Unlike many people that follow a minimalist lifestyle – the voluntary practice of simplifying one’s life by reducing material possessions – I currently find myself following its principles quite involuntarily. Having moved to Cyprus two months ago, I’ve been living out of the contents of one suitcase and one carry-on, while I waited for all my other worldly possessions to float over on a leisurely-paced container ship.
When I told my friends and family that it could take up to three months for my things to arrive the reactions I got were of shock. Disproportionately so, I thought; surely, it’s like a long vacation! But then I started to pack, and that’s when the really shocking thing happened: I’d moved house plenty of times but this time… whether it was because my things were going to another country, because it would take so long, or because their safety would be out of my control… I was not happy. There was a resentment at having to part with MY STUFF. Suddenly, I felt a deep attachment to that Dala horse I’d bought in Stockholm; I couldn’t see myself doing without the sushi set I’d used once in four years; and how would I cope with an abridged repertoire of dresses for date-nights!?
Well, I’d seen enough episodes of “Hoarders” to know that that is not the type of relationship I want to have with my things. If I can feel any degree of separation anxiety towards my Moroccan nightstands, then I have no business thinking that the old lady with 5,000 dolls should just throw them away and get over it.
So, rather than feeling like I was being forced to do without, what if I treated the next few months as a minimalist experiment? Sure, living out of a suitcase isn’t quite the same as joining the tiny house movement or taking up The Compact for a year, but I figured there would still be some interesting lessons, and this is what I’ve gotten out of it so far:
ONE: Materialism is a State of Mind
Before all this, I would have said that I probably score below average on materialism (controlling for variables like being a product of 80’s-90’s USA). I don’t ever go out shopping “just for fun”. I like having a budget, and buying pretty but functional things when I need them, or when I can imbue them with sappy significance (like a Dala horse that reminds me of the trip to Sweden).
But retail therapy or compulsive shopping, aren’t the only ways in which people use stuff as a psychological crutch- everyone’s crutch can be different and it’s been good to figure out mine. Giving my things TOO much significance was creating a different form of attachment: the Dala horse, for example, the bronze owl from Athens, the carnival mask from Venice, had come to represent my love of travel, and I realised that, by extension, I have a tendency of connecting my stuff with my identity. But I am not my stuff. Just like the balding man with a mid-life crisis and a new convertible is not suddenly 25 again.
TWO: Shifting Focus
If lesson number one was “I am not my stuff”, lesson number two consisted in answering “then, what IS me?”. In response, I decided to shift focus towards things that I enjoy doing or trying, rather than the things I own and want. In the past two months, for example, I’ve :
- started working back up to 10k runs
- completed the A1 Greek language level
- done an online study
- read two novels
- written a piece of flash fiction
Clearly, then the answer to question two is: “nerdy with a dash of jock”. But without getting into a whole other mindfulness-style debate on the difference between “being” and “doing”, and whether the latter should really constitute your identity, the fact is that refocusing on activities I enjoy and/or am good at has felt a lot more fulfilling and will bring a lot more long-term joy than dedicating the same time, money, and energy on material things.
Three: Contentment and Gratitude
Despite my initial tantrum, living with less stuff hasn’t actually been very difficult. There’s been very few moments when I’ve missed specific objects or really needed something I hadn’t thought to pack along. Instead, I’ve mostly found myself just being happy with what I have… and borrowing the rest when needed.
By extension, I’ve found myself giving a lot more thanks:
- for the things I have with me, because they are finite and yet get the job done perfectly well;
- for the things that aren’t with me, because I am lucky enough to own superfluous nice things, when so many people in the world can’t;
- for the lovely people that lend me stuff, because sometimes a girl just needs a hairdryer;
- for the free (but priceless) things, because I’m able to spend more time with my father-in-law, or admire nature on sunny hikes by day and stare up at the constellation-filled skies of Cyprus by night, or simply because it’s warm enough to go find rocks at the beach.
FOUR: Humility and Perspective
But then last week we finally got an update from our shipping company saying that our things had arrived (early!) – forget all this minimalism nonsense, let’s unpack my lovely stuff! I was so excited.
Except that when we finally unlocked the storage locker, I was faced with just a solid wall of boxes and furniture, floor-to-ceiling. Aside from disappointingly only being able to make out a fraction of things that happened to be right at the front, I was also suddenly struck with a crazy realisation: all of those material possessions that I had given so much importance to were tightly packed within the humble dimensions of less than 10 cubic meters.
Seeing my things like that was incredibly humbling. Had that container ship sunk into the Mediterranean, my possessions would very literately have been a drop in the
ocean sea. Not only did all of my things seem incredibly small in relation to the world and my life at that moment, but I thought back to the past few months I’d spent without them and suddenly felt that, if necessary, I could confidently go on without them.
FIVE: Decluttering for Good
With the inevitable purges that come with two house moves in four years, our stuff is at a pretty stream-lined state at the moment, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d like to keep it that way as much as possible.
I’ll be living as an expat for the foreseeable future, and what I want is to have adventures: to divide my time up between the many countries I call home and to have amazing experiences with the people I love in them. And material things – no matter how pretty and functional and meaningful they may be – have a tendency to accumulate and bog down life, spatially and financially, rather than help make it more flexible and intrepid.