I’ve never been much of a minimalist. From the ages of 12 to 17, my primary goal in life seemed to be to accumulate things. Nail polishes, pairs of earrings, books to read, crafts supplies. Once, on a trip to Prague with my aunt, I bought twelve different pashminas. All for me.
Did you hear me? Twelve.
Throughout high school, the amount of stuff in my room grew slowly, like a brightly-colored mushroom colony taking over every flat surface in my life. I didn’t really like it; the sheer volume of all my possessions felt suffocating, somehow. But to some extent, it felt inevitable, because I loved the hunt. Every time a new problem or goal surfaced in my life, I wanted to own the right stuff to go with it. An interest in Arabic meant buying a set of language tapes and boxes of index cards. My growing faith meant buying myself new Bibles and cross necklaces every once in a while. And every time I felt sad, or scared, I would turn to Amazon or Etsy and search for things like books and necklaces and stuff to help me block out my feelings.
These motivational bracelets would definitely help with my weight loss.
Surely, this angel pendant will help me feel comforted when I’m scared.
Buying this set of grammar books could definitely motivate me with my study of German. Right? Right?
I wouldn’t say that I had a shopping addiction; as much as I loved to window shop, I rarely actually bought what I was admiring. But I definitely had an unhealthy relationship to stuff, to things, and to the idea of owning something. I used items as a validation for my interests, as a distraction from my frustrations, and as a way to stifle hard feelings. Then, when the overwhelm got to be too much, I would purge my room and donate bags of clothes and junk so that I didn’t need to look at them anymore. My life was shaped by the things I owned.
And then, this January, I moved to Europe. I brought one suitcase and one carry-on. No boxes, no bags, no furniture, and only about 30 items of clothing (excluding socks). This is how I accidentally stumbled into minimalism: with a clean slate and limited access to online shopping.
At first, I desperately missed the hunt for new things. Ken and I had a house to turn into a home, but without a huge budget or a car to bring new stuff into our apartment, we progressed very slowly with buying anything new. Amazon and Etsy were harder to shop on because the shipping either took too long or cost too much, diminishing the rush I got from hitting “place order.” And because a lot of the things I felt like I needed were still waiting for me at my parents’ house in America, I didn’t want to waste money on buying duplicates.
As the months ticked by, I realized that I actually really liked living with less. I didn’t feel overwhelmed by my space anymore; actually, it felt light and airy, giving me the feeling that I had more room to breathe. When we needed something like a can opener, we would go out and buy one; but I learned that I didn’t quite “need” a coffee table and a conference outfit and a new purse the way I once thought I did. And on top of that, I actually felt freer without.
This is not to say that I’m a true minimalist, if there is such a thing. Ken and I aren’t afraid to have some luxuries and extras; there is art on our walls and there are throw pillows on our sofa. But I’ve noticed that my attitude towards things has completely changed. I once used them to shape my world, to give form to my thoughts and feelings. I now see them in a new light: inanimate objects that serve a purpose, whether utilitarian or aesthetic. The thing about things is that they can’t fix me, or my life. The only thing they can do is exist.
To my surprise, that’s been a huge gift to me. For years, I used stuff to legitimize my life, interests, and choices. By taking away the stuff, I’ve come to form my identity in myself, and not in the things I own. And though I still struggle with the occasional peruse through Etsy’s new jewelry, and sometimes find myself dying for a new pair of shoes, I’ve also found a new strength in doing without.
The thing I really wanted — confidence, security — wasn’t ever for sale. It was in me, all along.