A core tenet of living a meaningful life is contributing to others. Not only does it benefit them, but us too. The more we are focused on helping others, the less time we have to focus on our wants (which so often become regrets), and the Devil makes work for idle hands…
Inspired by a recent poster’s suggestion that the everyday phrase ‘collect them all,’ “gave them the shivers,” I explore these three words which embody the thoughtlessly-excessive mindset cultivated by brands and perpetuated by the folk that buy them.
Following the Industrial Revolution, costs of production fell with more efficient methods of manufacture, and the advent of cheaper, lower-skilled labour. By the time of the Great Depression, over-supply had been a significant problem facing society and the birth of the throwaway age was born. To use that produced, we would have seasons of fashion, such that even if the car or skirt still performed its function, it would be discarded as owners wanted something newer. Keeping up with the Joneses in full swing, product quality began to dip to encourage rapid consumption and replacement.
Collect them all is the legacy of this movement. Rolling off the tongue easily, accompanied (in my head at least) by Tony the Tiger’s enthusiastic tones, it enters through the back door of the mind – without the slower-thinking frontal lobe having the opportunity to assess the toxic consequences its acceptance entails.
From attempting (and never quite managing) to collect them all in my younger days, I’m attuned to the onerous obligation undertaken by the would-be collector. How many times have I wasted money and attentional energy in buying a packet of stickers or box of cereal in the aim of getting something new? Not too many more than the number of times I felt a crushing disappointment (remember, I was young!) in unpacking a(nother) duplicate. At what point do you realise the expenditure of additional resources is an exercise in futility?
Often when people find themselves in debt – and I’ve been there, I assure you – it is the little day to day purchases that take their toll. Tiny, repeated, bad habits of over-expenditure and unthinking consumption, day in, day out, produce mountains over time. We can shift them, but it is never easy.
Advertising’s tripartite phrase is the industrial capitalist’s utopia, encouraging us to buy things we don’t need, things we probably already have – under the illusion that we’ll use them all up and it will be okay. It makes sense; there’s no additional cost, right? In reality, our minds are so programmed to chase materialist novelty that a new thing comes along, persuading us to part with our hard-earned cash and relegating our part collections to needle-in-a-haystack-flea-market-tat, if not the bin, let alone a stressful I’m-going-to-complete-that-one-day-display positioned alongside all the others. We end up with more than we can use, adding to a culture of excess, and, doubtless where novelties from food purchases arise, the obesity problem.
The choices thus far have been shown to affect us as purchasers, and us alone. There is a wider impact, that on the environment. 99% of the things we use involve the production of waste: effluent from factories, harmful pesticides and landfill, in varying ratios. As an advocate for minimising waste responsibly, the amount of resources caught up in frivolous, unnecessary purchases is scarcely imaginable. And even if it is recyclable, because of the manufacturing waste and the transportation pollution, recycling will never be better than not using resources in meaningless ways in the first place.
The movement is long underway – if you’re reading this, you’re probably a part of it – to extract maximum value from our resources, to determine expenditures which will maximise joy, purpose, or both. Increasingly these arrive in the form of experiences. It is my hope that over time ideas such as ‘collect them all’ will be relegated to the scrap yard, first as unnecessary, and, finally in their resting place as parodies of an archaic system in which consumption appeared compulsory.
There is never enough joy to counterbalance the loss of freedom created by debt. Save the old-fashioned way, and you may find that having worked for the money in advance, you choose the money instead.
Last week, my iPod shuffle finally gave way. Eighteen months ago, it was around £20 and honestly, the temptation to throw it away was strong. The idea of returning it to store so they could charge it and try to find a fault didn’t seem like the best use of my time; I just didn’t want to do it. That said, it has a handy clip so it stays on the waistband of my shorts as I run. I love that it shuffles songs too; gone are the thousand decisions that made suffering possible by virtue of a screen. Considering it is under warranty, I waited until I had to visit the bank also, and took the time to return it earlier. The testing period quotation was half an hour.
Half an hour to spend in the city centre of Wolverhampton. I’ve not done that in some time and had no interest in it today. Some time ago, I may have careered here and there, out one storefront and into another with a slightly embarrassing, shallow buzz I’d inevitably regret later; pointlessly moving from shop to shop was a five-days-a-week habit for my ex-wife and I. And even if I had managed not to waste money, I’d certainly wasted time.
Not today. Today, I was oblivious to the bustle of the shopping centres and walks; buildings I’ve stepped into one hundred times or more held not the slightest motivation for me to do so again. I scarcely remember seeing a single one of them. Wolverhampton has become a ghost town to me.
And so I passed the time peacefully, walking leisurely in the sun, stopping for a brief sit down on a deserted bench and enjoying a podcast. This wasn’t the mere absence of want, it was the absence of wanting to want. The search for pacifiers and novelty, gone. I am entirely content with what I have; I am Buckaroo, loaded up, threatening to spring if I’m laden with further possessions. I felt tranquil, similar to how I feel after meditation.
