I helped my mother move from a small house to an even smaller apartment in 2011. It was alternately instructive, educational, frustrating, angering, funny, and a whole suite of other emotions to see how a lifelong hoarder – pack rat? collector? – how a collector, let’s say, not only has built up her collections, but also makes the decisions on things that can be discarded. There were three main reasons my mother gave for keeping things, even things which she had never used in years and might never use at all.
First was utility. The idea is that something might be useful at some point in the future, and so it makes sense to save it for that eventuality. Part of this rationale and mindset comes, I think, from how my mother grew up – born during the Depression, raised in a poor family, and then a single mother of three while she worked as a waitress. She did not really have the luxury of throwing things away just because they didn’t seem to be very useful at the moment. If you acquired something, and especially if you spent money on it, you tended to keep it. Part of the problem with this reasoning, though, and the reason it often results in a lot of things being hoarded, is that those carefully saved things never do get used at all anyway. They’re just carted from house to house as the person moves, with the supposition that they just might be used some day, but they never are – sometimes because the things are not that useful, and sometimes because the person forgets that she had them in the first place and maybe even goes out and buys new ones anyway. With my mother, it was a similar explanation with the stationary bike: she admitted that she had not used it in eight years, but she was surprised that I was suggesting that it be given away to the thrift store. The truth is that it likely would never be used again anyway (she has other forms of exercise).
Second was obligation. The collector sometimes feels that she has to keep certain things out of obligation, a typical situation being when the thing was a gift, even if it might no longer have any sentimental value or practical utility. At one point during the move, when I asked her about one thing, my mother said she was keeping it simply because her daughter-in-law had given it to her. The reasoning might have been that her daughter-in-law would be hurt if she knew that my mother was discarding a gift from her like that. Or there may just be this deep sense of obligation in my mother, without any regard or worry about what anyone else might think. A collector’s sense of duty.
And third was sentimentality. This is the big one, the one that most people would cite and recognize. People tend to keep things big and small, and in greater or lesser quantities, because there is some kind of sentimental attachment. Sentimentality can override nearly all other factors (convenience, beauty, utility). The object has something in it of the person who gave it to the collector, or has some other kind of association. Throwing it out would be like an insult or an assault on that person or the memory of that person. The hoarding of such objects is not really a practical problem if the they are few in number or small in size. But when they start to take up way too much space, they can not only pose a practical problem – they can also be a sign that the hoarder is tending not to let something go that should be let go. Is not, as they say, moving on.
I am a minimalist and my mother is a collector or hoarder. She has collections of little things, loves her curio cabinet, and is quite comfortable with the idea of just having things around, not having them particularly well organized, tending to save even the most unlikely objects for some future potential use which is not likely to materialize. I feel comfortable visiting her in her house (which is very cosy), but I would find it difficult to live there. We had many discussions and disagreements when she was moving, with me of course tending to throw things out (mostly after asking her permission), and with her tending to keep them. She did very well, though.
In one way, it’s hard for me to relax in my mother’s house – there is always so much for a strict minimalist to clean up or throw away – but from another point of view, it’s very easy to relax there. It’s like being in the real world, in contrast to the imposed severity and orderliness of my own home. I feel as if I can leave things untidy at her place – or not so much untidy as cluttered. Perhaps if I stayed there long enough I would not even notice the clutter. It would just be what it is. And perhaps that’s the secret of happiness: life is messy and you just have to cope with the mess as best you can. That’s not a minimalist’s natural bent, that much acceptance: he always wants to be rejecting the world, or changing it. For the minimalist, the world isn’t what it could be.
There were some funny incidents during the move of my mother, too. For example, she discovered that she had some tea towels that she had never opened. The sales slip was still with the package: they had been bought in 1985 – fully 26 years earlier. Contrast that to the way a minimalist moves house. When I made my own move later that year, I was looking forward to the new job, the new surroundings, the new activities, and reacquainting with friends, but another excitement was the prospect of downsizing, getting rid of objects, before I moved into the pristine condo I had rented. I didn’t want to spoil its cleanliness and simplicity and beauty with crass objects. I got rid of my loveseat, a few more books, and even clothing.
That is the classic way that a typical minimalist views a move – as an opportunity to make life that much more spare. As an example of the opposite tendency, in a conversation with the elderly mother of a friend of mine, she was saying that one of the reasons that she couldn’t imagine moving from her long-time hometown to a bigger city in which some of her children live is because she has too many things in the house. That is classic non-minimalist thinking, where the person doesn’t so much view all those possessions as a chance to downsize, but as an immoveable barrier to a simpler life.
This book is the story of my exploration of those differences, and particularly the intricacies of personal minimalism. I was interested in finding out partly through an examination of my own behaviour, and partly through research, just what is this compulsion for minimalist living that I both enjoy and struggle with. Minimalism is a habit that others either admire because their own places (and lives) are so messy, or they just dismiss as a harmless quirk. Like everything in life, though, it is not just an innocent tendency: it is a manifestation of a psychological attitude with some negative aspects associated with it.
I discovered that there is not a lot written about personal minimalism, and virtually no authoritative research by scholars and psychologists on the topic. Many of the books, articles, and websites I came across tended to focus on the simple-living lifestyle, or what some writers call “voluntary simplicity.” They write about the benefits, to the person and to the environment, of decluttering and living in simple, spare spaces. It was the same thing for many of the interviews that I conducted with various people: for them, minimalism is synonymous with living a life with few possessions and free of clutter.
It’s only in the last few years that communities of commentary have started to develop on the web so that individuals suffering especially from the more extreme versions could give voice to an ailment that finally had a name: obsessive-compulsive spartanism. This is well beyond decluttering or simple living or even the personal minimalism that I write about in this book (just as there is a difference between a collector or pack rat, and a flat-out pathological hoarder). I’m not a psychologist, and so I sought out those who have studied spartanism. One of the emerging researchers in this area, Dr. Annabelle Charbit, cites four specific characteristics of an obsessive-compulsive spartan (whom she also calls a “clutter phobe”): “need to have minimum things in your home; need to have specific numbers of everything that you do have in your home; everything must fit into a category, or you cannot have it at all; everything has a very specific place.” In a radio interview, Dr. Charbit says further: “Most of the time these people are very careful even about buying things. They don’t want to buy things. If you purchase something for such a person, you actually are causing them great anxiety.” It’s only recently that minimalists have also started showing up in therapists’ offices as well. In an email interview, F. Diane Barth, a practicing psychotherapist and psychoanalyst in New York City, says: “I had recently worked with a couple of clients who seem to have a compulsive need to get rid of things, which was pretty unusual in my experience, and I couldn’t find anything much written about it.”
My book touches on this manifestation, but the main focus is twofold: my own experience with personal minimalism, and how that practice in my home and with possessions reflects itself in other aspects of my life – notably my relationships with people and my tendency to practice minimalism even outside the world of things. Am I a controller? A perfectionist? Why am I so tense all the time? Why doesn’t my daily, nearly lifelong practice of minimalism contribute overall to a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment? Has it been a hindrance to happiness?
I don’t make any judgments. Your cluttered house and messy commitments are no better or worse than my own simple life. I have no expectation that I can substantially change my ways, but I do want to understand why I am the way I am, what the good and bad sides of that are, and what effect it has both on my own self as a person and on the people I have relationships with. I may not be able to extricate a moral or draw an objective conclusion, but at least I can try to discover what moves me.