Although I grew up wearing hand-me-downs, shopping at thrift-shops, and searching for clearance deals, recycling, reusing and reducing like a pro (a must in most European cities), I have travelled and lived in parts of the world where the requirements and habits were much less rigorous. In North America for example, the cost of living is much lower than in most of Europe, there still is quite a stigma attached to thrift-shopping (although it has been dying out a bit in the last decade), and recycling is only now reaching the levels that were expected and normalized almost half a century ago in Switzerland. Wherever I went, I looked for what I grew up knowing to be the most environmentally responsible way to do things, and adjusted when these expectations couldn’t be met. Yet, when I read about minimalism, fast fashion, and other consumer trends, I get the feeling that I am not doing enough to safeguard the planet and protect the most vulnerable.
As I spend more time reflecting and trying to apply the wisdom, I realize that it becomes quite a challenge with a family. Upon closer look, I noticed that most of the people who discuss this lifestyle are single, childless, and living in a “Western” country. What these observations may indicate is essentially the underlying reason why I am not a minimalist, and why I don’t think it’s an ideal to aspire to on a wide scale. What I think may be happening is that 1) minimalism is a response to a person’s need for meaning in a consumerist-driven individualistic society; 2) it’s not that “Eastern” countries aren’t affected by consumerism, it’s that the number of people who are in the position to be able to suffer from this affliction are relatively fewer, and nevertheless live within a more socially cohesive or communal culture (which isn’t to say there’s no individualism, it’s just not the prevalent ideology), where sharing possessions (willingly or begrudgingly) is not only more acceptable, but sometimes expected. In other words, in line with my search for balance, I’d like to suggest how minimalism isn’t necessarily a goal in and of itself, nor an ideal for everyone to aspire to. What I think is more tenable, as a multicultural mother of four on a limited budget, is something more along the lines of a more conscientious consumption, where pros and cons are evaluated, and the best solution for your particular circumstance is full-heartedly taken.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with minimizing one’s possessions, it’s just that I think it’s not a goal in and of itself. And I’m not saying this because I’m materialistic either, I have moved overseas several times with just the clothes on my back and a suitcase, I know how to live with little, but I’ll also tell you that as little or as much as I’ve had, the material possessions I owned never defined whether or not I was happy or fulfilled.
I believe it’s an issue that is aptly addressed in “Western” cultures precisely because material possessions, consumerist tendencies, following trends, and other fleeting anchorages to keep track of the passing of time and our progress within it are keenly individualistic pursuits, not communal ones. It’s not that I have an issue with the concept of reducing or minimizing my purchases, it’s that I don’t think that should be my goal. I don’t want to necessarily live with almost nothing (I have, and that changed very little about my outlook), I want to make the most of what I already own, and be more mindful about how I choose to bring more things into my life, as well as how I dispose of those I no longer need. Being conscious of what is available and how my purchasing power affects the market, I want to ensure that I am doing what I can to meet my responsibilities at home and globally. With four kids I can’t reasonably expect myself to have full control of everything and everyone around me, my kids and husband should have the freedom to choose what they want or don’t. It’s not necessarily always feasible to only buy from ethically sourced, fair trade brands, as their prices are often beyond my reach. Although I limit our shopping to what we need, and avoid as much as possible emotional purchases, there are things that need to be bought regularly, some of these can’t be bought used, others aren’t readily available through the most ethical channels.
Balance is healthy in every facet of life. More than a minimalistic approach, I’d prefer to say that I search for a more conscientious lifestyle, which includes an equal measure of willful deprivation and indulgence. By deprivation I mean in such ways as fasting, not buying everything I like as soon as I see it, setting things aside for a while before I decide to dispose of them, looking for the best ways to distribute them once I decide I no longer want them. By indulgence I mean in what really adds value and meaning to my life, be it more time spent talking face to face, being outdoors, or buying that special something I’ve been thinking about for the last few months. What is most meaningful, is to be able to gain the knowledge required to make the best decision, and have the ability to carry it through to its end. Whatever path you choose, you will undoubtedly find yourself challenged to find balance between your responsibility not to overindulge and your need for fulfillment and peace of mind.
The phenomenon of going on “binges and purges” can also be observed in the food world: such as through the resurgence of paleo/vegan/ketogenic diets, in an attempt to return to the roots of food consumption at its most basic, a return to our natural rhythms, to a simpler time. Here as well, people seem to want to jump on the bandwagon, only to come crashing down after having burnt all their bridges, with serious health consequences. I was thrilled to try the ketogenic diet, as it validated my belief in my ancestral way of life, but as I continued on it for a few months, it became patently obvious that it wouldn’t be sustainable in the long-run, because I belong to a group (my family, my circle of friends, my community), who aren’t on the diet, and unless I am willing to bring my own food at each sitting, thus missing out on the sharing aspect of communal living, then I’d have to learn to compromise, and allow myself to eat the occasional bowl of rice, or to literally allow myself to break bread with my loved ones. I tried serving keto friendly meals, but they didn’t go over well, so although I will continue to encourage the consumption of less sugar and refined carbs in favor of more healthy fats and nutrients, I won’t be forcing it on myself or others.
I’ve had to pause for a minute and consider the fact that we have gained much knowledge in this time, and our lifestyles aren’t the way they were back when we consumed those types of foods. We lived different lives from the ones we can reasonably expect to live now, and we are really only fooling ourselves if we think we can extract one aspect of our past and surgically annex it to our present without repercussions. Wasn’t this the lesson learned from genetic engineering?
For my part, I seek equilibrium in everything I do, and I hope my kids will learn this with me. I want to simplify my life, be it my expectations from myself, the food I eat, the clothes I wear, but I don’t believe in extracting myself from my surroundings as though they were non-existent, completely unacceptable, or worthy of scorn and dejection. There has to be a happy medium, one that respects nature and takes modernity into account, one that includes sharing values with the people who surround us, and wherein the potential for growth is considered. This is a lesson I learned early on after my conversion to Islam as well, as excited as I was to start over on a clean slate, I tended to be stricter on myself and less tolerant towards others, thinking that I didn’t want to jinx this new God-given opportunity. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was setting up barriers between myself and those who had grown up with me, loving, teaching, taking care of me all my life until that point. How could I justify that? Truth is that I couldn’t, so I distanced myself from those who would preach to me to hate “unbelievers” and become more like “the pious predecessors.” They were pious, and we should respect them and learn from them, but we’re not them, and pretending to be them won’t do anyone any good. Here again, balance was key.
As you may have surmised by now, I don’t advocate starting from zero, as that would mean erasing everything you’ve done so far, guilting yourself into giving up perfectly tenable aspects of your life, and possibly setting yourself up for failure. Although I do encourage you, as I encourage myself also, to constantly seek better ways of living and interacting with the world, I also want you and me to acknowledge what we’ve done so far, and rather than berate ourselves for not doing enough, I’d rather consider how we can learn from what we’ve been doing and continue climbing this hill from the point in which we find ourselves. In other words, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater: not everything you’ve done so far was wrong, and you won’t be perfect from now on, be gentle with yourself, and keep going forward. You’ve made a few bad calls, so have I, let’s take stock, and decide not to do it again in the future. We’re all learning, and we learn more as we grow, we don’t need to return to infancy every time we find a better way. We incorporate what works, and leave what doesn’t.
I’ll have more on this in future blogposts, so stay tuned, and hopefully we can work together towards a more conscientious life.
Until next time,