Why?

Why do we have 1 in 20 unemployed in the UK, vast swathes reliant on meagre benefits to survive and unprecedented inequality, with all the problems that entails?
When you posit the question that way, a considered answer requires an examination of our education system, of why minimum wage is below subsistence level for many, and of why we have a system of governance designed to protect the rich rather than enhance living standards for all.

A Memory of My Father

I haven’t seen my parents in eighteen months, though we exchange weekly messages. Both are well and happy. 

In March 2000, Dad and I attended a radio rally at Drayton Manor Park, and I had a horrible cold. I was out of tissue, and my dad went to the toilets to get some for me. 
I watched as he pulled off sheet after sheet after sheet – it must have been nearly half a roll – to get to the middle where it would definitely be clean and free of germs. 
That episode left a footprint on me as an unconscious signal of love and care, one that’s brought me much comfort down the years.

What I’ve Learned the Past Month

When pain becomes more constant, fear of anticipation goes, and everything starts to get better. For the first time in months, I’ve spoke with clarity and eaten sitting up/standing, at times. 

Helping others makes me feel better about myself, and the motivation can last longer than a few moments. It doesn’t have to be tied to a reward. I’ve contributed beyond myself in a way I never have before and my relationships have improved as a result. 
By the same token, if you completely ignore what you want, and spend no time focusing on it, you’ll feel deprived and can’t be the best version of yourself, in the best place to think about others. As is often said, there’s a reason why airlines tell passengers to fit their oxygen mask first before helping others. 
I’ve seen how much my oldest daughter is like me in her developing personality. I see my strengths in her, I see my weaknesses; I’m in the best position to help her to shape those, hopefully to avoid some of the mistakes I was unable to. 

Unrequited

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. 

When do you minimise people?

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?

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. 

Being Intentional in a Relationship

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.

Do You Have to be Ready to Let Something Go?

You know something is bad for you, but you can’t give it up, and it dawns on you that you’re not ready to give it up. Is it okay to hug it like a childhood teddy bear, and say, “I’m not ready to give this up,” even if you know the unhappiness you’ll face by clinging on? The unhappiness is essential, we remember it and are less likely to eat the poisonous berries again. 
By taking the time we need to learn our lessons with negative experiences, we are more likely to permanently declutter their kind than with unresponsive shock therapy, characterised by acting first and thinking later. When a choice is involved, we have to be ready to make it.

Minimising People: Using the minimalist toolkit where it matters most 

Minimalism and the Buddha’s famous adage, the root of all suffering is attachment, are inextricably linked. The essence of minimalism is to free yourself of attachments which do not add value to your life, and the starting point for this is decluttering possessions. Whilst this brings about a state of calmness and control, and feels like a pleasant decrease in the pace of life, I like to think the practical beginning opens the gateway to the more significant: helping us to shape our relationships, to find more meaning in them, and know when to walk away. 

Decluttering my possessions was easy for the most part. Once I got past the sunk cost fallacy, realising that what I had paid is immaterial if the thing offers no value to my life, the big clear out became a simple case of deciding which items could be sold without too much hassle and which needed to be thrown away or donated. Marie Kondo’s spark joy method was invaluable here, a quick Google search will let you know all about this, if you don’t already. 
Decluttering people is much harder. If we make a mistake in discarding a possession, we can simply buy it again. People cannot be bought in the same way, and depending on the nature of the relationship, discarding them altogether can be very difficult. Not many would abandon their mother notwithstanding her constant criticism. Moreover, relationships are bilateral in nature, providing a share of control in most cases. We cannot be their master fairly and must caution not to end up their slave.
I have great difficulty discarding people in my life that on balance create more problems than joy. If they were things, they’d be gone in a heartbeat. They are not relatives, no one would raise an eyebrow if I cut them dead (perhaps bar them, themselves). This problem has never been more manifest than with partners. Despite warning signs early on, I tend to stick with a partner through thick and thin until you almost end up hating each other. The ideal would have been to walk away early on before attachments formed and suffering became inevitable. Unfortunately I didn’t do that with the lady I have been in a relationship with for most of the last eighteen months. 
It’s been difficult, fraught with every kind of problem, from trust issues to financial worries, long-term sickness stresses to who lives where as the fallout begins to take shape. I own considerably more blame than her. Over time, it has become toxic, a euphemism for which is the idea that no one breaks up anymore, rather one partner is a prick until the other cannot take it anymore. 
For months now, I have known I would be happier in the long term if I ended it. Nail by nail, the coffin is closing. We lived together and don’t now. We have nothing at each other’s houses, have no keys now, no financial links, she has not seen my children in weeks and we are blocked on each other’s Facebook accounts. Recently, I spent a week by myself and it was the happiest week I have had in perhaps nine months. Free to do as I pleased, without pressure, expectation or those unintentional gremlins that annoy you so. Mowing the lawns and walking miles listening to podcasts were superbly enjoyable.
The answer, then, is obvious. End the relationship, endure the short-term pain for longer-term happiness. But what if the cycle repeats ad infinitum? Most relationships I’ve had have reached this point. One trouble is that I’m an eternal optimist and never stop believing I can play an active role in fixing them, an approach that leads to disappointment with the inevitability of the fly who buzzes into the window twenty times or more.
The next steps, then, are two-fold. One: accept that this relationship has run its course and extinguish the dying flame. We hang by a thread under a black cloud of inevitability, yet as I write, I’m not there yet. 

Two, and much more importantly: slow down in future. Actively try not to form attachments until I believe that there is an alignment in outlook on life, shared values, purposes and interests – this is far more than enjoying someone’s company. This is the most powerful use of minimalism to shape the future, not to solve an avoidable crisis. 
Under the influence of minimalism, I have controlled my spending, reduced my possessions to that remaining 20% that I love, shaped my relationship with my ex-wife to one of stripped back functionality under which my children and I have enjoyed each other’s company more than at any time since the divorce, and I have learned sometimes you have to lose battles to win others. All have benefitted my life and I look forward to giving myself that gift of a fresh start again; this time, I shall use it with greater consciousness.