that I don’t understand minimalism. Look, even all minimalists don’t agree on what it is. There are some who would probably say I’m fairly minimalistic in that I’m intentional about what I keep around. There are others who would immediately disqualify me for owning doilies and teacups.
I do know after reading many minimalist blogs and articles that some people are more obsessed with their possessions as minimalists than I am as a cozy living person who enjoys her stuff. One blog that I won’t link to featured a woman who was obsessed with her stuff. Because she only had four bowls if she broke one it was a real problem. Or she only had one of this or one of that so if she lost it or it died it was a real problem. So who has the bigger issues? The person who obsesses over how little she has and how traumatic it is if something happens to it or the person who has plenty and if something breaks she tosses it and moves on with life?
Many minimalists also seem obsessed with their potential. Maybe it’s because I’m at the point in life that I have a pretty good idea of who I am and I like me, that I don’t feel a need to be obsessed with my future potential and how my stuff around me is “holding me back.” Just the opposite.
I’m surrounded by stuff that reminds me of a life well-lived with interesting people, places, and events. Of answered prayers. Of amazing opportunities. When it comes right down to it, I’ve had a wonderful life and I have the things around me to remind me of that. Of course I want to continue to grow and see what the future holds for me. But I’m not obsessed by it or feel a need to “lose” my past self so I can “discover” my future self.
I Embrace My Cozy Living History
So I embrace my cozy living history. I don’t feel compelled to clear everything out so I can live my “best life” or “be free” of materialism. I enjoy and appreciate what I’ve been blessed with no matter how much the self-proclaimed minimalism experts would try to shame me into getting rid of half of what I own. Just like Jeannette Kupfermann, I refuse to be reduced to someone else’s vision of what my life should be.