The surest way to know who you are is to understand who you are not. For as long as I can remember, I’ve thought myself a simple man. I prefer hamburgers to fancy cheeseburgers, with all their dolled-up, dairy-fied excess. I have a “Simplicity” calendar with lots of Lao Tzu quotes. I would rather micturate outdoors than indoors, as it connects me to the land while keeping down the weeds. And as long as we’re showing our simplicity cards, I would rather say “squirt” than “micturate.”
In short, I subscribe to Thoreau’s philosophy: “Simplify, simplify.” Or as we true minimalists say: “Simplify.” I am not a materialist. I labor to stay content within each moment, so that when reading Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh on mindfulness, I try not to let my mind wander. Though sometimes it does. Such as when hearing the neighbors pull up in their spanking new Infiniti QX80. I don’t keep up with the Joneses, which would be both difficult and expensive. But envying/resenting them is easy and costs me nothing.
Recently, however, I had a rude awakening when cleaning out my study and car, neither of which I’d seen the floor of in some years. Aside from my necessary possessions—fly rods, splitting wedges, chloroform (the usual)—there were three-year-old newspapers, ratty T-shirts I hadn’t worn since Bush the Elder was president, orphaned power cords to now-defunct technologies. And that was for starters. After filling 19 trash bags of this stuff, I realized I’m a different kind of minimalist, the kind they call a maximalist. It’s not that I acquire things for the sake of acquisition. It’s just that once things have outlived their utility, I reward their loyal service by not throwing them away.
But I’m at peace with my failed minimalism, after observing the professional minimalists’ hustle. Minimalism—not of the Frank Stella/Raymond Carver variety, but of the de-cluttering/Simple Living kind—has become the hipster’s staple lifestyle-porn. And as with everything else hipsters have ruined, from farm-to-table-restaurants to growing beards, they’ve de-simplified the once-elegant idea of simplicity. Entire libraries of books are now written on how you need to discard your library. A glance at Amazon shows that 23 books on minimalism were published last month alone.
That’s a lot of words being marshaled to basically say: Shed your excess. And among the wordiest of all is a duo calling themselves The Minimalists, two thirtysomething corporate-cubicle refugees who threw out 90 percent of their possessions and moved to a cabin in Montana. Pared down and shaped up, they now follow their dreams, which, best I can tell, involve making you feel like a moral failure for not following yours. (I’m being reductive, but since The Minimalists say less is more, they should applaud.)
In three years’ time, they have become exemplars of the simple life—if your idea of simple living is giving TED Talks, going on 72-city meet-up tours, blogging incessantly about your lifestyle choices, patching together said “essays” into books (five and counting since 2011), and imploring readers to give you good Amazon reviews. All while boasting about how you no longer have an Internet connection in your home, even as you’re eternally available on Facebook/Pinterest/Instagram and any one of the eight separate Twitter accounts you service. This, in order to exhibit “what remains”—the raw, vital essentials that give life true meaning and that you post pictures of online, so that you start sounding like the anorexic supermodel who, in religiously rejecting food, ends up obsessing about it even more than the sweatpanted butterball with a Western X-Tra Bacon Thickburger® in one hand and a bag of doughnuts in the other.
Oh, and The Minimalists also offer, for a fee, to mentor you online or teach you how to write better. Though it’s difficult to imagine the sad case who would turn to writing coaches capable of this: “And thus the American dream is a misnomer. . . . [T]here is blood on the flag, our blood.” To which a good American, doing his patriotic best, might respond: Why not buy a new flag at flagstore.com?
All this monastic minimalism is rather exhausting. Even in the downturn of our Gilded Age, it’s easy to forget that half the world still lives on two dollars a day—minimalists not by choice or TED Talk, but by geographic hard luck. It’s enough to send me running for the Dollar General to buy a rackful of plastic crap I can’t identify, likely made by Chinese orphans who are paid a couple yuan a week minus gruel and water. At least they can appreciate the value of superfluous possessions, not knowing the luxury of having any to shed.