Having had the opportunity to simplify my life over the last couple of years, the process has revolutionized it. In my stick and brick days, I was a pack rat, you see. Liking to create, cobble together or modify things leads to a “Hmmm, I might be able to use that someday” outlook. My store of screws, bolts, nuts, washers, brackets and so on was impressive. But I hardly limited myself to that.
I tend to be most interested by anything that was cutting edge in its own day. I once owned two IBM portable (briefcase-sized) 386 computers, complete with internal and external upgrades that made them more adaptable to different tasks. They had a different internal board architecture that let them multitask faster than normal 386’s, so naturally, I just had to put them to actual use and thrash them to put these thoroughbreds through their paces. I had picked up each of these suitcase Transformer-like relics for $100 at a time when fast Pentiums ruled the day. Portable computers throughout the 1980s were horrendously expensive affairs, but these 1989 state-of-the-art boxes began life at seven thousand, two hundred dollars each – before upgrades. That’s $13,600 in today’s dollars. That’s partly because the only available market at that time was business, not consumer, component costs were staggering, and the heavy units had to be designed for airline-rough handling. I wound up giving them to a man whose son was starting a personal computer museum of sorts, and he wanted to offer them as startup gifts. You see, a pack rat is simply a collector who has lost his focus. What the pack rat collects is of little value, but is retained for its potential usefulness in the future. In my case, it helps if it is a shiny object.
But as I said, the process of simplifying has revolutionized my life. Okay, well, perhaps more evolved it…by force. Alright, a small tweak then. I still accumulate the same crap, but on a much smaller scale, having gone from over 3,000 square feet to 200, plus the pickup truck’s bed and cab. And no rented storage spaces – that would be cheating. It’s hard to brag about being on the wagon when you’ve got a 55-gallon drum of whiskey tucked
away back home. I made that up. If I did have that, I wouldn’t tell you about it.
I used to assume that minimalism was about devotedly owning as few things as possible, including the complications that go along with technology. Small farmettes or rural cabins with very little furniture or clutter. Shelves of books, but otherwise sparse in a soothing way. Just like what you would see in Good Housekeeping, but with even less to tastefully arrange. Candles or solar for lighting, hand pump for water in the kitchen or a few steps outside. Kind of like being Amish and for the same reasons, but without faith as the end target. But the method remains: discover and get rid of what distracts you from your quest.
Then I noticed that people began bragging about how little they had, instead of how much they had. Now they were struggling to keep down with the Joneses in order to elbow their way up the status scale. Own less than 100 or even 50 things, urged the overachievers. Owning a home would encourage pack rat-ism to maintain it, and admittedly vapid TV would feed only the lurid impulses to own more unneeded things. Not owning things became an end in itself. Some people outside of downtown New York City began living like students inside downtown New York City, as if they had to downsize to two cubic yards of living space on penalty of an extra $1,000 a month rent. They boasted of how few square feet it took to make them happy – though they have upsized since. With storage bins, the necessity of the few gave way to the materialism of the many. “Minimalism” became the ability to shove more stuff into less living space than before, ending any need to consider those items’ personal value in the first place. Going by the numbers, the counter-revolutionaries have won.
True minimalism can have everything to do with what you own, how much you own or how big a space you live in. It can also have nothing at all to do with any such things. That’s because minimalism is not really about things, it’s about us as individuals, and about gradually and deliberately adjusting our lives in ways that allow us to begin and end each day with a sense of purpose, reward, and satisfaction. It’s about more thoughtful action and less reaction. It’s more about the abundance of true treasure than the denial of acquired objects. That becomes do-able when we begin to recognize those low-priority things or activities which distract and negatively pull at our time, attention, and resources. The goal is to go from playing a breathless “Whack the Mole” in survival mode, to taking a better-concentrated aim at what helps us pursue a life worth living. Half the battle is growing the ability to discern the wheat from the chaff. As far as I’m concerned, you can call it minimalism or hooliganism for all I care. Whatever gets you to a place where you’re able to pursue life with a conscious aim that feeds your unique needs.
