Henry Thoreau (the famous American author, poet, philosopher, and more) wrote a book with MANY minimalist themes in it. This book was Walden, and one of the great quotes from within it is, “It is desirable that a man […] live in all respects so compactly and preparedly that, if an enemy take the town, he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed without anxiety.”
This is a very strong statement. I know I was intimidated by it when I first read it. Even so, I wasn’t completely sure why I was so scared by it. It made sense, on an intellectual level. Plenty of people have gone through the experience of losing everything and then were able to build themselves back up again. Your items aren’t you, so perhaps it’s no big deal, really, to lose them.
Upon further introspection, I realized that I really did define myself by my items, to a large extent. I was worried that if you took away all the stuff that I crammed into my life to really look at the man underneath, there wouldn’t actually be anything there. For some people, this may seem like a strange fear – but it really was a problem for me. Questions kept bothering me (sometimes even haunting me) – how well do I know myself? Who am I, really?
Sometimes, we use labels to identify ourselves. For me, one such label was “swimmer.” If I was asked to say a little bit about myself as an introduction, I would invariably mention a few of my interests and hobbies as part of the conversation – including swimming. But would that mean that if I stopped swimming, I was no longer the same person? That I was no longer me?
Sometimes we are identified by our friends. After all, there is an old saying that goes “A man is known by the company he keeps.” However, times change, people move. If you grow distant from someone you used to be friends with, what does that mean about you? How about what happens if you move, and you no longer have any of your old friends around…if you defined yourself with your friends, do you even know who you are anymore?
So how do you define yourself? I don’t really think I can answer that question for anyone else – but what I can say is the answer I came to. Or rather, the ideas I’ve had and the answers I’ve accepted. Sometimes something I like ceases to exist, or perhaps I lose something that was precious to me – but I still know the kinds of things I like. After all, as I mentioned in my previous blog post, life just keeps producing great things. I could have nothing at all and still know that. I could have no friends and still know the kinds of people I like. On a higher note, I can get to know the ways in which I am best at helping other people. That can grow and change, but that is an important part of knowing who I am at the moment – how can I best help people?
The challenge of defining and knowing yourself gets even more complicated when the answers to even those questions can change over time – but as long as I am striving to improve, I’m okay. I just keep all the good parts of me that I can, and let go of the rest. In that sense, I am trying to do with myself as a person what I do with my physical possessions. Let me note that I am a firm believer in the capacity of people to change. Trying to change someone else to suit your own desires may not go so well, but I believe we each have the ability within us to change ourselves – I’ll probably talk more about that in a future blog post.
Anyways, as we grow more comfortable with ourselves and our identities, we no longer are as concerned with the possibility of losing our things. We have what we need, and we realize – both with our minds and with our hearts – that we don’t need anything else. Disney also chimed in on this subject. It’s funny just how many minimalist themes one can find in Disney movies, actually.
In this case, I’m referring to Baloo the Bear in The Jungle Book.
All you gotta do is…
Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife
I mean the bare necessities
Old Mother Nature’s recipes
That brings the bare necessities of life
Wherever I wander, wherever I roam
I couldn’t be fonder of my big home
The bees are buzzin’ in the tree
To make some honey just for me
When you look under the rocks and plants
And take a glance at the fancy ants
Then maybe try a few
The bare necessities of life will come to you
They’ll come to you!
Baloo the Bear had the confidence to be himself and know who he was, no matter where he was. It’s part of what made him such a lovable character. His laid back nature came from an inner confidence that he’d be able to enjoy life as it comes – he didn’t need anything else.
Now, I would like to stress that I am not advocating Minimalism at the cost of everything else, nor am I saying that one should push oneself as far into extreme minimalism as they possibly can. I am and have always been a fan of a healthy minimalist living, or minimalism in moderation. If you find that restricting the number of items you own to a pre-specified count makes you happier, then go for it! However, you should feel no push that you need to do something like that in order to be a minimalist. I’ll probably talk more about this in a later blog post, too.
Perhaps Duane Elgin said it better than I can when he said “The intention of voluntary simplicity is not to dogmatically live with less. It’s a more demanding intention of living with balance. This is a middle way that moves between the extremes of poverty and indulgence.”
Minimalism isn’t just about getting rid of things. It’s about getting rid of the things that are in your way, and getting a better view of the things that serve you. Minimalism may even help you learn to know yourself a bit better!