I guess Minimalism is the “West’s” attempt at a paradigmatic shift away from equating material possessions with wellbeing, and toward its obliteration: happiness = no clutter. Although I recognize that there tends to be a need for measurable and meaningful satisfaction, I’m not sure its all but complete elimination would necessarily bring about the result sought (happiness). In other words, we need to realize that as much as the convenience of counting our material wealth simplifies the determination of success, we are much more likely to achieve real satisfaction by not quantifying, but rather qualifying our lives. Some find this easier when drastically reducing their material possessions (so as to make it impossible to make the false equivalency between material ownership and happiness), others might find this path very inconvenient, and perhaps counterproductive, because they actually need many of those possessions to be able to do their jobs, or to keep doing the things that add meaning to their lives (say reading, gardening, carving, painting, etc.). I have spent the last few months pondering this question for myself, as I search for more meaning in my everyday life. I can’t say I ever equated material wealth with success per se, but I did use material objects to soothe a spiritual or emotional void.
I looked back at the most satisfying years of my life, and I realized that they aren’t attached to a particular period or circumstance, but to my own ability to do and be the best I can be, whether it’s as a student, a mom, a friend, a neighbor, a sister or daughter or sister/daughter-in-law, a wife, a teacher. Every relationship brought with it its own set of challenges and satisfactions, but my ability to be able to extract the most valuable lessons from each, is what I cherish most, and what I hope to carry forward. Being able to identify problems and address them are my proudest moments. Conversely, the most traumatic experiences are precisely the ones where I was either unable to pinpoint the problem, or incapable of dealing constructively with it, and this is true regardless of my economic standing, and the actual amount of “stuff” that I owned.
I specifically remember writing this in a period in which I was particularly happy with life: “What makes life meaningful isn’t mere excellence. Meaning comes from all the little things you do beyond that, the extra steps you take, and the details you attend to: that’s where true satisfaction lies.” I remember being very strained financially, as I lived in a fairly expensive city and relied on a couple of scholarships and savings from my summer jobs to get through graduate school. I clearly recall approaching the last week of the month with only enough to buy myself a half liter carton of milk. I jokingly told my soon to be parents in law that I had learned to make Aseeda (a simple Libyan dish made with flour, water, oil and salt) because I was too poor to afford bread! But I also remember being satisfied. I think that the knowledge, confidence, and freedom to take important decisions for myself, is what gave me peace of mind. Being able to look at facts and make informed decisions that I believed to be the best for me in a given circumstance without constraints, gave me the impetus to not only do my best, but to pursue other avenues, dabble in a variety of interests, and gain some very valuable experience.
When I found myself and my kids restrained in my pursuits whilst in Libya, I opened the Caterpillar Café to be able to provide a safe space for myself, my kids and other women and children to do and be themselves, dabble in a variety of interests, and gain some valuable friendships.
Fast forward to now, where I was so happy to be able to have easy access to everything and anything I wanted, that I went out and bought whatever I thought I might love to do, including taking all sorts of courses, and volunteering left and right. Once I had everything, I found I had no time to do it all. Time, and space became issues to contend with. So the initial euphoria turned into anxiety as to what and how to prioritize everything I thought I wanted. Ramadan afforded me the opportunity to examine the patterns of my life, and begin to see the ways in which I have woven the separate threads into a canvass in which I could no longer see myself. As I began to remove the excess threads, the picture became clearer, and I am now able to distinguish the outlines of a familiar face. I am starting, once again, to rediscover my purpose, as we all do, as life goes on changing before our very eyes, imposing itself upon our field of vision, and distracting us from our focus.
Frankly, the last thing you want to do is throw away everything thinking that nothingness will bring you joy, just to discover that you need to go back and spend more money and precious time buying many of those items all over again! This is the consumerist agenda’s dream come true! Throw everything out, or better yet, give it to a charity, thus soothing your guilty conscience. The charity will ideally repurpose it, or redistribute it, but likely it’ll end up in another country, where local businesses will be overrun by our rejected goods. So we can go out and buy more stuff, which those countries will be forced to produce since its own manufacturing business flew out the window when our garbage came flooding in! There’s no simple solution, I realize it, but does this mean we should just throw our hands in the air and give up? The idea is to be more mindful of what we buy and how we dispose of it, there are no quick fixes, like with everything else, the thought process matters!
I was thinking about this Hadith over Ramadan: “You will never leave a thing for God’s sake, except that God will replace it with something better.” This to me always meant that I shouldn’t be hasty to get rid of things, unless I am going to replace them with something better, so I should get the most out of what I have, and when it’s given all it can, replace it. But it also means not to grieve for my losses too much, or wallow in sorrow and victimhood, as God is Merciful and will give me something (not necessarily the same thing, but something, perhaps a feeling, an idea, that will give me more than what I could have gotten had I held on to that object of my desire). But the key point here is that I leave it “for God’s sake,” as a Muslim this means that I don’t do it to please people, to get recognition or praise, but I make a conscious decision in my heart and mind for God’s pleasure. I think this is part of my problem, I sometimes gave up on things for other than God’s sake (say because of an impending move overseas, or an emergency), so I grieved my losses and then rushed to replace the items once the situation settled, and this, I believe, is the crux of my void-filling issue.
I mentioned a few months ago that I wanted to find out what this void was , and I do believe I found it. It was my way of exerting my control over a situation I had very little control over. Sort of like when I obsessively clean the house after an argument I feel I didn’t win. But even if you don’t believe in God, you certainly have a higher purpose, say justice, equity, the common good. If you let go of things in order to achieve a higher purpose, a loftier goal, a better self, then that’s exactly what you will get. But if you give up on things for something other than that (an emergency, a demanding relative, a budget cut, a cool trend), you are likely going to try to fill that void yourself, in whichever way you find most accessible. Because I felt I had no control over a particular issue, I’d try to balance it out by exerting my ability to own an object. Because I didn’t or couldn’t own a situation, I’d settle for a thing instead. I know people who do this due to frustration in jobs they hate, because they feel they have to continue to work in order to pay their bills, they overindulge in purchases to justify the fact that they need to work, despite being deeply dissatisfied with their jobs and/or work environments. Because they feel they can’t own the situation (take charge, identify the problem and apply a solution), they settle for buying an object, eating their favorite sweet, and falling into the consumerist entrapments of “I’m worth it.” Truth is that you are worth a lot more than the object you purchase, and it’s time you acknowledged it. You are worth the time and effort you spend on your job, the years you spent training for it, the hours it takes you away from the people and activities you love, and you owe it to yourself and the company that employs you to be forthright about any issues and deal with them appropriately.
Here again, balance is the idea, to lead us away from materialistic conceptions of self-worth, and towards a more wholistic perspective on not only our own lives, but that of the people and the environment around us. And this is where we return to the initial topic of simplifying life.
I will continue to write on this topic in the coming days and weeks, so stay tuned, until next time, hope you can think of ways in which to address what voids you are trying to fill with “stuff,” and how you may more effectively be able to deal with them!