Show me a Real Simple magazine article on “decluttering your home” and all I see is a stack of shiny pages to decoupage Christmas ornaments over the long Thanksgiving weekend. That’s how I roll: for years I’ve squirreled away craft supplies (aka stuff to make other stuff), torn backpacks (aka stuff to carry other stuff), matchless socks, rusty baking trays, extra linens, and shelves of books no one will ever open again. I certainly wasn’t the kind of person you’d think would be captured by a movement as horrible-sounding as “minimalism.”
Minimalist blogger Joshua Becker describes it as “the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of anything that distracts us from it.” The movement sounds radical to the North American ear—perhaps, even, easily discounted as the neuroses of extremists working out childhood deprivation issues. But this philosophy can be traced throughout Jesus’ life and teachings: take one outfit and a single pair of sandals for the journey, ask our Father for enough food for this day, and, for the love of God, please reconsider that reno on your double-wide storage pods..
Some adherents of simple living—Francis of Assisi, Mohandas Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy—cite spiritual inspiration for the practice. Others want to reduce their ecological footprint. Inspired by bloggers, their communities, and their own convictions, today’s minimalists make changes big and small—from moving into tiny houses and going on month-long “no buy” periods to declining gifts at kids’ birthday parties (or at Christmas) and maintaining smaller wardrobes. Minimalism is practical, efficient. But practitioners will tell you: its effects are personally transformative. Today, minimalists like Francine Jay, aka Miss Minimalist, are discovering that, resisting the culture’s incessant messages insisting that we’ll be happier when we own more, happiness is actually found when we choose to own less.
In a recent conversation with Becker, who blogs at the hugely popular Becoming Minimalist, he described having more time, energy, and money to pursue the things he really cared about. His enthusiasm opened up, for me, the possibility that the “good life” I’d been sold as an American consumer—owning anything my heart desired—might not be as good as its converse. So I decided to give minimalism a try, starting by getting rid of 1,000 things from my home.
It took several days to empty drawers, plow through closets, sort through supplies, and haul boxes down from the attic—keeping only what my family needed and used and releasing all we didn’t. I made the predictable trips to the Salvation Army. My children were happy to offer unused skateboards, baseball mitts, footballs, and helmets to younger neighborhood kids. And a stack of board games was set on the front porch, posted on the community listserv, free to any taker.
With each item gone, and each space emptied, I thought of this remark from Becker:
I used to view Jesus’ teachings—on money and possessions and generosity and not stockpiling treasures on earth—as a sacrifice I was called to make today so I could have greater rewards in eternity. But I began to realize that Jesus was just offering us a better formula for living.
While I don’t believe minimalism to be the necessary “formula” for everyone, it has already been transformational in my life. Not one of the first 1,000 things we let go has been missed by anyone in my home. I’ve believed in the idea of responsible stewardship for years, but my experiment in simple living has forced me to become intentional about every item we own and buy, distinguishing needs from wants. I see each differently now. Goodbye to the waffle iron and other kitchen appliances used only on rare occasions. No more compulsively wandering through seasonal sales while waiting for my daughter to try on jeans in Target.
As a person who follows Jesus, I am now liberated to respond to his voice because I’m less tied to what I own. I’m not simply saying that when I write a check to a ministry it’s easier to locate my checkbook (though it is). I mean that releasing physical objects from my home has had the spiritual effect of putting me in proper relationship with the ones that remain: though we have to wash bowls more often, we have enough; though the pantry is no longer jammed with all the extras I used to buy, we have enough; though there aren’t extraneous rows of pillows on my bed, there are enough. And as “enough”—which used to seem so elusive—has come into clearer focus, I’ve seen the Provider more clearly and have felt freer to meet the needs of others.
Though I’d not been able to name it, I’d been caught for years in between chronic dissatisfaction, always hoping against hope to find cool new lime green mules this week at TJ Maxx, and a watery mix of guilt and confusion when I’d be among more-satisfied neighbors who lived with so much less. Like a hammock stretched between the two poles, I’d not recognized the weight I’d been carrying—of paying for the stuff, and caring for the stuff, and storing the stuff, and moving the stuff around in the front hall closet so I could reach the other stuff behind the first stuff.
But now that the weight is gone, I live lighter. I had no way of knowing that I would be extricated from such a bind by a weird 1,000-thing whim. I’ve been set free to experience a new, more authentic, gratitude. Rather than the obligatory variety, dutifully prayed because I’m a person of privilege, I’ve been given eyes to see more clearly that every need has been met. Today my thankfulness is more genuine.
I’ve come to believe the integration I now experience can best be described as shalom. Though shalom is widely used to express “peace,” the Hebrew actually communicates a fuller meaning. It suggests comprehensive wholeness, or completion. In a world where God is concerned with the flourishing of all people, changing my consumption habits—from the way I eat down to the stuff I keep in my home—allows others, many who I will never see, to thrive. What God wants for me—for my daily needs to be met—is exactly what God wants for my sisters and brothers with fewer physical resources.
The purge wasn’t born out of thin air. For years I’d had a hunch that I consumed more than my fair share. Nathan Swartz reports that while most people on the planet live on $2,000 a year or less, Americans average $45,000 annual salaries and are still typically about $10,000 in debt. Most of us can’t afford the abundance we’re consuming. Embracing minimalism has, for many, the added bonus of relieving debt. Minimalist Rachel Jonat told Swartz, “Our biggest help in paying off debt was simply not buying things.”
I accidentally stumbled onto the path toward simplicity in meeting Joshua Becker, but as the movement grows—largely a countercultural response to America’s materialism and over-consumption—we can discover a host of other practices to give simple living a try. Especially around the holidays.
Adbusters, a Canada-based magazine concerned with the effects of commercialism, sponsors an annual Buy Nothing Day campaign. This year, they’re inviting North Americans to go cold turkey on consumption Saturday, November 29, the day after Black Friday. These light-hearted activists invite participants to stand in a mall offering scissors to shoppers willing to cut their credit cards or to enjoy a “Whirl-mart,” where you and nine of your closets friends silently driving shopping carts around the store in a long conga line without ever actually buying anything.
What Adbusters gets right is a joyful attitude of freedom. Living with less doesn’t have to feel like a sacrifice or denial. Like our New Year’s resolutions, Lenten sacrifices, and spring-cleaning campaigns, it’s easy to approach simple living as little more than accomplishing a challenge. A Real Simple article can inspire you to do that. But the radical freedom into which we’re being called isn’t only about skipping a day of spending, adapting our routines, or even getting rid of 1,000 things. In the end, it’s accepting a gracious invitation to live lighter. Say yes.
Margot Starbuck, a regular contributor to Today’s Christian Woman, lives with three teenagers and all their stuff in Durham, North Carolina. Connect at MargotStarbuck.com.
Her quest to give away 1,000 items was inspired by an interview with Joshua Becker, which can be found in our sister publication, Today's Christian Woman.