4 August 2014

On minimalism and faith, or, Thoreau was a wanker

A recent post was put up over at The Art of Manliness discussing the idea of minimalism, and it comes to the conclusion that minimalism, or living a stripped down simplified life, may not be everything it is cracked up to be. This is a bit of a switch, because the owner of the site has previously published several articles suggesting that it is in fact everything it is cracked up to be. In this article, Brett (the site owner of Art of Manliness) reveals that he both enjoyed tales of how people simplified their life, and also felt a little bugged by them, in ways he couldn't quite put his finger on. And then, someone else put their finger on it.

As someone who has felt the call of simplicity repeatedly, but has never gone through with it (not enough money to live cheaply, ironically. More on that shortly.) I found this reversal curious. At the heart of this reversal lies this quotation from another author.

Wealth is not a number of dollars. It is not a number of material possessions. It’s having options and the ability to take on risk.

If you see someone on the street dressed like a middle-class person (say, in clean jeans and a striped shirt), how do you know whether they’re lower middle class or upper middle class? I think one of the best indicators is how much they’re carrying.

Lately I’ve been mostly on the lower end of middle class (although I’m kind of unusual along a couple axes). I think about this when I have to deal with my backpack, which is considered déclassé in places like art museums. My backpack has my three-year-old laptop. Because it’s three years old, the battery doesn’t last long and I also carry my power supply. It has my paper and pens, in case I want to write or draw, which is rarely. It has a cable to charge my old phone. It has gum and sometimes a snack. Sunscreen and a water bottle in summer. A raincoat and gloves in winter. Maybe a book in case I get bored.

If I were rich, I would carry a MacBook Air, an iPad mini as a reader, and my wallet. My wallet would serve as everything else that’s in my backpack now. Go out on the street and look, and I bet you’ll see that the richer people are carrying less.

As with carrying, so with owning in general. Poor people don’t have clutter because they’re too dumb to see the virtue of living simply; they have it to reduce risk.

When rich people present the idea that they’ve learned to live lightly as a paradoxical insight, they have the idea of wealth backwards. You can only have that kind of lightness through wealth.

If you buy food in bulk, you need a big fridge. If you can’t afford to replace all the appliances in your house, you need several junk drawers. If you can’t afford car repairs, you might need a half-gutted second car of a similar model up on blocks, where certain people will make fun of it and call you trailer trash.

Please, if you are rich, stop explaining the idea of freedom from stuff as if it’s a trick that even you have somehow mastered.

The only way to own very little and be safe is to be rich.

There is something noble about the call to simplicity, to shed one's possessions and live a freer, less cluttered and less busy lives. But the author is correct: Virtually everyone I know, and everyone I know of, who has made that move made it with a safety net.

This goes back to the great prophet of simplicity, Thoreau himself. Thoreau's famous experiment on Walden Pond was hardly an experiment at all: he was playing with loaded dice. He famously said he went to the pond to chase life into a corner, and live fully so that he would not find, when his time came to die, that he had in fact never really lived at all. He would simplify his life, and show others how to live. What form did this simplicity take? The land where he 'squatted' was actually owned by his friend Ralph Weirdo Emerson, so he was never in any danger of being forced to leave. Townspeople recalled that he would head home to his parents' house almost every night for dinner, so his food was free. In his book he details how he borrowed the tools he needed to build his house and farm his land, and then bragged that he was a more successful farmer than most of the professional farmers around! It doesn't take much to see that that, yeah, if you're not paying for land, or tools, or food, it may be a bit easier to be a success at farming. (Side note: Roy Underhill, star of the Woodwright Shop, once commented on Thoreau being that bane of all honest workers: a tool borrower. He went on to comment on how Thoreau's boast of how the axe he borrowed was sharper on its return to the owner than when he first got it is a little hollow, because Thoreau, in his ignorance, ruined the handle. He didn't know it, but anyone who knows much about tools- which Thoreau obviously didn't- can see how he did it in Walden.) After his time at Walden, Thoreau lived most of the remainder of his life in his parents' comfortable home, living comfortably off their dime.

Whether or not his theory was correct is up for debate, but in the end, the man was deceived in himself, and deceiving others. Far from being independent, his life at Walden, even as he described it in his book, was utterly dependent on possessions- if not his own, than those of others that he could borrow, or squat on, or eat. His simplicity merely made him a burden upon others- especially those whom he looked down upon, those who had possessions, as he put it, easier got than got rid of.He looked down upon them, and then asked to borrow their stuff.

The others I know of follow a similar pattern. The Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, a site I visit quite often and daydream, has a newspage filled with testimonials from people who have bought and built from their plans. They follow a pattern. They had a three to four thousand square foot house, felt the call to downsize and simplify, and reduced to a house with less than two hundred square feet. Or, they built one of the tiny houses on trailers (putting a house on a trailer is an easy way to circumvent local building codes which quite often have minimum size limits on new houses) and then park them in a friends yard. They buy farmland and park their house there. All things which are good ideas at heart, but, as laudable as they may be, not everyone can do this, and that especially includes those who need it the most.

One of the best things about this simple life is the cheapness of it, so to speak. A small house is cheaper to build, cheaper to heat, cheaper to cool, cheaper to light. Because it uses fewer materials, if one has the money one can splurge on the details and get high quality. But here we are starting to see the problem. According to the site's own figures, the cost of building the smallest house on a trailer is $57,000. According to their price generator, their largest house, built to minimum quality standards outside of Buffalo (I picked a place at random) would be over $88,000, plus the price of land. Cheaper than buying a new home or even an old home. to be sure, and even cheaper still if one is capable of building it oneself- and I am capable of most of the framework and interior. So it is cheaper but you still need a large sum of money for materials and land, if you don't have a friend who will let you park or build on theirs; plus a place to stay while the house is being built; plus, if you are building it yourself, a car to take you there and back to build it while you build it on weekends while keeping your day job, so now gas and car maintenance need to be tossed in. And, if you ware not building the house near where you work or if you don't telecommute, because, say, land prices in your home city are outrageous in the extreme, you may need to find a new job in the new place. And so on. Simplicity would cost less, and in costing less it would clear up many of my problems, but I would have to fork out a large amount of cash to take advantage of that simplicity. And I don't have the cash in the first place because of those issues simplicity could cure.

Only those who have some financial security, or those who can take a huge leap of faith- the kind of leap that only true fools and great saints are capable of- can do this. I myself wish I had that kind of faith to take that leap. As I said, almost everyone I know or have heard about had a safety net underneath them. Someone or something stood ready to support them or catch them if something went wrong. I know of few who took an honest leap, and none of them had children or spouses. I wish I could take that leap. I wish I could tell my boss what I think of him and abandon this bloody ship before it sinks from underneath me, and leave secure in the faith that all will turn out well.

But I lack that faith. So I cling to this stupid job and this stupid home. I have a basement filled with crud that I don't toss because I might just need it someday. It would be a dream to break free of these shackles, but that is all it is: a dream for others, but not for me. And I wish they would stop telling me anyone can do this.

1 comment:

Eunike said...


"But what if I get rid of it and then need it again someday?" That's what keeps my house cluttered. I think it comes from having parents who remember the 1930s.