Minimalism and Simplicity in a Capitalist World

I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit. When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all incumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run. 
  — Henry David Thoreau

Lately I have been thinking and reading about living a minimalist life. My ideas aren't fully fleshed out yet, and I am not fully sure how to implement them into my own life yet. But the thoughts are brewing. My mind has felt cluttered lately, a cup filled to the brim and spilling out with concerns that often feel meaningless and unnecessary to living an essential life.  

Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life
By Joshua Fields Millburn

I often wonder how we all got here. I don't have any comprehensive or perfect answers. But I do know this: in session after session with depressed patients, the word "should" is uttered often. I should be skinnier, or have a better job, or a better apartment or I should have six-pack abs like Zac Efron or should have dresses like the one Michelle Obama wore at her convention speech. 

That word "should" is a cipher. Our world is a capitalist one. We are bombarded over and over again by images and advertisements that at their best manipulate us but at their worse prey on our deepest fears and insecurities. The subtext often seems to be, "Why should you buy our brand of toothpaste? Well if you don't, you won't be like the very attractive people in this ad, and you'll probably never meet anyone as attractive as the people in this ad, because your breath stinks and your teeth are yellow and rotting and what man or woman would want you then? You are bound to end up dying alone. So buy our toothpaste." 

(Some of you might find that a bit hyperbolic. And maybe it is, although I'm not sure. A quick google search leads me to believe there is some research on the subject

Somehow we have created a world where consumption is needed to make the economy grow. And the only way for that to grow is for people to buy things. And how do you get people to buy things? You convince them they are lacking. You might be a perfectly normal and nice person, but you aren't fully whole until you buy this fancy new Lincoln, right Matthew Mcconaughey?


Back to my sessions with depressed people. I often try to point out in our sessions that all those things people feel they "should" be  or have are thoughts that do not come from themselves but are learned and absorbed by the society around them. A lot of people can see this. But the indoctrination is so deep and ubiquitous that even when we know better, it is hard to think differently. We cannot escape from consumerism.  And it takes a long time to start to overcome this view of what you "should" be and what you are. And what you are is this:  imperfect, flawed and mortal. (And of course it's even harder with any person of color and women but that's something to discuss in another post).  

It's OK if you don't look like that man or woman in the toothpaste ad, I often tell my patients. No one is that person in the toothpaste ad. It's a mirage, an image, brainwashing to make you feel less than whole so you will buy whatever product people are telling you to buy. In my experience, all of us are far more insecure and anxious about our lives than we'd like to admit. I have no way to quantify this but in my anecdotal experience, a good portion of self esteem issues are correlated directly to this: images being sold to us and how we compare ourselves.

I have been trying to trace in my own mind how I feel when I buy something new. My personal sense when I buy a new shirt or shoes is an inflated sense of ego. I feel good. I imagine people around me think I look good. That feeling is intoxicating, especially if I've been having a hard time with life. But it is always fleeting. It's a temporary balm on a gunshot wound. And to make things worse like a cocaine addict, I start to compare my clothes or house or car against other people, and I only want more and more things so I can compete. And all of sudden I'm consumed by greed and lust without even being aware of it. 

In response to this, I've been contemplating ways to live differently if only to relieve the clutter from my own mind. But in some sense, it is also as a small statement against the capitalist world we inhabit. And the best answer I can come with so far, maybe a first principle of a minimalist, is accepting your life as it is. "What you have already is more than good enough." This is undoubtedly incredibly hard, especially for all groups who are not in the highest tax brackets. But it's something to keep in mind when you feel like you are lacking. And maybe as you start to strip away the brainwashing the world has been giving you, maybe you can start to see what is true and meaningful to your life. 

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