For me, scrolling through Netflix typically follows something of a pattern. I’ll spend about 20 minutes looking for something new to catch my eye, then make a last ditch effort to understand why people enjoy Gilmore Girls, quickly turn it off and then enter the uncharted waters of the documentaries section.
A few years ago, I was following this flow quite exactly when I eventually stumbled across The Minimalists: Less is Now, a documentary chronicling the experiences of authors and minimalism crusaders Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Dicodemus. While I watched the entirety of the piece and commended the two protagonists for their commitment to their craft, I couldn’t help but vaguely dismiss their message as something broadly inapplicable to my own life. The circling shots of eerily empty apartments scantily dotted with furniture and kitchens largely devoid of appliances stood out in my mind. Among those who have the means to consume to excess as has become our norm, does anyone genuinely live like that? And if so, why in the world would they want to?
Despite the fact that our current moment might feel decisively disconnected from the minimalist ethos, minimalism has become embedded in the public consciousness at numerous times throughout our history. An artistic movement by the same name came to the forefront in the 1960s and 1970s, led by creatives like Frank Stella and Carl Andre who championed the clear and the visible over the unseen or abstract. This notion also spilled over into the realm of music around the same period, often relying on classical instruments and repeated, grounding rhythms. Perhaps minimalism’s closest predecessor in visual art is the De Stijl school that ascended to popularity in the Netherlands on the eve of the 1920s, immortalized by artists like Piet Mondrian. Looking even further back, historians have drawn a link between third century BCE Stoicism and our current conceptions of minimalism. What is often cited as the most profound precursor of modern minimalism, however, is the Zen philosophy emerging from Japan that upholds simplicity as its highest tenet.
The almost animalistic urge to purchase, consume and accumulate has been weighing on my mind a great deal in recent months. After packing my life into a suitcase, a duffel bag and a backpack to study abroad this past spring, I’ve found myself yearning for that same sense of lightness. While there were certainly times in which I craved the vast array of creature comforts I had enjoyed in my West Campus apartment, I had grown to find a strange sense of pride in my ability to be content with less. I would, perhaps twistedly, congratulate myself with a rhetorical pat on the back each time I saw my peers enter our building burdened with shopping bags. Even now, when I sit in the back of a lecture hall and cannot help but be distracted by the sea of laptop displays in front of me, my ego inflates slightly each time I see fellow students online shopping.
Yet this isn’t necessarily right, is it? I am still undecided on the question of whether or not consuming to excess makes someone a bad person — myself included. Perhaps not in the simplest of terms, in the sense of wanting to have a lot of “stuff,” but rather in choosing to turn a blind eye to the environmental and human impacts of ubiquitous materialism. (Another documentary, The True Cost, is behind much of the discomfort I feel around this issue. This film is single handedly responsible for much of my current viewpoint around consumption.)
Even as I remain captivated by this nauseating, deeply rooted feeling, the patterns to which I have become so accustomed are shockingly difficult to shake. I have grown used to relatives and friends asking what items I’d like to receive for the holidays or my birthday, become habituated to perusing thrift stores for pleasure even as I am well aware that there is pretty much nothing more — in a material sense — that I really need. Each time I return home during school breaks, I’ll stand in front of my overflowing closet and commit to filtering out the items I no longer wear, yet there too often seems to be something that inhibits this mission: sentimentality, a minute chance I’ll wear something in the future and so on.
Now, as I stand poised at the precipice of beginning my own adult life outside of Cornell, minimalism has been on my mind now more than ever. What I want now, far more than anything tangible, is mobility. Maybe it’s because I’m 20 or maybe it’s because I’m naive, but at this moment the freedom to adventure to new places and live in new cities every few months feels far more pressing than owning anything of significance. (My newest challenge will be living out of a singular backpack for a couple months of traveling in the spring. Will I succeed? Only time will tell.)
The reality, however, is that initiating this lifestyle is far from easy. As Nicodemus declares in the documentary, “Living a simple life, it takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of work to be intentional. What’s easy is going with the flow.” The direction of causality then becomes somewhat blurred. Is minimalism so different from the norm because it is difficult, or is minimalism difficult because it is so different from the norm? The answer is not entirely clear.
It is important to note that while owning less is a key part of minimalism, it is not the only part of our lives that minimalism asks us to reconsider. The philosophy is also centered around challenging the default mode of an unenjoyably fast-paced life, prompting us to instead move at a slower pace that more adequately allows us to consider what makes life meaningful in the first place. It is also about centralizing the multiple masks we wear into a single, consolidated whole that better reflects our internal state. Quite possibly most significantly, minimalism also pushes us to reconsider where we derive our happiness from, turning our gaze away from items and towards introspection.
Of course, living with less is for some a simple consequence of the state of things: financial hardships, environmental disasters or any number of unfortunate events that limit our ability to consume. Perhaps, though, if more of us for whom minimalism is indeed a conscious choice began to be more intentional about how we choose to allocate our money and our space, some of these inequities would become more balanced as we return to a place of taking only what we need. Maybe that’s unrealistic and blindly optimistic, or maybe it just feels inconceivable because it is so drastically different from the way our world currently operates. Either way, my own goal is set.
Megan Pontin is a senior in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected]. Rewind runs alternate Mondays.