Some feel that the pursuit of goods and luxurious lifestyles makes life worth living, so they aim for that, assigning a priority to it which overrules all others. As mentioned, a few do exactly the same thing, but march in the opposite direction with a pride of non-ownership. Some are convinced that life has no significance beyond the next meal or the next conquest, while others assert that human life has no more inherent value than a beetle’s. All of them offer online instructions on the best way for you to live. It is much more rewarding to determine for yourself what is of real value in your life, what feeds your thoughts, passions, and creative soul – and what distracts you and draws you toward the feeling of time spent counterproductively. Often, the problem is the value we attach to nonessential things, objects. When the value we attach to things is skewed, we tend to make the nonessential essential. One can be justifiably proud of a personal collection of things, but our usual tendency is to start with the 6oz standard serving and keep ramping up until we’re chugging a couple of the 64oz Super-Gigantos – and bragging about it. Then we wonder why we feel sick and listless, and why the only other people who seem impressed aren’t feeling much better.
What helps us to determine real value is a highly individual thing. In the press of life, merely sensing, testing, recognizing and separating the essentials from the unessentials can be a major victory. Friends and family are usually valued, but often lose priority when momentary push comes to shove. Humans tend to be (but are not always) social creatures, so building or sustaining beneficial relationships with others might be simple for some, and difficult for others. For some, it can be a project in itself merely to learn to separate healthy relationships from unhealthy or even toxic ones. Discerning such differences is more difficult in a life clogged by distraction and pressures.
Again, the means of how best to unclog and prioritize our lives is an individual thing. The solution isn’t to quit our jobs, but to clear our heads. The recognition of high value things is widely shared in common, but the environment needed to allow us to recognize and prioritize has much less commonality. Tasks that include creativity, or passion, or personal growth, direction, or purpose can have a high value. A sense of contribution is an enthusiasm builder for many. Only when we have an approach that works uniquely for us, are we able to calmly step back and take a look at where we’re throwing our time and energy. Many chimeras – critical goals that are suddenly revealed as comparatively meaningless – suddenly start dropping off their pedestals. What is left tends to be what is of enduring value to us, and is what we should re-prioritize our decisions and attentions toward. What is necessary for you to flourish? What is superfluous, or distracts you from things that you find are most inspirational or rewarding? This post isn’t a how-to. There are plenty of good resources for living live more deliberately, and for finding your path to do so.
But I will caution one thing. You are you. You are not some other person. You share many characteristics with others, but do not share quite a pile, too. The environment, the path, the methods that you most need to take your step back and align your head with your heart might be specifically the same as that which has proven helpful to someone else, but the odds are much greater that it won’t be. For example, problems tend to demotivate goal-oriented people, while goals tend to demotivate problem-oriented people. Insisting that all our problems will be solved by setting and achieving goals is helpful for most, but frustrating and highly counterproductive for the rest. In the same way, describing to a goal-oriented person pervasive problems that are stopping forward progress tends to overwhelm them and make them feel helpless instead of motivated to act. On a related vein, extroverts are energized by social interaction and drained by isolation, while introverts are just the opposite. Assigning one type as “normal” and the other as in need of becoming more “normal” is a helpfulness based on arrogance and/or ignorance. The “all people are like me…or should be” outlook is pretty pervasive. One size does not fit all, regardless of what you or I are taught.
So, when you look for advice or mentoring on how to employ some aspects of minimalism in order to gain focus and direction in the only life you have, simply look for a source of guidance or reference that focuses on the end goal – a life lived deliberately – rather than one lived in a consistent Pavlovian reaction to circumstances. It is best to avoid those who promote a lockstep march to attain it, a paint-by-numbers approach that is all laid out for you to follow. Our innate craving for an easy-to-follow formula is understandable – it is much easier to follow someone else’s footpath than to have to suffer the ordeal of blazing a new one in unfamiliar territory. We prefer spoon-fed answers, and by following someone else’s path, we can blame them if our trip doesn’t work out well for us.
When society’s accumulation of methods proves an ill fit for us in some way, our tendency is to simply look for another formula to swap in wholesale, without really thinking much about whether its fit is really that much better for us. After all, introspection and self-assessment are difficult, and are subject to risk and false assumption. But how much more so a formula that works for someone else and is promoted as a universal solution for all. Besides, you’ll find that the paint-by-numbers approach quickly centers on the proper application of paints as the satisfactory end goal, rather than on the steady progress toward a completed picture that reflects our own insights and values. Such a thing as a lifestyle is a tool which can be dropped and replaced with another as the need arises. When the tool becomes the elixir, the measure of success, the moral center of effort, then the end goal of what life could be in its fullest sense is effectively derailed. We cease work to admire the tool’s gleam, and the completion of the life we were outfitted for never comes.
