Many people when they enter my apartment for the first time they say something about it being minimalist. I feel like I’ve a lot of stuff because I have many things that I don’t need that I mean to get rid of but I still haven’t. But apparently my amount of many things is well below many people’s thresholds. I also bristle at people labeling me at all so whatever the label I usually don’t like it. But the label minimalist especially bothers me. I think it’s backward. I have friends who have dogs but no cats and I have friends with cats but no dogs. But nobody when they enter the dog person’s home says, “I noticed you don’t have any cats.” And no one when they enter the cat person’s home says, “I noticed you don’t have any dogs.” I’m from Philadelphia. I’ve never heard anyone describe where they’re from as being, “I’m not from Timbuktu.” They say where they’re from. People ask me a lot if I crave greasy comfort food. My food is so delicious and that stuff pollutes the world so much that I’m not avoiding greasy comfort food. I’m loving my food. I’ve a lot of my food in my life and I just don’t have time for that stuff that I don’t like to eat.
I look at the design of a web page like The Minimalists which is a podcast and I see how much empty space the page has. I don’t think of the pages what they don’t have. I look what they do have – a lot of calmness, it looks reflective. I’ve tried a lot of things in life – sports, art, science, entrepreneurship, business, religion, reading, writing, travel, meditation, yoga, dancing, clubbing, girls, solitude, more things that I can list. Now it’s just a long list. Through it all certain things always resurface and come back as the most valuable, meaningful, bringing the most joy, satisfaction, happiness and what I want most in life. These are the things that keep coming back. Relationships with family, with friends that I have emotional, intellectual and when appropriate physical intimacy with, where we’ve allowed ourselves to open up and be vulnerable. The beauty of nature in sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. Responsibility for how my actions affect others. Stewardship of the resources that we share. Contributing to something greater than myself leading to a sense of oneness. Teamwork, duty, honor, learning, striving to make myself in my world in some way better tomorrow than today. Harmony, service, freedom. These are values I think most of us share. None of these things require material possessions. On the contrary, stuff gets in the way of many of these things.
Colonel Mark Read leads a department at West Point. He was on this podcast and you can listen to that episode. He and his family chose to act on their environmental values for this podcast. Actually, he chose with me but he knew his family and his choice well enough to involve them and knew that they would be happy which happened. His challenge was to produce less household garbage. I think his goal was to have it. It happened to be December and together they decided that wrapping paper was unnecessary, Christmas being in the middle of this period. As they considered their values more they decided to go from just not using wrapping paper to skipping gifts entirely replacing them with a family vacation within driving distance. He said that they found this to be their best Christmas ever. Most people and certainly the mainstream commercial messages associate Christmas with gifts despite their giving no material gifts I would bet that Mark and his family considered this Christmas the most giving and most receiving despite the lack of the material exchange. Would they describe their Christmas as minimal? I doubt it. Best Christmas ever sounds maximal, not minimal. His values sound like they overlap with mine and as far as I can tell nearly everyone when they aren’t distracted by stuff around them like the dominant commercial messages telling people to buy, buy, buy. I used to think whoever dies with the most toys wins. I bought the latest gadgets. Looking back, I see that my life felt more empty then than all the white space on The Minimalists web page design.
As I said when people come to my apartment for the first time they often ask if I’m minimalist. The question never made sense to me. I don’t have a TV not to avoid having a TV. I don’t have a TV for the same reason my dog loving friend doesn’t have fish. She has a dog. No one enters a home and says, “You don’t have any fish. Are you a fish hater?” My life is more abundant than ever with the things that I value. Like Mark’s family I found most material stuff gets in the way of what I value more than it contributes. When something contributes to joy I’ll get it. In fact, I value my possessions more now than when I had more possessions. Anyone who’s eaten with me knows the value of the pressure cooker to me. My two quilts that my grandmother made me are getting worn because I use them so much. My meditation stool, my laptop, my phone that provides a Wi-Fi hotspot anywhere that I go, my jeans that I got from a thrift store for 45 dollars still have tags on them that sold for two hundred fifty dollars at Barneys. My rowing machine. I look around my apartment and each thing I see I value but most of all a few things distract me from my values. Things that do I get rid of because I want to maximize what I do value. For example, I kept a lot of notes from school. Over the years I noticed I didn’t need my notes from say accountant class. So I put that paper in the recycling. Then other class notes. Now I’m down to my last two classes notes, the two leadership classes that I value most in business school. But I found that I haven’t read the notes in over a decade. Now I’m going through them to see the odds of finding something I’ll refer to later. But if I don’t find anything, I’m getting rid of them. There are more resources online for what I’d use these notes for that I can find easily than I’ll ever need. I was open to finding something to merit keeping the paper but so far I haven’t found it. So I’m maximizing my learning, freedom and those other values that I mentioned by putting that paper in the recycling. I’m like Mark with his family. He maximized his family. To say they minimalized their gifts would define him and them by what they devalued in the opposite direction. My friend loves her dog. She doesn’t hate every other potential pet. If anything, she’s a dog lover not a [unintelligible] hater. If any label made sense, it would be that I’m a maximalist. If you define me by what I don’t value, I suggest you consider where your view is coming from. Maybe you’re different than Mark who loves his family or my friend who loves her dog or me who loves all those things that I listed and you prefer material stuff.
But do I have to explain how stuff gets in the way of those things, those values that I listed? Maybe for you it doesn’t. But 99 percent of stuff Americans buy ends up in landfills within one year, I hear. I think I heard that from this video that I love – The Story of Stuff which I highly recommend watching. Incidentally, the executive director of the organization that made those videos Michael O’Heaney was also a guest on this podcast, an amazing guy and an amazing organization. I recommend the videos and meeting him came from maximizing human connection and initiative. That I’ve never seen Game of Thrones doesn’t bother me because it’s not something I maximalized. Again, if you look at stuff that I don’t have and define me by it, it’s a weird way of describing it. I’d much rather be connected by the things that I do value and those are maximized.
And so when I don’t get stuff what I describe is not flying or avoiding packaged food and not getting stuff. Whatever those things sound like what I’m actually maximalizing is the following. Despite what people keep describing as a lack of stuff this is what my life is about – relationships with family, with friends that I have emotional, intellectual, and when appropriate physical intimacy, where we’ve allowed ourselves to open up and be vulnerable; the beauty of nature in sight, sound, taste, smell and touch; responsibility for how my actions affect others; stewardship of our shared resources; contributing to something greater than myself leading to a sense of oneness; teamwork, duty, honor, learning, striving to make myself and my world in some way better tomorrow than today; harmony, service, freedom. These are the things that I have more than ever. These are the things that I maximalize.
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