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August 7, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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Stop Telling Your Poor Friends to Try Minimalism

A month ago, my middle-aged neighbour disappeared, leaving all of his belongings in the house and locking the doors behind him.

Yesterday, I watched out the window as the landlord gave up waiting, broke into the flat, and began loading clothes, CDs, furniture, and electronics onto a trailer to take to the dump. All these little pieces of somebody’s life were suddenly transformed into rubbish when they were in a pile outside, instead of their rightful places in the house.

When I went to hang up washing in the garden, I got chatting to the landlord — who is also my landlord — and he said I was welcome to have a look at the stuff he hadn’t yet taken to the dump, and I could grab whatever I wanted.

I wanted everything.

The landlord helped me carry home a giant dusty bookcase with a snapped shelf. On my next trip I dragged over an ancient ex-rental exercycle that is stuck on the highest resistance setting. I got a TV that would have once been considered a flat screen and now seems rather chunky, even though I don’t have an aerial and it doesn’t have an HDMI port. I got four broken cameras that look very interesting and old, and a spare lens that doesn’t go with any of them.

One day, I might get new books and not have anywhere to keep them, so the empty bookcase will probably come in handy. If I ever fancy a bike ride when it’s raining, I have a fall-back plan. Mostly, though, I have filled up some empty spaces in my house and I feel fulfilled by the presence of the new things.

Cue the arrival of a well-meaning fellow student to tell me that my dependence on objects to feel comfortable and happy is a sign that I have become caught up in capitalist, consumerist over-indulgence.

She has cut her wardrobe down to twenty items, which are displayed on wire hangers on an expensive metal costume rack in the corner of her white-walled bedroom. She decided that clutter in her flat was the reason she was so stressed all the time, so “simplified” her life down to only the items she actually uses, and now feels much calmer and more positive. She realised that she was clinging to some objects because she wasn’t able to emotionally detach herself from the parts of her history that they represented, so she took a photo of each of those items and then donated them or threw them out. The act of taking the photos helped her to let go of the objects, even though she never actually looks at the photos. Now she is living in the present.

Of course, I’ve heard about minimalism before. A thousand times. Friends on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram post photos of their “things to donate” bags and their new, sparse desks and cupboards. People rave online about the life-changing power of books like Goodbye, Things and The Joy of Less and (my favourite title) Minimalism: Live A Meaningful Life.

Advocates of minimalism tend to frame it not as an aesthetic decision, but as a moral, political, or spiritual one. They see less reliance on objects as a form of personal enlightenment. There is a weird crossover between the literal and metaphorical when people claim that owning less stuff means “having more space to breathe” or “removing the objects that are obstacles in the way of achieving your real goals.” And of course there’s the rhetoric about living minimally meaning that you are not “a capitalist.”

At risk of being facetious, I have to say that it kind of seems like these minimalists are obsessed with stuff. They’re centering their lives around it, even if their goal is having less of it, and they are acting like it has a whole lot of power over them. It’s like the way that people  on diets are often thinking about food much more than those who are overeating.

My main problem with minimalism, though, is that it is a movement born from privilege. I am pretty privileged myself (here I am at university, I have a flat to live in, I never go hungry), but I spent a lot of my childhood being cared for by my mother while she was on the dole, and I am now juggling two jobs to subsidise my student living cost loan, so money is something I am conscious of and worry about pretty much everyday.

I work in disability support and childcare, so I also spend a lot of time in other families’ houses, and in my experience, the less money people have, the more things they have in their house (and garage and attic and basement). I would even go so far as to say that the less money someone has, the more things they tend to carry around with them in their bag on a day-to-day basis.

Of course, this is about people who actually have houses and bags to fill — there are people out there with so much less than that, who can’t “declutter” because they don’t have anything to get rid of. It would be pretty offensive to discuss this level of poverty in comparison to the performative “having nothing” of minimalism, so I will leave that for another day.

But for those who have a small amount of disposable income, and a place where they can keep things, clutter is a way of reducing risk. It is only safe to decide not to own many things if you have the money to buy things as soon as you need them. Taking a photo of something before you throw it away is absolutely no use to you if you end up unable to replace that thing the next time you need it.

I have clothes in storage that are too big for me, and others that are too small for me, so that if I ever gain or lose weight at a time when I’m not getting enough hours at work, I can dig something out that fits. I have a drawer full of half used up pens, because one day I might have an exam, but not have a working pen, and be unable to find $2 to grab a new one from Vic Books. I have spare sheets and duvet covers and towels, because in the winter it can take a week for washing to dry in my dark, damp house, and I don’t have a tumble dryer. And so it goes on, until every cupboard and drawer is full. I know what it’s like to have something break or run out or get lost, and be unable to replace it, and I know that while I may not be interested in something right now, I could really want it in the future… so I hold on to everything that might be useful one day.

There is also the fact that the aesthetic that goes with modern minimalism is actually very expensive to achieve. All that matte black and white furniture, the kitchen gadgets that do ten things at once (so you can throw nine other things away), the simple black dress that can be “dressed up” or “dressed down” and worn in seven different ways… I can’t afford any of those things. If I had less furniture in my house, less decorative stuff, emptier shelves and benches, and didn’t buy anything new, I’d still be left with a gross blue and mustard carpet with the last tenants’ holes in it, a faded couch from the Salvation Army, and unmatched retro curtains. My life wouldn’t look any sleeker or classier, just a bit more empty — it’s the new stuff you buy to go with the new attitude that makes minimalism look so good.

I’m not saying that there aren’t people out there who grew up without much, or don’t have much now, who won’t get a lot out of minimalism. I’m not saying there aren’t people out there who have always had everything they wanted, yet still have an emotional need to be surrounded by superfluous objects. I’m just saying that “I’M A MINIMALIST!” is becoming a bit like those “I’M VEGAN” memes — I’m keen to hear less about why other people think their lifestyle would help me to become a better person.

So, minimalists: I’m glad you’ve found something that fulfills you; enjoy your newfound enlightenment and calmness! Just stop and think before you start preaching about your lifestyle to your friends — there are a myriad of reasons why it might not be right for them.

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