Life as an Extreme Sport

Counting Down to Keep Up

My friend Naomi writes a blog about simpler living (named, appropriately enough, Simpler Living.). In fact, it’s how we met, because I find myself drawn to the same sorts of things she discusses in her blog.

Naomi started it as her version of Dave Bruno’s 100 Thing Challenge. It was an appealing idea – at that point, I had moved twice in a little over two years, and I was well aware of the benefits of having less. Tracking intentional pairing down without having a move at the end of it seemed like a good idea, and I was still rather overwhelmed with the general accumulation of detritus that happened when I wasn’t looking. (Or rather, that happened when I started using my parents basement as a storage cellar, and then suddenly had a lot of it to take with me when I moved 3000 miles away.)

A snippet of a summer bounty.
Jams, sauces, and pears - canning is part of my minimalism.
When I started thinking actively about this, thanks to Naomi, the whole minimalism movement was somewhat in it’s infancy. So there were a lot of like-minded people about, interested in how to reduce, reuse, recycle, repurpose, and how to cut back and avoid participating in a conspicuously consuming culture. There were people looking to simply declutter their lives, and other people looking to return to a simpler life. What people defined as simpler often revolved around their lifestyle – simpler for one person meant cooking at least one full, from scratch dinner a week, while for another person it meant baking his own bread, and another person started canning and preserving the CSA bounty for winter treats.

It was, in other words, a movement motivated by shared goals applied to individual lives in specific and tailored ways. Which, if you think about it, is really the pinnacle of rejecting a conspicuous consumption culture, where everyone should have the biggest, best, most recent, most expensive – and everyone has and tries for the same cookie cutter things.

Quirky, unique, and custom – what could possibly go wrong?

Well, cut to two years later, and there’s a lot of division in the minimalism communities. Today, Karol Gadja of Ridiculously Extraordinary really solidified the problem: minimalism has become it’s own version of Keeping Up with the Jones’s; the very thing that many of us tried to consciously get away from when we gravitated towards a simpler lifestyle.

Now, instead of whether or not you have the latest and best flatscreen TV or the nicest luxury car on the block, people talk about how minimal you are. And if you don’t meet their particular standards, then be prepared to be judged, called names, told you’re boring and ordinary and part of the problem. (Just for one particularly grating example.) And if you think about it, this kind of one-upmanship is the exact same thing you see when people are comparing their cars, their houses, their purchases. It’s just that instead of measuring against consumption, the marker has become a sort of limbo “how low can you go”.

Is this any more helpful? I don’t think so, because it’s playing on the same sort of competitive drive – it’s just the flip side of the same coin, where you’re still having to struggle to keep up. It’s just a different sort of keeping up. You know how food advocates are always saying “read the labels, read the labels”, so that you don’t get caught up in the hype? This is the same thing – the hype makes it look different, but under the hype, it’s the same exact thing.

There’s nothing wrong with setting goals, or using numbers to make things tangible for yourself. But there’s a lot wrong with having your motivation be external forces and a drive to prove to those external forces that you’re just as good, just as minimal – and that you’re capable of bagging on people who don’t meet your arbitrary goals and ideals. (Which, by the way and for clarity, is not at all what either Naomi or Karol are doing. But if you’re at all involved in minimalism, you certainly know people who do this. Why, just look at the link above that doesn’t belong to Naomi or Karol’s blog. Ahem.)

Naomi recently went through her last two boxes of things, which is actually what inspired Karol to write, and me to join the discussion. And she notes that she’s living lighter, and is happier and more appreciative about the things she does have in her life.

And that’s what this is all about – reevaluating your life and removing yourself from the rat race that makes you unhappy. So if your version of minimalism is all about sewing your own clothing from organic, fair labour clothing, go for it! If your version of minimalism is about fitting two people and five cats in a 400 square foot home, more power to you and your litterbox. If you want a full pantry for the winter, made with the bounty of the summer, join the club.

Just don’t opt out of one rat race to join another. That’s missing the entire point – of doing what makes you happy, rather than using the yardstick of others.