As I returned to store, they quoted a further half an hour. Smiling, I replied, “No, thanks.” At the girl’s request, I jotted down my number. They keep things for two weeks apparently. I’ve a feeling they’ll keep this for some time longer.
I really wanted you to sit on me or me on you or you next to me and me next to you like we used to and look into your eyes and ask when could I see you again because it’s important to me. But it wasn’t to you. Lost in the urgent glow of your smartphone screen, we each defined our priorities; where once they met, today they don’t. With each passing day they become strangers, perhaps the perfect metaphor for our hearts and minds.
I love to get things done ASAP. It reduces stress. No longer do I walk past things with the nagging internal reminder that I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that. That’s draining.
My ex-wife used to cook wonderful casseroles, and I’d wash up. A casserole dish which needed soaking, a couple of pans for vegetables and potatoes. A serving spoon or two, knives to chop, sides to wipe. I’d do all of this in five mins before I’d sit down to eat. That meant then I’d have only the plates, cups and utensils afterwards. It made me just a little bit happier and it’s something I still do today.
When there’s a little job to do, do it. Get it done. And experience how much lighter your mind feels.
Is it when we have nothing left to give? I don’t think I’d ever honestly be able to say that.
Is it when we have nothing left to take? That’s ugly on one hand, open to using people, yet an honest pursuit of happiness on the other, dependent upon intention perhaps.
Or is it when those to whom we wish to give no longer value our gifts of love, time, attention, caring – leaving us no option really?
What if I’d discovered minimalism at 16? I’d have practised it for 16 years by now, many more than the one and a bit in reality. It has provided the strength and inspiration to make real changes to things in my life that matter since I first read about it last year, when I realised it may help me to solve problems that had plagued me for years.
I would never have learned to drive. Public transport has the potential to be brilliant; I love the idea of it. It affords us the opportunity to share an experience with others – even if it’s bad sometimes, contribute beyond ourselves and minimise environmental damage. There is no need to suffer the burden of possession in the way drivers do. The sacrifice of a few minutes’ travelling from your point of setting down to your destination provided an enjoyable opportunity for reflection, or time to reconnect and say an intimate goodbye in a way contorting your bodies to face one another renders impossible to replicate in car seats. The difference can be shown between the rising anger of the late driver as he feels he can direct his energy into making up lost time on one hand and the learned tranquility of the passenger who realises he has surrendered to Fate, and can perhaps catch an earlier bus tomorrow, on the other.
Budgetarily, cars are astronomical – the initial cost compounded by the several taxes applied to their running and the additional resources in providing for their maintenance. Certainly, cars are more convenient for the most part than buses and trains, but when you add up the amount of time you have to work to pay for them, do they still offer the best time versus money solution?
The experience of driving offers a transparent bubble of irritation whereby we can see others as we sit impatiently in traffic with them, unable to meaningfully interact. It becomes about accomplishing our goal of arriving at our destination on time at all cost, a selfish attitude which breeds expectation and entitlement and leads to oft-seen road rage. (I write this as a city boy; I appreciate cars may feel more necessary elsewhere.)
I’d have stayed a bachelor. For over ten years, my ex-wife and I struggled to push water uphill in a dysfunctional relationship, despite both feeling we weren’t entirely happy from long before we married. This was settling. Settling into a marriage that wasn’t right, into a career that was sensible but not my mission in life, not my passion, because it’s what my parents did at that age, and provided, “a good start in life.” Our two children are miracles and I would never be without them now. However, these reflections disallow hindsight and their single tragedy would be the probable non-existence of my angels.
I’d have saved, saved, saved. I realise now that I enjoy having money more than the things it can buy. In ten years, on my CeX account, I spent more than £20,000 on novelty gadgets, 99% of which added no value to my life, and the featured post on my blog, about my Diffusion retail regrets, illustrates a similar example. I enjoy higher quality experiences now: the foods I eat, the events I attend and the places I visit. I accept that it’s worth paying more sometimes to avoid stressors and have peace of mind, to quench a thirst in the summer sun. As a child, it was drilled into me to never spend on food and drink – rather material possessions, as, “at least you’ll have something to show for it.” Keeping company with this attitude has perhaps inflicted more disharmony upon my mind than any other. It set up a recipe for wasteful consumption which has taken many years to deconstruct and replace with something more meaningful, that makes me happy because it’s more in touch with who I am.
Would I turn the clock back? Probably not. I have many blessings in my life and I’d be unwilling to risk losing them to make improvements in some areas. My children are the deciding factor here. Were I not a father, I’d probably manipulate the hands of time back to the first months of the new millennium. As I write, I feel there’s something rather sad about that, if not too uncommon perhaps.
