Involuntary Simplicity

Behold: true minimalist sustainability. Photo courtesy of http://www.old-photo.com.

I was going about my usual business this morning–doing laundry, straightening some things up–when it occurred to me that I am already living a relatively minimalist life.

Why doesn’t it feel like it, then?

Well, it probably has something to do with my current living situation not being once that I chose. Or rather, it’s a product of necessity and nothing more.

My living space consists of 120 sq/ft. I have access to a bathroom (which I’m not really allowed to keep things in other than shower stuff), a single cupboard in the kitchen, the refrigerator, and the occasional nook in the garage. I don’t buy an excess of things because I’m broke now; and in the case of food, it’s because it’ll either get eaten and replaced with cheap substitutes, or because there’s literally no room in the kitchen for it. I have a bike and take transit not just because I hate cars and car culture, but because I am nowhere near being able to afford one even if car ownership was something I aspired to. My bed is on the floor not just because it’s aesthetically pleasing and comfortable, but because I also don’t expect to be able to afford the frame I want for a long time.

Why is talking about minimalism by necessity rather than choice such a taboo? Is it because the subject is sobering and depressing, anathema to the cool aloofness that is at the core of minimalist design sense? Or is it because, at the end of the day, it really is just lifestyle porn? A chic aesthetic to put on the list next to “country modern” and “warm industrial”? And aesthetic without deliberation, it might be argued, is merely either an accident or a trick of the eye.

There are lots of choices I have the liberty to make as I go through my day, sure. I can decide what I want to wear, what I want to eat for breakfast, what book to read next. But I have little substantial control over my life. I live where I do and how I do because it was the only option. My 3rd wedding anniversary is coming up this winter, and I still live in a different country than my spouse because surviving in the day-to-day makes planning for something as distant as immigration a struggle. I have a lot of free time to contemplate the beauty of nature and the virtues of doing everything by hand because I got laid off and have nothing else to do sometimes.

This is a criticism that comes up a lot when talking about lifestyle minimalism and voluntary simplicity. Why do we fawn over people who choose to live sparsely and ignore those who have no other choice? Why don’t 200 sq/ft apartments get the same love as 200 sq/ft tiny homes? Why aren’t subsistence farmers in Brazil or backyard gardeners in the Bronx applauded for saving the planet in the same way that middle-class people are? (Most of the world isn’t middle-class, yannow.)

Why can’t I congratulate myself for having achieved the minimalist lifestyle with so little fanfare?

Because it sucks, is why. I have about as small of a footprint as you can get in the city/suburbs, and I have only a few bills to pay. My life is, all things considered, very un-complicated. But it’s not my life. It’s just life, one that was thrust on me. One that happens to meet a number of minimalist criteria. I consider myself fortunate enough to not just dream of a more ideal future for myself, but actually maybe be able to take steps toward achieving it, and I’m glad that vision revolves around minimalist and zero waste principles. But not everyone else’s does. When you have nothing, of course you’re going to dream about having everything.

What do we do about that, community?

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5 thoughts on “Involuntary Simplicity

  1. I think you are unlike most people in that you live within your means. I’m also minimalist-by-necessity (but enjoy the benefits!), and to me it seems that most others in my position extend themselves further than they should (mortgages, credit lines, loans) in order to live “normally”. If everyone lived within their means, perhaps minimalism would be the new “normal”.

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    • The problem with that is that different people have different means– and some have practically no means at all. For an upper-middle class renter, living within their means could very well mean eating take-out 2 meals a day and enjoying the convenience of living disposably. And for others, it’s just a matter of literally not going hungry or getting evicted. I think it would be wise to not confuse survival with minimalism. The two have very, very different definitions in a capitalist economy.

      I’m a socialist anyways; I believe that we should be aiming to live in a society that has no need for money, for “jobs” as we currently understand them, and has eliminated the Darwinian concept of capital that exists solely to exploit and coerce. Get rid of those things and “living within one’s means” no longer makes sense because no one’s scrambling to survive any longer.

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  2. Yeah, I understand. I live in a little shithole too. Never really dreamed it would be like this. At home I had everything, now I have nothing. No car, no money to speak of, no video games, no movies, absolutely nothing. Savings have all dried up, no credit card. I don’t live like my friends do because I literally don’t have the choice, not because it’s some stylish way of living. Yeah to a certain extent Tyler Durden was right “it’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything”. I have all the time in the world to study Japanese, to workout, etc. because I literally can’t afford to do anything else! Maybe it can make you a better person in the end, but it sure as shit isn’t the ideal lifestyle. Don’t believe the hype, you’re no more fulfilled when you have nothing. I think it’s the after-affect, the relief and the success you achieve in the end that feels good, not the actual experience itself.

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