Monday, January 9, 2017

The minimalism trap

We took our Christmas tree and decorations down today, and I have to admit it: I am happy about it. Some of my Facebook friends have been lamenting the annual "putting away the Christmas stuff" event, but I have never related to the idea that it's bittersweet to pack it all up until next year. Don't get me wrong: I don't mind decorating for Christmas in the first place (though we usually wait until Gaudete Sunday to do so, and then wait until just after Epiphany to take it all down; I'm not a "Thanksgiving until Candlemas" sort of person when it comes to Christmas decor). It's just that by the time Epiphany (or Epiphany Sunday, whichever comes later) arrives, I'm ready to have my living room back.

Maybe part of the problem is that our living room is sort of small and prone to clutter anyway. It's supposed to be a combo living/dining space, but apart from the small dining table as a nod to the builder's purposes, it's really become a kind of "Bookland and Deskland" world where study and reading takes place. That happened out of necessity, because homeschooling families need plenty of desk and table space for school-related activities and a decent (though never adequate) number of bookshelves; even though our girls are now in college, they still need desk space at home, and the two who share a bedroom have no room for desks in their actual room. So, like lots of families, we use the space for what it's needed for, not for what some builder's design catalog envisioned.

Which is good, because I think that we (especially us women) can drive ourselves kind of crazy by thinking that there's some all-purpose standard of perfection that our homes ought to have, and then doing whatever we can to try to reach that standard of perfection regardless of the cost. For some people, it might be insisting on using a dining room as a dining room, darn it anyway, even if the dining room is the perfect size and shape for a study and it's carpeted and you still have toddlers so you won't be bringing food in there for a decade or so. For other people, it might be throwing minor conniption fits any time a CSI team could reasonably prove that actual people live in the home and do actual people things like bathe or eat or play card games or work on homework. For still other people--and this one sucks in a lot of us--it might be falling victim to that rotating cycle of house management and living advice that has come to be known as minimalism.

If you are a modern-day hermit and have never heard of minimalism, it's an idea that the main problem we have maintaining our homes and lives can be boiled down to a few seductive words: you have too much stuff (though, come to think of it, this is not usually a problem for hermits, modern-day or otherwise). Like many half-baked ideas, this one is dangerous not because it is false, but because it is at least a little bit true for quite a lot of us Americans. Quite a lot of us really do have too much stuff, and quite a lot of us would benefit from a regular sweep through closets and under bathroom cabinets and in other clutter-prone locations, so that we can remove the stuff we no longer need (and perhaps donate the things that are still in good condition to charities and so forth). In fact, many of us do attempt to do this sort of thing, and enough of us do it on a regular enough basis to keep this lady quite busy.

Minimalism, though, takes the idea of routine cleaning and clearing out and decluttering a step further by informing us that our stuff really is the problem, and that the way to find happiness or peace or "maximum joy" (in one author's way of putting things) is not just to clean out our junk, but to engage in a radical re-altering of our relationship with our belongings in such a way as to strip from ourselves every single item in our homes that does not fulfill some terribly useful purpose or contain some incredibly fraught meaning or otherwise really BELONG in our lives in a way that random clutter never will.

Lots of funny and clever memes have attacked these ideas, by pointing out that one's cleaning tools rarely give one a whole set of matching warm fuzzies or that most of us live in homes with other people whose stuff is essentially meaningless to us, and that's all quite true. But those memes, funny as they are, don't get at what is, to me, the root problem of minimalism, the reason that I call minimalism a trap. It is simply this: minimalism makes the stuff we own too important.

Christians are supposed to practice a kind of spiritual detachment from our material possessions. This doesn't mean that it's sinful for a flood victim to cry about her grandmother's china and her lost wedding photographs, of course. But it does mean that our stuff shouldn't, by and large, be anywhere near the center of our lives. It shouldn't hold us back from doing what God wants of us, and it shouldn't become a false idol. Anything that leads us to idolize our material possessions is spiritually unhealthy.

But a lot of minimalism movements want us to do exactly that: to idolize our material possessions, to examine the role of each piece of flatware and each sweater and determine if they are deeply necessary to our happiness (and to get rid of them if they are not). Then they want us to keep doing that every single day forever afterward, so we won't accidentally find discarded reading glasses, expired receipts, and tiny dictionaries in Italian sprawling willy-nilly upon our writing desks for no discernible reason. The stuff we own, and its role in our lives, is supposed to remain so much at the forefront of our minds that it will be unthinkable for us to leave so much as a just-removed ponytail holder anywhere but in its appointed place on the bathroom shelf with its exactly two companions for more than three seconds without its discarded and orphaned state causing us something pretty much akin to physical pain.

That is not a recipe for joy, and it's not a recipe for detachment from one's physical possessions, either.

Most of us could stand to clean up a bit. Many of us could donate more than we think we could to charity, and throw out quite a bit too. But following a path that forbids you to own so much as a paper plate without questioning its importance and necessity and joy-giving properties is the opposite of keeping our material goods in their proper places in our lives. On a spiritual level, it is giving these things too much power, of a kind that leads to an inevitable frustration and disappointment--especially if you are living the vocation not of a cloistered nun but of a wife and mother whose children may temporarily need things that do not cause you one bit of joy, especially when they leave some of those things on the living room floor and you step on them in your bare feet in the middle of the night when one of your children asks for a drink of water.

To me, that's the worst temptation minimalism offers: the temptation to go from thinking that your own belongings are a burden and a barrier to happiness, to thinking that the things owned and used and enjoyed by the other people in your family are the real problem--and from there, the feelings of resentment and burden have this way of pointing at the people as much as the stuff. In other words, it's not a huge leap to go from being annoyed at your husband's habit of leaving half-built model ships out on the worktable he put in the family room for the very purpose of model ship building, to being annoyed at your husband, full stop. Why does he have to build model ships? Why couldn't he find a nice minimalist hobby that doesn't require physical space at all? the frustrated would-be minimalist mom may catch herself thinking.

When that happens, it might be a good idea to remember that man does not live by minimalism alone. After all, it's harder to think of a more minimalist living space than a maximum security prison cell; yet somehow the cell's uncluttered state doesn't lead one to think of happiness and joy...