Having illuminated here a few examples, in reality just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the ways my life could have had more meaning down the years, I feel confident that continuing my journey as a minimalist will bring many years of intentional joy and purpose. I believe that as I get older I’ll look back on it as the seminal discovery in my life, and I’m so happy I discovered it when I did. What would life be like now if I hadn’t? That’s a piece I may write ahead, but as I run the reels of imagination on it they’re greyed in misery like a film noir of cliche. It creates a slightly uncomfortable feeling which is perhaps the biggest advocate for minimalism, the fear of being without it.
Five years back, a scene in The Americans left its mark on me. General Zhukov explained his feelings for his dog in a way that changed how I saw parental relationships. Denouncing his dog for her lack of beauty and intelligence, he surprises us by saying that he cares for her everyday, and, in that act, he falls in love with her and realises his life would have no meaning without her. As a father now, I understand those sentiments. Only lately, through the prism of minimalism, have I seen that they apply to romantic relationships as well.
I’ve never made relationships easy. Ex-partners would characterise me as moody, hard work and often cold. In both my marriage and a long term relationship (LTR) prior, I frequently lived up to the billing. I didn’t want to, and I convinced myself that I’d been with the wrong people – that the bad ways began with external stimuli. Then came a recent LTR in which my partner was different.
Genuinely, she is kind, affectionate, loving, interesting, caring and supportive. Despite this, I was not able to change, and not understanding why has been a source of great frustration. I wonder if an LTR is something I think I want until I get it and then realise maybe I don’t want it at all.
Through the practice of minimalism, I have seen that people are infinitely more important than things, and that doing meaningful things with them makes me happier than buying possessions ever did. However, I think I’ve been stuck in an endless cycle of thinking about what I want to take from a relationship rather than give. I know what I want but the trouble is when I get it I’m not really happy as I’ve usually played to get it and it makes me feel selfish, lowering my self-esteem, and from there stems moodiness and coldness. Add to this that we quickly pick up on someone who gives only to receive, and often resent them for it. After all, it’s ugly.
This week has been an eye-opener for me. Quoted in a podcast by The Minimalists, Martin Luther King Jr stated that life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?
My first thought was to ask the lady with whom I’ve spent the last eighteen months. My second was to not do that. It has the potential to be adversarial, especially in a period of unhappiness and change. Perhaps I could put myself in her shoes and answer. I produced very little and, from there, began to answer my question about why I become unhappy in LTRs, and what I could do to change this moving forward. I’m not ready to contemplate being alone for the future and I am unwilling to accept unhappiness as the default state in my relationships.
I am happiest when I give to others. My time, my attention, my mind, my support. I feel good about myself and in my own small way help to improve the lives of others in the process, contributing beyond looking after my needs in the world. Since that moment, I’ve set King’s quote as my phone wallpaper to help me form a habit of asking myself: what am I doing for others? More, I’ve taken action and, I dare say, helped as many people this week as in the whole of last month. This increased intentionality elevates my consciousness about what happens in happy relationships.
As I focus more on giving than taking, I am less disappointed when my hopes aren’t met. After all, I’ve spent less time focusing on them and building expectations around them. And I build up credit, perhaps in the banks of others, but especially in my own bank. This credit isn’t to be spent sinfully in a rather calculated balance, rather to be saved as a reminder of a way to make everyone a little bit happier.
Tired of a life based around possessions and the unhappiness that over-reliance on them brought, I dived headlong into the excellent Stuffocation by James Wallman, looking for new ways of thinking. In there, I first discovered minimalism, and I read about the exploits of Josh and Ryan, the Minimalists, and their reasoning for leaving large-income corporate jobs to pursue simpler, more meaningful lives. This was something I’d wanted to do for some time, and I was enchanted.
As I continued, Wallman comes on to the ‘faintly ridiculous’ notion of counting items, mistaking an essay by the Minimalists in which Josh ironically claims he has 288 items as a serious work and his major source of research material. It picked up on the silly nature of counting rules, falling hook, line and sinker for Josh’s most mischievous idea, that he counted all books as one item.
Josh did a podcast about this essay explaining that it was a parody of minimalism and that although he’s never counted his items, it would be a lot more than that.
Undeterred, I love a life with rules in it and for a short time, I became enamoured with the idea of counting my things. I had way too many to begin with but thought when I’d pared down it would become possible and I could have 95 items. Or 83, or 118. Just not too many. I soon realised that wanting to avoid this obsession over stuff is the very reason I was attracted to the movement in the first place. I don’t know how many things I have but I do know that they all bring joy or purpose to my life; it’s a group that’s very difficult for new objects to join, and a ruthless ethos can leave items with a new home in the blink of an eye should they no longer bring joy or purpose to my life.