Less is More

I have way too much stuff. And, like most people, I continue to accumulate more of it.

The other day I found myself at a local Italian market in the small town of San Giovanni, where a charming, middle-aged vendor charismatically overtook a crowd of Italian women. He knew his target well. These were women who spent a lot of time in the kitchen; who found joy and meaning through the act of crafting wonderful meals for their family; and who, above all, needed a new kitchen gadget so they could pursue their mission all the more purposefully. The tool was, in effect, nothing more than a hand-operated blender that could dice and mince vegetables in a matter of seconds. If I were to pass by such an item at the supermarket, I would not have given it so much as a passing glance before moving on with my everyday business. Yet, as I watched the man gracefully make his demonstrations and win over the hearts of these women, I couldn’t help but ponder: could I make use of such a tool in my life? These women and I were not only drawn to the comfort and convenience afforded by this neat kitchen gadget, but a vision of a better, more exciting future. If chopping and dicing vegetables could be done in a third of the rate it normally took to do by hand, then what else might we be capable of? It was a very appealing notion indeed.

Entrance to the night market

When it comes to material possessions, it is the practice of confronting my irrationality that I find so difficult but necessary. Each year, I undergo a massive tidying ritual. I take inventory of all the things that I own and with each item, I decide: discard or keep? It’s a grueling process that spans several days.

What I have come to realize is that every item that we own requires capital in the form of time and energy whether we choose to engage with those things meaningfully or not. It is in this way that excess stuff can shed light in the areas which we are lacking. We hoard out of fear; fear of not having enough, of letting go of the past, of what may happen in the future… Up until a few years ago, I kept a collection of all my old school notebooks, handouts, and tests all the way from sixth grade until the end of high school. Why? Just. In. Case. The three most dangerous words for a minimalist. My parents, annoyed by my unreasonable hoarding, wanted desperately for me to just throw everything in the trash, but in my stubbornness I refused. We made a compromise instead; I would do what I could to free up shelf space, and they would leave me in peace. This was how my tidying ritual began.

Year after year, I underwent my usual tidying spree. When it came time to revisit my old notes, I would flip through page after painstaking page in order to determine which documents were truly “essential”. An old calculus test? I might be able to use that later when I teach calculus. An old Macbeth study guide? Could be good reference material for teaching study skills. The mental dialogue that I accumulated became a set of rationalizations for why I needed to keep certain items; and those too, eventually needed to be trashed.

Year after year, those binders began to shrink, until one day they were gone. Could I have just chucked all those binders in the trash right at the end of each school year? Probably, yes. Fact is, I never did make good use of those notebooks in any practical sense. Rather, the act of “tidying” came to become a kind of therapeutic process for me. It allowed me to revisit past memories and decide, in the form of material goods, which ones I would allow with me into the future.

It is for this exact reason that this ritual is so important to me; in the act of letting things go, we are not confronting only our possessions, but ourselves. This is also the reason why I find tidying such a mentally demanding process. Tidying isn’t just about asking ourselves whether an item ”sparks joy.” It’s about asking important questions such as: what is it that I am holding onto? Are those things holding me back? What is my vision of the future? How can I make a better one? Letting go of my school yearbooks feels like saying goodbye to memories of the past. Donating the pair of shorts that are now two sizes two small feels like letting go of a promise that I may one day be able to wear them again.

But take note: I am not my stuff. The things that I own have only the meaning which I imbue onto them. The Minimalists write, “Our memories are within us, not within our things. Holding on to stuff imprisons us; letting go is freeing.”

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself suddenly unable to access my worldly possessions. I was working in China at the time but when the Chinese government had issued a shut down, I was not in China, but on break at my home in Canada. My Chinese work permit was about to expire, I could not re-enter the country, and so I was confronted with a sudden loss. I mourned the loss of my favorite shoes, my clothes, books, kitchen utensils, jewelry, household items… But the funny thing about all of that was that for the next six months, I wore nothing but a pair of Roots sweat pants and a t-shirt all day – one of the classic Canadian uniforms.

The idea of less being more is not intuitive. Letting go takes work. Continuous work. There are many emotional drivers at play, as mentioned earlier. We become attached to things: objects, ideas, people… It’s another reason why dieting can be so hard. “No” for now doesn’t mean no forever. Yes, you can have that croissant and enjoy it now, or you can let go of the need to satisfy your immediate craving for that delicious buttery goodness in exchange for more…

More knowledge that there will always be more croissants to be had in the future.

More power in owning your decision to make healthier food choices.

More freedom to choose what discomforts you are willing to withstand in the short term.

In a few weeks, I will again embark on my yearly ritual of tidying and hence mental and spiritual cleansing. I’ll be letting go of those old school yearbooks and replacing them with digital photos instead. Yes, I’ll say adios to the pair of too-small shorts (as well as dozens of other outdated clothing items) in exchange for ones that fit me now. I’m embracing a vision of the future where I will be chopping vegetables by hand because my hands are enough. While comfort and convenience are appealing notions, and even though this may be a hard sell, the result is never as satisfying as the journey.

To hold, you must first open your hand. Let go.

Lao Tzu

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