The Life-Affirming Terror of Minimalism

How the pain of minimalism helps us clarify our values and live the lives we aspire to

If you’ve ever heard a good description of Minimalism, you know it’s not really about the stuff. It’s about values.

As Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus (aka The Minimalists) explain:

Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.

In other words, the removal of stuff is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Minimalism helps us achieve something we all struggle with: Living our lives according to our values.

That sounds lofty, but it’s pretty straightforward. Here are two concrete examples from my own life:

  • I value spending quality time playing with my daughters. But sometimes I find myself checking my Medium stats on my phone instead of building with blocks or reading them a story.
  • I value writing every morning and producing good work, but sometimes I procrastinate by tweaking the fonts and formatting on my website.

It’s the age-old question: I say I want X, but I often find myself chasing after Y.

What gives?

The Perpetual Allure of Fake Values

Minimalism suggests that a big reason why I’m not acting according to my values is that I’m distracted by things that look valuable but aren’t—what I like to call Fake Values. And often these things take the form of physical possessions:

  • Having my phone on me when I’m at home with my wife and daughters in the evening is a huge distraction and temptation. It’s easier to be present with them—and live in accordance with my values—when I put my phone somewhere out of sight as soon as I get home. (I suspect not having a phone at all or trading down for a dumb-phone would be even better, but I’m not quite there yet…)
  • I have a stack of interesting books and an embarrassing number of Internet-connected Apple devices within arms reach when I sit down to write at my desk each morning. It would be easier to spend a solid hour writing if the only thing on my desk was an iPad that only had apps conducive to writing installed. Or maybe even just a stack of index cards or a legal pad.

These are simple, obvious examples. But sometimes the connection between physical stuff and being distracted from our values is a little more subtle, as the following story illustrates:

Yesterday I got into my car after work and noticed a pair of shorts I’d been meaning to return on the floor of the back seat. I spent the first 10 minutes of my commute home thinking about those shorts:

  • When and where I was going to return the shorts
  • Whether I’d get a refund or exchange them for another pair
  • How much I loved all the previous shorts I’d bought from my favorite shorts company

It wasn’t until I was almost home that I remembered how I was planning on using my commute as a time to call one of my brothers and catch up.

In this case, it wasn’t my stuff exactly that distracted me from my values; it was thinking about my stuff that did it. It was the mental space and energy my stuff required that distracted me from my values.

Minimalism Shows Us How We Misplace Our Love

I love my brother.

Which is why making time to catch up with him is a really important value of mine. Especially because he lives in a different state and I don’t get to see him nearly as often as I’d like.

But even though taking the time to call him is something I value strongly and an expression of my love for him, I’m surprisingly bad at actually doing it.

In the case of my forgetting to call my brother on my way home from work, thinking like a minimalist helped me see a painfully obvious truth about myself: I was loving a pair of shorts more than my brother.

That’s terrifying.

Even more terrifying is when you start seeing your whole life (and even your past) from this perspective:

  • How many hours of my life have I spent thinking about unnecessary clothing purchases?
  • What’s the opportunity cost of all that time and energy?
  • How many phone calls with my brothers could I have had with that time?
  • And this is just clothes! What about all the other unnecessary stuff in my life over the years? How much time and energy have I put into those, ultimately at the expense of things I truly value?

Minimalism helps us clarify and really feel the opportunity cost of stuff-how often we misplace our love away from relationships and values and onto ultimately unimportant stuff.

The clarity is in the pain.

Stuff Isn’t the Problem. It’s Our Relationship to Stuff That Matters.

Of course, having stuff and spending time and energy on our stuff is a part of life. And it’s not all bad by any means. In fact, the philosophy of minimalism is about being intentional with our stuff, not avoiding stuff outright.

In the case of my shorts and my brother, Minimalism reminds me how I could be loving him better if I had fewer distractions in the form of stuff, not that I should never buy shorts again.

But Minimalism is also a reminder that our relationship to stuff can easily move from healthy to unhealthy, often without us knowing it. And this happens, I think, for two reasons:

  • Our relationship with stuff isn’t black & white. There will never be a completely clear line demarcating exactly what amount of stuff is good and useful vs distracting and unhelpful.
  • Our natural tendency in modern American society is to acquire more stuff. It’s like gravity. We’re just pulled that way.

Taken together, these two factors mean that we’re starting off at a disadvantage when it comes to living according to our values without being sidetracked by stuff.

And as a result, we need to cultivate a strong habit of pushing back against the mindless acquisition of and focus on material things so that we can be more intentional about what really matters in our lives and act accordingly.

Minimalism, then, is less a wholesale rejection of stuff than it is a habit of mind that encourages us (often painfully) to be aware of and intentional of our relationship to material possessions.

All You Need to Know

Like any good philosophy, Minimalism is usefully terrifying.

It forces us to confront the uncomfortable truth that we spend a lot of time, energy, and love on ultimately unimportant stuff, often at the expense of the people and values in our lives that matter most.

Thankfully, the terror of Minimalism is not merely uncomfortable, it’s also clarifying—a constant reminder to re-focus our thoughts and actions toward the things that matter most.

That’s a philosophy I think we can all get behind.

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