We need our homes. But we have things, and our things need homes, too. Some of our things can stay with us, but we have so many things, all of our things will not fit in our homes. And so we have built little apartment complexes for our things which we call “storage units”. Many of our things live in nicer little homes than a great many human beings in the world. The homeless man you pass on the way to work every morning would probably love to have a place as nice as the spot you picked out for your photo albums, food dehydrator, and bread maker over at the Ample Storage Center (first month just a dollar). The quality of life our things enjoy has significantly risen in the last twenty years. When I was a child, a storage unit was a dusty shack in a row of dusty shacks. Now, our things can live in swanky places which are climate controlled, and where the security is good. In fact, the apartment where your things live might just be safer than the place where your kids sleep.
Americans have so many things that a certain kind of book has lately proliferated which is expressly designed to make readers want to get rid of their things, and to feel good about it. Simplicity and minimalism are hot ticket non-items this year. Of course, minimalism is really just another kind of thing you buy. We purchase food dehydrators as the accoutrements of diets which will help us lose weight so we can feel chic in our black mock-turtleneck sweaters… and then we purchase books telling us to simplify, to get rid of our food dehydrators, and we tell ourselves that such simplicity is part of a new, sleek, more European image we are adopting, which will, incidentally, need to be accessorized with a black mock-turtleneck sweater. Americans do not actually know this is European, but it seems European, for every American keeps a somewhat Romantic notion that somewhere in Sweden, or Austria, or Belgium, or perhaps Tokyo, there is a certain kind of sleek, sophisticated way of life which comes from wearing black, drinking white wine, having no children, and knowing who Mark Rothko is. Even ugly, stupid people in Austria know who Mark Rothko is. Austrian people are Criterion Collection human beings.
The beginning of the year is a fine time to clean, perhaps even a better time than Spring. Your house has become inundated with new things from Christmas, and to be honest, it is easier to clean and take boxes of things to Goodwill than it is to drive to the Ample Storage Center, where all the things have to be carried quite far. At the Goodwill, though, you simply open the trunk, a man named Martin removes your things, asks you if you want a receipt, and then it is all over. Besides, taking things to the Goodwill will mean you can feel a little pious about getting your things out of sight, as opposed to taking them to the Ample Storage Center, where you feel a little bad about getting them out of sight. The poor, after all, are probably looking for a second hand food dehydrator to compliment their new high protein diets.
While you have not read an entire book on simplifying, decluttering, or minimalismizing your life, you have read a few blog posts about the matter, and those posts were really quite thought provoking. You have been armed with a few tools with which to begin editing your things.
“Does this item bring me joy?”
“Have I used this item in the last year?”
These questions are strong, clean, lucid, simple questions. Merely asking them makes you feel a bit like a Jil Sander magazine ad. You can even feel yourself losing weight while you ask them, for you will certainly take these questions (or questions like them) to the grocery store when you shop next, because (from now on) you are eating arugula, poached eggs, and prosciutto— minimal, simple, black mock turtleneck foods, in other words.
After about an hour of editing your things with these question, the questions have proven as brutal as Soviet architecture, for only four of your eight thousand things will survive such a gauntlet. The single people who wrote the books you read blog posts about were not Christian, and yet they seemed perfectly able to employ these questions. You begin to feel bad, for perhaps you are overly chained to your things. Perhaps you are actually quite earthly minded.
But you plow forward. Your painfully load box and bag with your precious, stupid things, and at the end of the day, you drive hastily to the Goodwill and jettison them all before you can change your mind. Driving away from the Goodwill (“I don’t need a receipt”), you feel a sense of euphoria, for without these things, you are different, your consciousness has changed. This year, you will buy “fewer, better” things like a European. You will not own ten pairs of $40 pants, none of which brings you joy. You will own one pair of $400 pants which you will purchase from Saks, and those pants will actually prove a deal, because they will bring you “joy” (a word you have not traditionally used often, but find yourself saying more and more often lately) and because you will have more space in your home. You will also watch a few Jean-Luc Godard movies this year.
I jest, kind of. My closet is very full, and I am a sufficiently shallow person that I must reinvent myself every so often, as well. But ideas can be products just as much as products can, and the 30-something man or woman who decides minimalism is the solution has simply been tricked into spending new money. No real change comes without loss, and patting yourself on the back for cleaning your room does not count.
As a classicist, what concerns me about the minimalism and decluttering trends that occur seasonally is that they are part of a far bigger, far more sinister zeitgeist which often goes unnoticed. I do not care for Marx, but there is obviously some kind of connection between a man’s stuff and a man’s ideas. “Does this bring me joy?” might seem a powerful tool with which to edit your stuff, but I would not want any Christian man using such a question to edit what he believed of God or politics. Plenty of Christians have jettisoned unpopular ideas and untrendy beliefs simply because publicly holding to those beliefs brought them shame, not “joy.” So, too, discarding things which have not been used in a year is one thing, but I would not want anyone to discard beliefs which had not been “useful” in a year. Do not move an ancient boundary stone, even if that boundary stone brings you no joy, and even if you have not needed it for more than a year.
Obviously, you have too much stuff. Obviously, you are entitled to get rid of it. No American home contains too little garish plastic. But be careful that your approach to things does not creep over into your approach to ideas. Your soul needs to be cluttered with as many old, useless ideas as possible. You do not need a decluttered soul. That’s what they have in the Netherlands, where the fellows who drive the mobile assisted-suicide van arrive in the morning with kind looks and very well-cut black mock turtleneck sweaters.