Minimalism Will (Not) Save Us

I'm cleaning out around the house in hopes of regaining more sanity, to decrease the number of decisions I have to make, and to limit the number of ever-migrating items I have to pick up and put away. My children have a habit of carrying all the things from one end of the house to the other, and I’ve concluded that the only way to try to curb the resulting chaos is to own fewer things or to put them away out of reach, and thereby to reduce the moving parts. So I’m paring down, cleaning out, packing away, slowly but surely. (By the way, today I found a shoe in the jigsaw puzzle drawer. It made me feel good that missing shoes aren’t always my fault.)

The idea of owning less is growing on me (except for when it comes to potential art supplies). The mental burden of knowing that I’m responsible for so much stuff is heavy, and “traveling light” is becoming more appealing. All this talk about minimalism makes sense for a number of reasons.

But it's easy to get caught up in the paring down and to see perfection in this endeavor as the goal. Perfectionism in owning is neither practicable for most of us who care for others nor does it place the task in its proper context. We want to buy, own, retain, give, and say goodbye to our possessions motivated by love for God and others, not out of pride or a desire to be perfect, not to impress or merely conquer. Control is a heartbreaking idol because it is so transient. Possessions can truly own me, but as soon as I believe that I have to have a high level of control over them in order to feel accepted by God or others or in order to be content, then my minimalist ideal has become my taskmaster.

There's a certain amount of leisure and mental spaciousness necessary to even think through what to keep and what to expunge. It hasn't been remotely possible for me until lately, and I'm pretty sure it's always going to be something I struggle with. Every hour spent cleaning out a closet is an hour not doing something else, so paring down is not just one layer of decision making; it's a multidirectional network of decisions, of priorities, of mental calculations. And some of us just can't take that on sometimes. We’re still getting over yesterday’s decision fatigue.

When my twins were younger, there were many days I knew that God’s will for me was to surrender to the chaos and to press on in love, feeding and nurturing my family even though I felt like I was living in a hurricane of swirling belongings, noises, and feelings. God had called me that day to just do the next thing, and the next thing certainly was not to organize the closets or to decide which toys to give away.

While I have the motivation and energy today to take on these tasks, I have no assurance that I will continue to. I never will know what lies on the horizon, and an illness, a financial upset, or a family emergency could quickly derail such progress. It’s best not to put our trust in "uncertain riches", nor in uncertain organizational achievements. Man-made gods always disappoint.

While minimalism makes for a pretty poor man-made religion, reducing can also can be a path to more enjoyment of God's good gifts. The timing is finally right, and I have loved cleaning out closets, organizing, donating, passing along, and tossing out. After paring down my closet a couple weeks ago, I have found that it is night-and-day easier to keep my clothes picked up, laundered, and put away. I can enjoy what I do have because I can find it, and because I’m not being distracted by excess that isn’t useable.

This week I cleaned out the kitchen pantry. It was a huge job. The entire time I kept thanking God that I finally have the energy, the motivation, and the available time to undertake these endeavors that were impossible before now. As I pulled all the pantry items out into daylight and began the enormous task of sorting into keep and toss piles, I began to think, “God loves me and he loves this pantry, whether we are messy or clean. This house keeps my family safe and warm. This pantry keeps us fed. He accepts us as we are.” I don’t have a proof text to prove God loves my house, but I know He has compassion on me "as a father has compassion on His children." My dad delights in coming over to my house, not because it is clean every time he comes over (ha!), but because he knows that’s where some of the people he loves most live and are cared for by God.

God didn’t love me any more on Wednesday, the day I cleaned out the pantry, scrubbed the shelves down, threw out the expired food, and placed it back on the shelves, organized and simplified. He didn’t love me any less when my closets were bulging with never-worn, ill-fitting clothes that kept me from even finding the needed items.

I suspect I'll be dealing with messy for a long, long time, and I'll have to keep falling back into God's complete unconditional acceptance of me and my house, because I believe he loves us both, no matter how messy we are. I'm really hoping I'll be able to keep enjoying my clean closet for a little while, though.

Michelle Radford