The Minimalist Movement and Christian Detachment

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The recently-arisen “minimalist” lifestyle movement defies reduction to a pithy single-sentence definition. People who identify as minimalist can have any or several different motives for their behavior, and their motives can express themselves in different ways. It is not, strictly speaking, a commitment to impoverishment, barrenness, or boring lives. In fact, for many people, it means owning less in order to do more of what matters to them. For our purposes, though, we can think of minimalism as a movement that attempts to realize Christian detachment, though not necessarily with a Christian intent. What, then, does minimalism mean for the Christian?

One who cannot cast away a treasure at need is in fetters.

—J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

Hangars and Knickknacks

Speaking of pithy one-sentence definitions, Taryn Williford of identifies six types of minimalist according to their “signature move” — their treatment of clothes hangers:

  • Aesthetic Minimalist: “Throwing out their menagerie of mismatched hangers to buy a pricey set of modernist ones.”
  • Essential Minimalist: “Throwing out all but a dozen hangers for their curated seasonal wardrobe.”
  • Experiential (“Backpack”) Minimalist: “Throwing out their hangers because all their clothes are in a suitcase.”
  • Sustainable Minimalist (“Eco-Minimalist”): “Crafting their own hangers from reclaimed wire and wood they sourced on their land.”
  • Thrifty Minimalist: “Asking the dry cleaner if they have any extra hangers to take home with them.”
  • Mindful Minimalist: “Standing in their bedroom contemplating which of their clothes hangers sparks the most joy.”

While these “signature moves” are meant to be tongue-in-cheek, they do express a commonality between the different types: Minimalists don’t buy things just to own them. Whether it’s to save money or to maintain a particular home atmosphere or to be as unattached to a particular location as possible, they’re very intentional about what they buy and what they keep. You don’t find many minimalists with a lot of curios, knickknacks, or heirlooms, who own roaster ovens they use only once at Thanksgiving every couple of years or edge trimmers they never use.

At its extreme, the minimalist lifestyle can become a photo negative of conspicuous consumption, a kind of “whoever dies with the fewest toys wins” attitude. Especially disturbing to me is the belief that having more than one or two kids is inconsistent with minimalism — as if children were consumer goods or so many decorations. (Minimalist and Zen Buddhist Leo Babauta, who has six children, has dealt with this question, though not very satisfactorily.) However, the minimalists’ general emphasis on quality of life over quantity of possessions is commendable.

What Do You Really Value?

The key to the minimalist mindset is the distinction between what we really need to live our best possible lives versus what’s at best merely desirable, at worst so much clutter or distraction. It asks us to consider what we really value — what gives us the most internal satisfaction — and then get rid of everything that isn’t necessary to those ends or even hinders our achieving them. The point is not simply to get rid of excess possessions but to simplify our lives. Writes Joshua Becker:

Modern culture has bought into the lie that the good life is found in accumulating things — in possessing as much as possible. They believe that more is better and have inadvertently subscribed to the idea that happiness can be purchased at a department store. …

Our world runs at a feverish pace. We are too hurried, too rushed, and too stressed. We work long, passionate hours to pay the bills, but fall deeper into debt every day. We rush from one activity to another — even multitasking along the way — but never seem to get anything done. We remain in constant connection with others through our cell phones, but true life-changing relationships continue to elude us.

Some minimalists may possess less in order to travel more. But others may take jobs paying less money so they can have more free time to spend with their families and friends. If you live in a larger city, you can find a lot of interesting, even fascinating things to do and see which don’t require much (if any) money or special equipment. And, of course, the fewer possessions you have means the fewer things that require time and money spent on maintenance and repair. Once again, quality of life over quantity of stuff.

Seeking Perfection

At this point, we’ve only looked at the minimalist movement so far as it proposes to improve our own life experience. I don’t deny that this can be a good thing. But Christian detachment, though it can be achieved by the same means, has a different end in mind. Russell Shaw has a good definition of Christian detachment:

To be detached, to practice detachment, is to establish and maintain a relation to everything and everybody in one’s life according to which all things are valued by how much they help or hinder us in our relationship with God, the imitation of Christ, and the service of other people.

Shaw gives us the example of the rich young man who was disheartened when Christ told him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor …; then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21-22). The rich young man had kept the commandments, which was presumably enough to gain eternal life, but he still felt something lacking. Paradoxically (not to say ironically), by choosing to keep his material possessions, the rich young man settled for less. “Good enough” is the enemy of perfect.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)

Sacrificing Comfort

“The world offers you comfort,” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI didn’t (exactly) say, “but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” Motivational speakers also tell us that, to achieve material success, you have to be willing to suffer privation and hardship, to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable” (Steve Harvey). The success that matters most to the intentional disciple is union with God, to “share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 356). Everything in our lives, then, must be prioritized and oriented according to whether they assist or obstruct that success.

Christian detachment is different from the mainstream minimalist effort because the Christian must also detach from himself. To achieve the perfection of which Christ spoke to the rich young man, the Christian must be willing to subordinate his own comfort and pleasure to the physical and spiritual needs of others, to practice the humility that Rick Warren defined as “not thinking less of yourself, but rather thinking of yourself less.” And it’s here that an excessive attachment to material things becomes obstructive. Only the “haves” can give to the “have-nots” … but only if the “haves” let go.

Not only material possessions obstruct us. The chase for the possessions themselves often costs us time and talent that we could better use towards devotion and charitable works. Success in the material world often means sacrificing time and effort we can spend helping to develop the networks of mutual charity and solidarity that bind families, communities, and parishes together. It’s relatively easy to find and give excess money, but not so easy in our culture to give of ourselves and our efforts. The line between self-care and self-indulgence is thin and easily blurred.

Ebenezer Scrooge, prior to the visitations of the Spirits, got no real benefit from his minimalism.

Conclusion: Seeking Sainthood Rather Than Happiness

The minimalist lifestyle, thoughtfully applied, can help free us from the excessive attachment to material possessions and their acquisition which oppresses us. But minimalism doesn’t become Christian detachment unless we make our objective the spiritual perfection the rich young man sought. It isn’t wrong to have nice things, to have enriching experiences, to lower one’s carbon footprint, or to save money. But even the gurus of material success admit that a life lived only for oneself isn’t much of a life. That’s still settling for less.

For, in the end, this world is not our permanent home. It’s a school and an exercise yard, a place where we prepare for our real destination, our life with the Lord. There are no prizes or trophies for having the most toys when you die. As the ghost of Jacob Marley told Scrooge, the dealings of our trades and careers are “but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean” of our real business — each other. In pursuing sainthood, we may find more fulfillment and more spiritual enrichment than we find by just getting rid of excess stuff.

Merry Christmas! And may God bless us, everyone!

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