Thoughts on Thoughts: Addressing Browning’s Thoughts in the NY Times

decluttering, minimalism, new york times

The New York Times released an article on May 29, 2015, that addressed the other side of “decluttering.” The article can be found here. While I value much of what the article addresses, it seems important to note that minimalism isn’t something that we should just consider “trendy.” Now, the article may not throw any direct accusations of that sort at minimalism, but it is rather strongly implied.

The article, written by Dominique Browning, makes some immediate, sarcastic, and fair points. The media is all over minimalism in ways that continue to promote consumerism. Browning writes that “Magazine covers advertise formulas for how to get rid of things (most of which involve buying new things),” and Browning is right. Businesses are taking advantage of the minimalism bandwagon, and to a degree, there is a bandwagon. Some people want to embrace minimalism for other reasons, though, and they aren’t just chucking their stuff to be “cool.”

Browning also writes that “Entire books (books we will soon enough be told to toss) cover the subject.” Well, yes, they do. I have owned many of them for brief stints of time. In fact, I think I have owned over fifteen books on minimalism in the last year or so, though not all at the same time. I did not purchase all of those books, however. I did not keep most of them, either. I did buy some, yes, but I also received a number of them from free sources, such as Paperback Swap. I did not necessarily shell out cash for books on decluttering, simplifying, and minimizing, nor did I keep the books past the point they were valuable to me.

I understand Browning’s desire to separate from any type of thing that can be considered propaganda. Anything meant to be misleading is inherently dishonest, and it is still sexy to be honest, in my opinion. However, when Browning writes that “Over the course of a lifetime, we forage, root and rummage around in our stuff, because that is part of what it means to be human,” I become a little wary. I’m not sure I am prepared at 28-years old to answer the deep question of humanity, but I feel like being human isn’t central to material possessions.

The article also implies that by holding onto possessions, especially possessions such as books or art, we are paying homage to the original writer or artist. I value the respect and appreciation it shows when we pass on these types of things. This is a respect and appreciation I discovered far before I started meddling in the ways of minimalism. It began when a friend passed on a book to me, one that she deliberately held on to until she found the person she felt could appreciate the book in the same way she had. She asked me to do the same. For this reason, that particular book is still on my shelf, “cluttering” up my home, simply because I have not found someone that I know will appreciate it and pay it the proper respect. Not yet, anyway.

Browning encourages us to call her “materialistic.” I would never do this. Browning’s ideas may not be in line with the thoughts I have about decluttering and tending “toward the minimalist,” as is said in the article, but the fact of the matter is that Browning is an individual. Browning has to follow the path of hoarding, average accumulation, or minimalism all alone—whichever path is the right one individually. Even minimalists live in different degrees of minimalism, and each person does it for a different reason. I discussed this with a friend, briefly, in trying to get another person’s thoughts on Browning’s article. She mentioned she was much more concerned with organization than decluttering, just as I am much more concerned with living a minimalist life than organizing the stuff I already have. We both have different reasons for making the choices we are making. Another friend said that becoming a minimalist just to be “trendy” won’t actually offer us the balance the paring down of possessions is meant to produce in our lives.

At the personal level, I began dabbling in minimalism as a lifestyle choice because somewhere in my gut, where intuition reigns free, it felt right. I don’t think I knew what I was looking for when I began tossing some of the stuff that held no value in my life anymore. However, as time passed, and I read more and began exploring my own feelings, it started to become clear what I wanted minimalism to do for me. I wanted to stop being held down emotionally, financially, and physically, by material possessions and all the little devils that come with living in a consumer society. I wanted to get rid of my stuff so there were less things to distract me from my passions, such as writing. Then I realized that it wasn’t just as easy as tossing all my stuff. I still did not have time to follow my passions in the way I wanted to even once the possessions were far less distracting. I was still consuming television, working wild hours to pay for the possessions I have accumulated over the years, and falling into the trap of buying new possessions. There is still so much personal work to do. I am not doing it to be “trendy,” though, and that is the key.

Browning mentions that these unique things we collect are a way of creating a “home,” and it is no different than the “nesting” of a bird. I can see the thinking, here, and maybe there is something to holding on to those unique items with remarkable stories. I don’t know. I need more time to consider. However, it is obvious to me that much of our stuff is not unique and is not attached to any grand story. We are, by nature, a bit of a culture of Jones’, and the sad fact is we are all weighed down by a lot of the same types of material possessions. In some instances, we are weighed down by the exact same material possessions. The iPhone, for instance (which I own, so it is not a judgment, but an observation).

The real takeaway point here is that we should not do any specific thing to be “trendy.” Browning is right. There is a bandwagon of decluttering, or simplifying, or minimalism, or whatever label you want to put on it, going around. This is not better than high school. We should not seek to be like everyone else because everyone requires different things to be happy. We should seek to be happy at an individual level. Which is why one spouse may embrace minimalism and another may not. Or one college kid may collect stamps, and another may choose to travel with less than thirty personal possessions. We are not all the same. We should not do something because everyone is doing it. This is one of the most basic, earliest lessons our parents teach us.

Be brave enough to clutter…or declutter. Whichever works best in your own personal life.

One thought on “Thoughts on Thoughts: Addressing Browning’s Thoughts in the NY Times

  1. While I do respect most of what this author is saying, I don’t get the sentence about rummaging around in our stuff making us human either. I think that it implies we are our stuff..akin to defining ourself as our job. I find the new minimalists refreshing. They haven’t told me I have to get rid of anything. They are suggestive and not prescriptive. I like that. They make me think about what I own and what I think about owning, along with the things I choose to keep or get rid of.

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