The first time I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I was working an evening shift at Coles making $10 an hour, feeling utterly discontent with my life. The moment I picked up the small book, with its watercoloured matte cover and heavy pages, a feeling of relief washed over me. Finally, here was someone who understood the extreme burden of having to curate life in an overstuffed world, surrounded by people who can’t temper the urge to buy, buy, buy! Naturally, I purchased it. It’s currently sitting on my shelves along with its sister book Spark Joy and over 700 other volumes of presumably life-changing magic.
Like any fad, minimalism brought with it the shiny new promises of increased free time and decreased anxiety. Additionally, there was a large moral component; minimalism fed into my discontent with late stage capitalism in all of its soul sucking, environmentally devastating glory, all packaged in a clean, aesthetically pleasing box. Equally tempting was minimalism’s seamless integration with aspects of Christianity. After all, who was more minimalist than Jesus, who travelled the country with only the clothes on his back and preached the merits of selling one’s possessions?
There’s a touch of cynicism here. Indeed, I could dig into many critiques of minimalism, from the preoccupation with ‘betterment’ as a human function to the often borderline idolatrous and hypocritical obsession with travel as the pinnacle of human existence. There’s a classist aspect as well, to curating lives of less when so many around us have no choice but to live without, but today I want to focus on the smallest story here: my own.
Admittedly, I’ve always felt uncomfortable with life and throughout the years I’ve attributed it to many things. Getting married too young. Arbitrarily attending university when I lacked passion for my program. Reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, along with watching it’s spiritual cousin Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things, allowed me to pin all of my discomfort on another scapegoat – stuff.
THE PROBLEM WITH STUFF
Here’s the problem with stuff: humans need stuff. We need it not just to survive, but to function, especially in modern society. Shamefully, I spent hours idolizing thin, beautiful couples living their lives out of the back of a renovated van, each with only five organic, 100% linen outfits to their name. I cursed the endless cycle of dirty socks and glass leftover containers to wash at the end of each day. I resented my beautiful, if a bit old and dusty, home that my husband and I worked hard to afford.
I resented my husband too. His old sweatshirts, stacks of paper from high school and seemingly endless acquisition of video games took up precious space that I believed would be better suited to an empty marble tray or a lone succulent in a gold dipped concrete planter. “How is it moral to have more than five video games?” I would mutter under my breath while trudging behind him into EB Games. “Really, I’m trying to save him from himself.”
Popular minimalist blogs give helpful tips for “converting” one’s maximalist partner. To set an example, I downsized my own clothing in the hopes that he would willingly give up some of his ratty t-shirts, and I constantly donated books I never planned on reading. “See!” I would shriek, while maniacally stacking old casserole dishes in a cardboard box because they didn’t “spark joy.” “See how happy this is making me?”
I rationalized my resentment by over-moralizing my obsession with minimizing my possessions. My husband couldn’t understand how right I was because he was raised in a chaotic environment with a large family and was therefore used to living in excess. Once he realized that I was right, his conversion to minimalism would fix every problem and stressor in our lives. He just needed to conform!
Then we had a baby and that plan fell apart. Three months of colic led to a life in survival mode and once we emerged, I gained a new appreciation for the stuff in my life. I realized that, by fixating on everything I wanted to get rid of, I was missing the amazing blessings that God had endowed me with, including my son, my home, my faith community and my maximalist husband. Instead of blaming my feelings of powerlessness and discontentment on my surroundings, I needed to surrender to the understanding that no amount of downsizing would fix my anxiety or helplessness.
Paul addresses this explicitly in Philippians 4:11-13: “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
How interesting that this passage is usually quoted to help those who, through no choice of their own, are living with less! Upon reading it, I felt so convicted about all of the resentment I felt towards everything that deigned to take up space in my life. Though the minimal life may seem objectively ideal to pursue Christ, Paul tells us here that contentment should not just be sought when we have less, but also when we have more, because ultimately everything in our lives comes from God. Instead of constantly striving to curate one’s situation in order to achieve some level of settledness, it is important to accept the circumstances we are given so that, in turn, we may follow his will and bless others.
A quick word of clarification: I take no issue with those who claim that minimalism has improved their lives. I don’t doubt it, and I applaud those who can commit to that form of discipline. I can only speak to how fixating on getting rid of things in my own life became an obsessive distraction that prevented me from fully surrendering to the will of God.
LIVING AMIDST THE MESS
Hi, I’m Jessica. I’m not a minimalist. I’m a Christian who gets stressed by environmental disorder because it reminds me of my lack of agency over my own life.
There’s no quick fix for this. In fact, this morning I walked downstairs to my living room, surveyed the vast expanse of dirty mugs, food encrusted baby toys and laundry in various states of cleanliness, and I cried. I felt like a failure. I felt like I didn’t plan well enough, or clean thoroughly enough, or downsize enough things to achieve environmental nirvana. Part of my surrender to Christ is accepting the fact that I will most likely always struggle with these feelings and that I need to make a habit of giving the control back to Him.
In a society that colloquially equates cleanliness with godliness, it’s easy to feel inadequate in the ever-swirling chaos that is human life, especially when we’re bombarded with images of others who seem to have it all figured out. Minimalism is only the latest iteration of this very human practice of equating contentedness with a philosophy, instead of realizing that no earthly concepts can bring us peace without ultimately being rooted in a personal faith in Christ.