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hair dryers, gym memberships, reading glasses and yoga poses

on minimalism
[originally published on Medium, March 6, 2014]

things I don’t have: a huge collection of shoes. a closet to put them in. a gym membership. a car. a drivers licence. a functioning thyroid. an addiction problem. a fancy phone. a hair dryer. a husband. a mortgage. ads on my website. food preferences. a chance to ever upgrade my frequent flyer status. the ability to do a three-legged wheel pose.

things I do have: an unnecessary large number of jackets. two suitcases. amazing friends. a fancy camera. food preferences. two pairs of reading glasses. a kindle. very long legs. two cats. three tattoos. a crocked finger. a well-used passport. a bright orange watch. a fondness for ice cream. an aversion to dogs.

I like to think of myself as a minimalist. born as much out of necessity and lack of funds as out of conviction, I've been downsizing and minimizing for years. even if one chooses to ignore issues like the sustainability or rather unsustainability of current levels of consumption, it’s hard to ignore the emptiness, anxiety and stress that comes with focusing exclusively on more, more, more. at least for me and most of my friends.

we often talk about less is more. at the same time, while having organic lunch or dinner in sparsely equipped kitchens, we compare equally sparsely equipped restaurants, discuss the work of designers and artists we admire, talk about exhibitions we went to, books we read, bands we saw play and movies we watched. we share travel stories, help each other plan future trips and pride ourselves in not caring about brands and labels while checking messages on our iPhones.

we are all minimalists to varying degrees if you follow the current generally accepted definition of the term. none of us own a lot of things but we all do an awful lot, all of the time.

I’m not the first one to point out that minimalism is a first world luxury. after having had everything imaginable, it’s easy to say no, especially since everything imaginable is still theoretically available. I do not doubt the intentions of people who consciously and intentionally decide to consume and own less, I’m just acknowledging that it’s a relatively easy decision to follow through with. what I do doubt is the work that happens behind the scenes, especially after the first enthusiasm has worn off.

minimalism has become a trend. it’s an image. a fashion we can wear like any other. it’s as socially accepted as being a vegetarian or a fitness enthusiast. the element of counter culture and protest has, maybe not for everyone but for most, disappeared a long time ago, and for most, after a time of determinedly buying less and de-cluttering our lives, we start to fill them up again.

the money and often time saved by having less needs to be spent somehow. so what a lot of us, me included, do is do. instead of buying another pair of shoes, we check out that new restaurant around the corner. instead of paying car insurance, we go on holidays. instead of watching TV, we go to the movies or an exhibition or a show. in between, we have dinner parties and pick-nicks, go on hikes or photo walks, pick pumpkins or strawberries, arrange flowers or bake our own bread.

aside from the fact that this isn't even first world living but only possible for a select few [mostly the educated ones] , it’s not all that different from what we traded it for. yes, we buy and own less and thereby do this world a [small] favor, but we still consume, and I can’t help but wonder if we only substituted one kind of consumerism with another.

if owning less and doing more leads to a less stressed and anxious and more satisfying life, minimalism is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do and I’m all for it. but more and more often do I see the same stress- and anxiety-inducing habits creeping into an outwardly minimal lifestyle.

having a bigger car has been replaced with having the more exciting vacations. owning the newest pair of shoes with having seen the latest exhibition or having been to the latest bar or community garden. having the better paid job with having a more creative, fulfilling, fun, add your adjective of choice calling. monetary and material status with knowledge about the latest vegan cupcake joint, yoga studio or indie bestseller. if the intent is lacking, a minimalist lifestyle is just as difficult, demanding and high-maintenance as any other.

materialism and consumerism are born out of a lack of connection and belonging. we try to fill a void we experience but don’t fully understand, but instead of giving us relief, it creates more distance and disconnection. if we understand that and choose a minimal life to generate space that subsequently lets us re-connect, we’re on the right track. if we choose a minimal life because it’s cool and trendy and looks like its proponents are happier than us, we miss the point and a great opportunity at the same time.

it’s the work that happens behind the scenes that matters, otherwise minimalism only translates into sparsely decorated apartments, sleek outfits and empty plates.