So be wary of those who repeatedly urge you to conform to one lifestyle or one hijacked implementation of “minimalism” as a universal solution for everyone, hallelujah! Be wary of those who hide away the pitfalls and gloss over the drawbacks, eliminating rational consideration. That’s what used car salesmen and ministers of propaganda do. One example: In the 1970’s I had a cousin who, with his bride, moved into a sort of commune that resembled a housing subdivision in a very rural area. It looked oh, so normal on the outside. Everyone was very nice, very happy, and seemed to be living with a sense of purpose. There was a small plastics molding plant at the edge of this rural gathering, and the goal was to share with the commune one’s resources upon arrival in order to build and equip the plant, and to donate some time each week to running the plant, since this generated money for the commune’s purpose for existence. In a surprising parallel to the 1964 film Doctor Strangelove, that purpose was to save and preserve a tiny remnant of mankind that would survive the coming nuclear annihilation between the two superpowers, and begin repopulating the earth. They would do this by using the profits from the molding operation to fund the creation of two large orbital aircraft that would be equipped to sustain them during and after the nuclear exchange had its full effect. Naturally, I never did find out just how this rural group of survivalists proposed to research, design, build, and launch space-going vehicles among the vast cornfields. The guy who began this ambitious venture later got booted out for exercising his future onboard reproductive duties with more than a few wives of his little tribe way too early in the process. Then after awhile, he was forgiven his hedonistic instincts and let back in because he seemed to be the only one who could recouple the logic train of how this whole thing was somehow a good and workable idea. About this time, my cousin, sensing that the most accurate predictor of future behavior is past behavior, finally realized that Elvis had left the building, and bowed out.
Think my cousin was foolish? Perhaps you haven’t met one of these people, or think that you haven’t. After all, he was just looking for an alternate lifestyle that did not conform to society’s desire to stand by helplessly at the coming global disaster. The leader of the tribe fed on that fear and offered a challenging solution, a technological approach that seemed to be a potentially effective counter to the inevitable and uncontrollable global warfare that loomed only a few years ahead. He was willing to lead them, and they would benefit as his people. The fact that he got the better end of the deal is not surprising, but it’s worth noting that this leader was entirely sincere in his beliefs. It’s just that he cloaked them for trimmed versions that he knew would be less likely to alienate his followers and draw in more. In the end, the utter lack of any hint of progress after years of impending doom revealed his core beliefs as less egalitarian and more nonsensical than those surface inspirationals which he had been pitching all along. Being really good at winning friends and influencing people is a benign skill that can be used either way. Ask the associates of Mahatma Gandhi, and then ask the neighbors and momentary friends of John Wayne Gacy. It’s a choice.
Want to stop living in lockstep with a culture mesmerized by an endless desire for more? Feel off-center, or like life should have more simplicity or depth of meaning? Why are weather forecasts now hyped like upcoming disaster movies? Why do issues presented on radio or television appear tailored to herald the Apocalypse – and why do we now parrot them instead of poking fun? It takes some doing to break free. Now, I might occasionally share with you the ways that living as a hermit in a trailer have impressed or benefitted me – that’s part of the point of this whole blog – but I can’t seriously suggest it as a panacea for your ills, because how I live in order to end each day feeling on-track, pleased, or inspired would drive you nuts. Seriously. The trailer and the travel result in a lot of enjoyment and pretty pictures, but they are the means to an end that happens to work for me – for now. I present the good stuff to let you know that there are good things going on out here in Weird Lifestyles Land. And I whine about the mishaps to try to keep things in balance. Sometimes I get enthusiastic, but it’s not my goal to do a lifestyle sales job on you. I’m just impressed because sorting through things tends to present new opportunities and rewards that I always wandered right past in my former days. It’s not the trailer, or living in nature. It’s the increase in finding my bearings and in shaping a life which better suits me.
In time, this galavanting around may prove impractical for me, but the goal of finding ways that I can discover and hold on to my own core values and priorities will roll on into its next phase without a skip. The world will not end because I must change RV types or can even no longer travel at all. It will patiently wait for me to find new and unfamiliar opportunities. There’s more than one way to get to Wickenburg, Arizona.