One of my best friends is a bit of slob. I’ve known the guy since high school, love him like a brother, and… he’s been this way the entire time I’ve known him. Visiting his apartment when I was in high school, I remember seeing what I thought was flour in his sink — it was mold. While attending college classes in the city, I moved in with him for $150 a month (not a bad deal for 2009), though I think part of my rent was tolerating his filth. The first week staying there, I got pink eye. Later, I would get in fights with him over him using my bowls for cereal and then leaving half-eaten batches out only for the milk to develop a personality. For the longest time, I thought the shower and tub were a tan color until I accidentally kicked up a patch of filth to expose the blinding white porcelain beneath. Needless to say, I showered with flip-flops on for the rest of my stay.
Despite all of his filth, there was something about his living habits of which I was envious — everything had its place. Despite not necessarily being poor (well, I mean, for a part-time college student), he didn’t have much stuff. He didn’t seem to want much stuff. I think he probably owned two or three pairs of pants, maybe two pairs of shorts, a handful of t-shirts, and probably one dress-casual outfit for buddies’ graduations and weddings. Nothing folded — everything was kept on hangers. He probably could have also rented out his walk-in closet for the amount of room left in it.
Looking back into my room, plastic tubs of random stuff lined the walls. Clothes I rarely wore, trinkets I rarely looked at or used — just…stuff. Every time I would move, which was pretty often for a self-supporting college student/bookstore employee, I’d either have to rent a truck or make a half dozen trips with my car just to shlep my stuff.
I kept carrying this stuff around for a solid decade — six apartments and finally into a house. In one of the apartments, my stuff nearly filled a room of its own. As long as I could shut the door, I thought I was escaping it. Still, the stuff still seemed to take up mental real estate, keeping it spinning like an overtaxed computer with too many systems running in the background.
Last year, my slob-yet-barebones buddy moved out of state for work. One of the perks of his job was a rent-free house with two bedrooms and two full bathrooms all to himself — quite the upgrade from a dinky-yet-acceptable one-bedroom apartment in the city.
I went to visit him in his new digs after he had been living there for a few months. Walking through the house, I recognized the same items from the apartment. A chair. A coffee table. A second-hand TV. A kayak…in the empty dining room. As we caught up, our voices echoed as though he hadn’t even moved in yet.
“Man, this place is empty. We need to get you some stuff,” I commented.
His response was simple, yet echoed in my mind as much as it did off the walls of his empty living room.
Exactly. Why would he need more stuff? Why would I feel that he needs more stuff?
The more I pondered it, the more I began to enjoy the spacious feel that his lack of unnecessary stuff provided. Every item in his house had a purpose — selected as though they were items on a campsite. Even the decorations had a unique significance. Drawings, framed ticket stubs, photographs, and artwork that doubled as history textbooks. Nothing mass-produced.
I became quite envious of the arrangement — not of his specific choices, but of the intentionality of his selections. All of his objects were only his favorite versions of whatever that thing was. For one reason or another, he had chosen only to be surrounded by his favorite stuff — most of which he used nearly every single day. As close friends, we’ve spoken about everything from the intricacies of civil rights to the meaning of life, relationships, divorce, jazz…but we’ve never spoken about his lack of unnecessary stuff. (He doesn’t even know I’m writing this.) My friend was the first minimalist I had ever met, yet he’s never uttered the word.
That trip and realization weren’t quite enough to get me to buy into minimalism. Hell, I didn’t even know that “minimalism” was a thing or the potential benefits of such a lifestyle. Not until I was flipping through Netflix and found a documentary that piqued my interest — Minimalism.
Minimalism is a documentary, directed by YouTube filmmaker Matt D’Avella, largely starring the duo-author pairing of Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn, together known as The Minimalists. The premise of minimalism as a lifestyle is being hyper-intentional about the objects you choose to keep or acquire. The reason for this particularity is the idea that many of our possessions usually end up owning us — taking up mental and physical space while draining our emotions and bank accounts. A combination of keeping up with the Joneses and impulsively buying things that we think will enhance the quality of life has led to an existence packed to the gills with stuff and far less freedom — spatially, emotionally, and financially. At least, that’s what I know to be true now. As the minutes of the documentary ticked along, I still hadn’t fully bought it…until one sentence made it completely click for me.
Joshua Fields Millburn
“I don’t own a lot of clothes now, but all the clothes I do own are my favorite clothes.”
At that moment, I remembered rummaging through my sock drawer, casting aside substandard socks, looking for one of the four-or-so pairs of my favorite socks. I did the same thing with almost all of my clothes. Pants and shirts hung in my closet that I had either not worn in months or that I had worn reluctantly because all of my favorite versions were in the wash. When Joshua said that simple line, minimalism made complete sense for the first time. Everything I own could be my favorite. I suddenly felt like a kid who had just been told that they were now allowed to only eat ice cream for every meal — you know, before you actually attempted it.
Arguably, if you only own your favorite versions of each necessary item, you’re probably going to have significantly less stuff than the average person…and that’s actually great. This is because of what truth minimalism forces you to confront — that having or buying more stuff doesn’t make you happy. While it may be fun to open a new Amazon package, the appeal diminishes very soon after.
“The novelty, I think, of everything wears off, right? You get a new car and, ‘Ok, no one eats in here’ and two weeks later, there’s french fries in the seat. The whole novelty of it all, man, it wears off which is why happiness is a complete present state of being. That’s just what it is.”Terrance Cunningham
Most of us, in some part of our minds, think that once we’ve attained a certain income, a certain size house in a certain neighborhood, that new car or that elevated status in the office that then we’ll be content. The truth is that contentment is a choice. For a minimalist, contentment isn’t achieved by stuff — it’s achieved by meaningful, intentional experiences.
“Happiness is the absence of desire. It’s what you feel when you no longer want to change your state.”James Clear
Shortly after falling down the minimalist rabbit hole of books, videos, and podcasts, I downsized and decluttered substantially. After many loads to donation centers and downsizing objects that were just taking up space, I started to feel less burdened by my stuff. Even more powerfully, I began to realize that my happiness was not dependant on possessions, but on my relationships, on my own spiritual alignment, and seeking wonderful experiences. If anything, I could feel my happiness increase while my stress levels decreased with every load of stuff I gave away.
So, as a minimalist, do I still have stuff? Absolutely. The difference is that, like my friend, all of my stuff is my favorite.
And I’m happy to report that he keeps his new place much cleaner than his old place.
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