To Live Simply, Embrace the Mess

“I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance…” Henry David Thoreau

This quote seems fitting to begin the first post I have made on here in many seasons. It was this quote, along with an article by Rebecca Kneale Gould* that inspired me to dust off the old keyboard and put thoughts to paper. Well, thoughts to screen. I began this blog back in 2014 as part of a long term aspiration to write. Not just to write, but to write honestly on topics of my own interest, unfettered by the motivations of salary or sponsorship. Writing this was, and continues to be, a personal exploration of simplicity in my life. What I have learned is that the simple life is not so simple. A simple life, or rather a balanced life, requires as much addition as it does subtraction. 

What kept me from updating the previous three years years is a disillusionment with what I had previously understood about simple living and its modern iteration, minimalism. The clean, white and black blogs, pictures of young men and women in plain black t-shirts, and recycled quotes that adorned my favorite blogs became, well, suffocating. I became bored with it’s aesthetics and the repetition of the declutter=happiness narrative. This boredom was in many ways my own fault since my own application and understanding of minimalism and simple living was underdeveloped. I had subtracted a great deal of things I felt were a waste of time and money without filling my time with meaningful replacements. Nature abhors a vacuum and after time many of my old habits and things returned.

Escape to What?

Minimalism was, for me, an attempt to escape a culture of excess and waste. Wasted time, materials, attention, and life. However, it is incredibly important to understand what it is we want to escape to in addition to what we’re escaping from. Now, from the outside, it would not look as if I had abandoned my minimalist ways. I continue to live in a 650 sq. ft. apartment with my fiance and two pets, paid off the same car I have been driving for 5 years, paid off most of my excess debt (minus student loans), and finally converted to the konmari method (worth the hype). However, there have been a lot of ups and downs, purchases, donations, existential crises, and arms thrown up in the air over the years. There have been times when I had revisited this blog with misguided nostalgia.

However, as Thoreau observed, time spent obscured from our goals is not time wasted. Failure can be a powerful learning tool and can teach us faster and more efficiently in some cases than success. Maybe because of this I have lost a lot of the idealism in my earlier writing. On the other hand, I’ve also learned to be comfortable with life’s messiness. Tolerating the messiness that comes with day to day life is not often highlighted in the shimmery photos and austere apartments of minimalist blogs. Contrary to the popular narrative, decluttering your room and making your bed will not solve your personal or professional problems. There’s actually research that indicates clean, decluttered rooms may hinder your creativity and reduce productivity.** What’s more helpful, is learning to tolerating unpleasantness and responding in a way that is in accordance with your values.

Looking Forward

The point of this post isn’t to enlighten you to some woke form of simple living. It’s to change the narrative of simplicity from austerity to flexibility. Much of minimalism is a repackaging of the old puritanical notion that “cleanliness is next to Godliness.” This is deeply ingrained in American culture, to the point it’s infiltrated the counterculture. While we should cultivate environments that help us relax and feel at home, clean lines and monochrome is not for everyone. Moving forward, I’d like to share some of the ideas, studies, books, and experiences that shape a different outlook; a cozier, warmer, and yes, less tidy, way of living that still aligns with the core values of simple living. In the end, the goal of simple living is to provide a sustainable, joyful, and peaceful life not only for us but for those effected by our choices. The social media-centric aesthetics of the movement unfortunately have clouded this message. The adage "Live simply so other may simply live" rings truer now than ever.

P.S. I discovered this excellent article written by Jia Tolentino in the New York Times shortly after publishing this article. It's an in-depth and eloquently written critique of minimalism in 2020 that expands upon ideas discussed above (though a bit more damning).

*Like Corn on the Night by Rebecca Kneale Gould

**Check out the book Messy by Tim Harford

Photo of Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) by Jackson Pollock (1950)