Minimalism is the word of the moment and for good reason. People are flocking to this idea that less is more, that material items are not the harbingers of happiness, but in fact the chains that leash us to a lifestyle of living to work, not working to live. People of my generation, millennials, are finding this message of minimalism especially powerful, because we are seeing the instability of a life built in pursuit of the latest and greatest gadget, a life that demands 40+ hours of work to pay for that new toy you’ll never have the time to enjoy. Instead we are asking for something more, for a life where we have the time to pursue what makes our hearts full and the money to live decently, not extravagantly.
I grew up in a privileged, upper middle class home where I never wanted for anything. We always had healthy food on the table, I never had to worry about being able to go to school, and it was always assumed that I would go to university. It can easily follow that I quickly collected many things, from my prized collection of Breyer horses to a walk in closet full of clothes I rarely wore. My first experience with having to par down my possessions was when I moved away to college. I thought it was going to be next to impossible to fit all the clothes I would need for a year into what I now realize was a decently sized dorm room wardrobe. I managed it, but the wardrobe was bursting at its seams, with clothes crammed into every nook and cranny. By the end of the year I hadn’t even worn all the clothes I had brought. Then came time for the next move, into my first apartment. I had more space in this next apartment, but with all the packing and moving came the time to reflect, the time to get rid of the things I no longer really needed or just didn’t want to bother moving.
I moved every year since I left home at 18 and every year the number of things I owned decreased. I would like to say it was because I had this grand epiphany about the consumer machine that tells us this new dress will finally make me love my body or this new bra will make me believe I’m worthy of love, but it wasn’t. It was a slow, well I haven’t worn this in a year, I don’t need actually need three different winter coats, etc process. By the time I made it to graduation, I could fit my life into my car and I thought that I had succeeded at this whole minimalism thing. However, the true test was still to come.
You see, when I was at home, the pressure to consume was still there. It wasn’t until I put my life on my back and started traveling that I really felt free from the toxic consumer culture that surrounds us. I still remember the shock on my mom’s face when she saw my backpack for my time in Europe. ‘That’s all you’re taking?’ she asked, a slight motherly concern detectable in her tone. ‘Yup’ I answered, ‘Anymore would be too hard to carry’. And that’s what it was at first for me, the backpack was about the freedom of moment, of not being tied to the beaten path with a 50 lb roller suitcase to drag around on broken cobblestones or down a dirt road in the mountains of Guatemala. But it gradually changed and over the next two years of travel I began to realize that I truly had all that I needed on my back.
I didn’t need ten different pairs of shoes, I was doing just fine with three: sandals, running shoes, and ankle boots. I didn’t need those three different winter coats, my good old North Face fleece kept me warm on the top of volcanos and didn’t get me kicked out of nice restaurants, it was enough. Occasionally, I would buy things on the road, but they had to replace something in my bag that was lost or that I would donate to make space. After all, when you can only keep what you can physically carry, each purchase becomes a real question of do I need this and what value will this add to my life?
I’m still not a perfectly minimalist traveler, all you have to do is ask Kane and he’ll tell you all about the things I have picked up along the road, but what backpacking has given me is the knowledge that everything I carry with me brings value or utility to my life. I didn’t need those purple genie pants I bought in Thailand, but I love them every time I wear them and they bring happiness to my life by reminding me of my time in the land of smiles. To me minimalism is the idea that everything you own should bring value to your life and anything that doesn’t, anything that is superfluous or excessive, anything that weighs you down, is just taking up space.
Traveling and having to carry everything I need on my back is what helped me fully embrace minimalism, but one doesn’t have to travel to utilize the concepts of minimalism. I feel that the more we as a society move away from what is expected of us by the powers that be, the more happiness and contentment we will find in our own lives, wherever in the world they take us. For now I will be happily living out of my backpack and saving my money for the things that bring me joy, like plane tickets to far away lands and bottles of wine to share with new friends.