Minimize and Maximize

Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest.

It has been awhile since I have written about minimalism. I don't consider myself a minimalist anymore though I do pursue a brand of simplicity that I label as "voluntary poverty." The difference between minimalism and voluntary poverty is the same as the difference between foolishness and common sense. This essay is about common sense.

My wife and I have a running joke. We say to each other at various moments to "go wash your bowl." This comes from the Zen Habits blog and its creator, Leo Babauta. Now, I like Leo, but my wife thinks he is just a bum with a blog. This is why the "wash your bowl" thing is so funny to us because it is the sort of thing you would hear from someone who doesn't have to work for a living. You have to admit that life is pretty sweet when all you have to do to earn a living is barely write a blog and take a picture of your iMac with your new iPhone. If this is making you angry, go wash your bowl.

The reason I like Leo is that his one trick pony of simplifying is still a pretty good trick. People should simplify their lives as much as possible. It reduces stress. It reduces clutter. It helps the environment. It helps you become humbler. It saves money. There is much to recommend for living a minimalist lifestyle. The problem is when minimalism becomes the end instead of the means to an end.

The problem with minimalism hits you square in the face the moment you actually achieve a minimalist state of being. Once you have eliminated every last thing you can live without, you realize that minimalism is boring and empty. This is not living.

When washing your bowl becomes living death, the temptation is to return to the McMansion lifestyle of maximalism and the acquisition of material things. This is what 90% of the rest of society is doing or wishing they could do. The sad thing is that this full life is as empty as washing your bowl.

If satisfaction is not found at the extremes, you might conclude that it must be in the middle of those extremes. You think Aristotle might have it right with that Golden Mean thing. Perhaps that Buddhist middle way is the ticket. So, you reduce your clutter by half, and your life is only half as boring and empty. Balance offers some hope of having the best of both worlds with none of the downsides, but it never works out that way.

I prefer a path that I call the Way of Syzygy. A syzygy is just a pair of opposites. For instance, a warm fire on a cold day would be a syzygy. A cold beer on a hot day is another syzygy. Pleasure and pain is a syzygy. Syzygies abound in life and nature. There is light and darkness. There is good and bad. There is life and death. There is Heaven and Hell.

Now, you might be tempted to think I have replaced a Zen mindset with a Taoist mindset, but I am no Taoist. I am a Catholic, and I think the syzygy is the essence of common sense though it seems paradoxical at first glance. A great example of a syzygy in the Catholic tradition is Fat Tuesday. Fat Tuesday is known as Mardi Gras and Shrove Tuesday, but it is the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the pentitential season of Lent when you fast and abstain from selected treats as you work on your soul. Before this season begins, you feast because you need to get rid of all that rich food that will be spoiled by the end of Lent. It's also great fun. The city of New Orleans is famous for its Mardi Gras celebration that came from its intensely Catholic roots. Of course, fornication and drunken debauchery are not good things, but they do get the spirit right. Catholicism is a religion of feasts and fasts.

With minimalism, the fast has no accompanying feast. Life is reduced to sitting in an empty space washing your bowl. The point of having that bowl is to eventually put something in it like a nice vegan chili or tomato soup. You should wash your bowl, but you should also dirty that bowl with the same frequency.

The way of syzygy is to embrace two extremes or opposites simultaneously. For instance, you should work very hard six days out of the week and not hit a lick on the seventh day. You should combine gluttony with fastidiousness by eating a lot of food but only plant based food. You should be a miser with saving money but also charitable to the unfortunate.

With material things, you should be as minimalist as possible. With time, you should fill your days with as much activity as you can cram into a day. You probably wonder who lives like this, and you need only look at the monks, nuns, and friars who belong to religious orders. They live in poverty and simplicity, yet their lives are full of worship, service, study, work, prayer, and love. They are always busy. In short, you should minimize some things in order to maximize other things.

For ordinary people, I would tell you to declutter your home, reduce your wardrobe. and eliminate as many non-essential material items as possible. Then, get a bookshelf and fill that thing up. Get a dayplanner and fill every hour with something to do other than washing your bowl. I believe God gives people the things they need, but He also expects us to do things with the time we have. Empty your home but fill your time. The best way to fill your time is to give it away to others. Pour your heart out into the world, and it will come back to you full each time.

Embrace the extremes of minimalism and maximalism. It sounds difficult, but it isn't. It's not walking a tightrope while juggling chainsaws. This would be that ridiculous feat of "balance." Just go to the extremes, and it will work out fine for you. Then, you will conclude that this way of syzygy is wisdom and common sense. And you will be happier for it.