In July, I read an article in the New York Times titled, “The Class Politics of Decluttering.” In it, the writer argues that decluttering is only for the well-off middle class. She concludes by saying that minimalism is often a form of social shaming, encouraging those below the poverty level to do with less when they simply cannot.
In response to this argument (one I hear frequently), I would like to start an open dialogue on the topic of minimalism.
First, it is important to emphasize that I have never had the intention of socially shaming anyone through my musings. Secondly, I firmly believe that parts of minimalism—from decluttering to being a more mindful consumer—can benefit anyone, regardless of your financial circumstances.
In the New York Times article, the writer states, “For people who are not so well off, the idea of having even less is not really an option.”
With these words, I am instantly sent back decades to my first grade year and the bags of clothes I received from cousins for school. They were so obviously second to me that a group of my young peers took me aside during a lunch period to tell me that I would not be popular unless I wore better clothes. I think, “I know what social shaming is, and minimalism in and of itself does not fall in that category.”
Instead, I would argue that the same Black Friday ads the writer defends in this piece socially shame those facing financial difficulties into rushing to a big box store at 3 a.m. for “deals” on televisions (where they will undoubtedly see more shows and advertisements telling viewers if they work just a little bit longer over the holiday season, they can afford another trinket promising happiness).
In that spirit, I’m going to share a secret with you that isn’t really a secret at all.
The people in charge of these large corporations don’t care if you had to work five hours to afford a new dress at their department store. They don’t care about how many dresses you already own. They only care about selling you a temporary retail high. And, if you can’t afford full price, just pull out your credit card or wait until it hits the sales rack where, if you’re lucky, you can still purchase it at 30% off.
Telling yourself that such purchases provide lasting comfort is believing a lie you’ve been socially shamed to try until it works.
Except surrounding ourselves with objects isn’t working to distract us from the fact that we never really have enough resources to obtain the magic number of items to achieve lasting joy.
Case in point? The writer of this article says that she and her daughter were forced to downsize and move into an apartment that did not have space for “car loads of clothes, school papers, books, movies, and art work.” She describes these items as “things that I grew up with that brought me back to a time of living a care free life.”
Car loads of clothes. School papers from the childhood of an adult raising children.
I’ve been under the weight of those objects when I was forced to downsize after a career change, and the anxiety caused by this burden alone was overwhelming.
I’m not advocating that the poverty-stricken do without. I can’t speak for other minimalists, but I don’t think that is their intention either. Instead, I hope for a world where we can find comfort outside of the big box stores. I long for a time when people cancel their cable subscriptions and fill the libraries again to read—not get lost in the internet. Most importantly, I need to believe that a place exists where people can spend more time enjoying the sites around them with the people they love instead of suffering from the crippling anxiety that accompanies starting over with car loads of clothes and papers tethering them so firmly to the past that they cannot breathe in the present.