A few weeks ago, I shared a list of my initial thoughts from the road. Some were silly (like noticing all the different license plate designs in Montana), some were fun (tallying up the presidential yard signs in every state) and some were about money (oh how I am missing your cheap gas prices, America). But fairly early on into the trip, I also came face-to-face with a fact I couldn’t ignore: that minimalism is a privilege. And while I wasn’t ready to write about it then, I’ve since gathered my thoughts and had enough conversations with friends that I can finally share how I feel about it now.
Let’s start with a story…
When I was packing for the trip, I took pride in the fact that my entire life could fit into three bags: one for the stuff I needed daily, one for the stuff I would need in cooler weather and one for my laptop/wallet/books, etc. My goal was to fit everything into the trunk of my car, so anyone who walked past it would have no idea it was filled with all of my possessions. I was genuinely concerned that someone would break into my car and steal everything – so much so that I sometimes carried every one of those bags into a home or hotel where I was only staying for one night.
As time went on, I started to care less and less about the bag of stuff I would need in cooler weather. It stayed hidden in the trunk for the remainder of the trip, and I can only remember opening it once to pull out a flannel shirt. At one point on the trip, I realized that while I was glad all my belongings fit into the trunk of my car, if everything was stolen, I would be fine. I wasn’t attached to anything I owned. And while I wouldn’t love handing over the money to replace whatever I needed, I could afford to do so – and therein lies my privilege in the ability to embrace the typical definition of minimalism.
The Many Definitions of Minimalism
Before I continue that thought, let’s take a step back and talk about what minimalism is. Originally, the word “minimalist” was used to describe a style of art and design. More recently, it has morphed and is now used to describe a person who lives with a minimal amount of stuff. And in that, you might think a minimalist can only own 100 things, live in a tiny house and not have a single ounce of clutter in that house. Some people also use the terms “minimalism” and “simple living” interchangeably, while others (myself included) think there is a difference between the two.
There are pros and cons to the fact that a single word can have so many definitions. When it comes to the word “minimalism”, one con is that you could get confused about what it actually means. To go along with that, another con is that you could feel like none of the definitions you’ve read about align with what it means to you. And some definitions could even make it feel like minimalism is an impossible standard to live up to. Conversely, one pro of having the word mean so many different things is that it gives you the opportunity to define it for yourself.
Define Minimalism on Your Own Terms
My definition of the word minimalism has changed over the years. At first, I subscribed to The Minimalists definition, which is to “rid yourself of life’s excess”. I thought of this when I was decluttering, and there is no doubt it helped me get rid of 75% of my belongings. But even though I kept track of my progress, I quickly learned that minimalism isn’t a numbers game. You don’t have to get rid of a huge percentage of your belongings, own 100 things or even live in a tiny house, to be a minimalist. If you want to do any or all of those things, great! But you don’t have to.
Now, I believe it’s all about being intentional. Personally, I define minimalism as: the mindset that helps you recognize what adds value to your life, so you can let go of what doesn’t. And that doesn’t just apply to physical items, but to all areas of your life: health, habits, beliefs, relationships, work, hobbies, etc. There are no rules for how much or how little you can have. It’s not about more or less. And there is certainly no such thing as being “minimalist enough”. The more you can recognize what adds value to your life, the easier it is to appreciate what you have and decide what to let go of, and the happier you’ll be overall – that’s what minimalism means to me.
Side rant: I will also admit I have a serious aversion to minimalism being sold as a lifestyle where you need to own almost nothing and everything must be white. White walls, white tile, white furniture and decor. Again, if that’s part of your definition of the word, great! But I don’t like seeing the Instagram accounts or magazines or websites that curate and sell products or brands that are so-called “minimalist”.
No Matter How You Define It, Minimalism is a Privilege
If you consider the newer definition, where a minimalist is a person who intentionally chooses to live with a minimal amount of stuff, you can physically see the role privilege plays in that. Curating a life and a home filled with things you love is a privilege. Decluttering is a privilege. Heck, having clutter in general is a privilege. But being able to get rid of 75% of your belongings after realizing you never needed any of it? Or not worrying about how you’d replace all of your possessions if your car was broken into? Hi, my name is Cait, and I am so incredibly privileged.
Even my personal definition of what minimalism means to me is a privilege. Being able to decide what adds value to your life and letting go of what doesn’t – how fortunate am I to be in the position to apply that to any area of my life!? If my diet is making me feel bad, I can walk into a grocery store and buy better food. If the work I do is leaving me unfulfilled, I can find other work. If I need/want to learn a new skill, I can take a class. The list goes on and on.
I had a lot of time to think about my privilege on the road, and I’ll be honest and say it made me question everything I’ve been writing about for the past two years. I know people who only ever buy what they value because that’s all they can afford. And I know people who can’t even do that. When there are so many people who don’t have enough to begin with, how can I wear the “minimalist” badge proudly? I can’t. At least, I can’t if it means identifying as the typical definition of the word, and writing posts about what items to declutter or what’s included in my minimalist beauty routine.
But here’s what I can do: I can recognize both my current privilege and my experiences growing up in a middle class household in western society. I can practice being content and grateful for the life I lead today, knowing circumstances can change and this may not last forever. I can share the personal lessons I’ve learned since embracing this lifestyle, changing my mindset and figuring out what matters most to me. And I can accept that I’ll never be the voice for everyone, but that I am still a voice in this space and I take that seriously.
Finally, the one thing I will always do is talk about this subject as it relates to our consumption tendencies and habits. The most important lesson I’ve learned in the past two years is that whenever I thought about consuming a lot of something (stuff, alcohol, food, etc.), it’s because another part of my life was lacking – and it seemed easier to fill that void with something else, rather than deal with whatever was really going on. Learning how to recognize and change those habits doesn’t make me a minimalist. All I’m trying to do is be a little bit better than the person I was yesterday. And isn’t that the only person you should try to be?
- Avoid This One Minimalism Mistake – Break the Twitch (YouTube)
- Is Minimalism the New Materialism? – Pretend to Be Poor
- The Oppressive Gospel of Minimalism – The New York Times
- The Problem With Minimalism – The Art of Manliness
- Thoreau, The Minimalists and Opting Out – She Picks Up Pennies