Is Minimalism Uncivilized?

I’ve written before about the joy I get when a new idea jumps out at me from a piece of fiction. It happened again last week as I was reading “A Discovery of Strangers” by Rudy Wiebe for a bookclub I was invited to join. The novel is about the first of the Franklin Expeditions and the utter incomprehension the British had about this land and its People.

On page 59, Lieutenant Franklin and Doctor Richardson are discussing how best to get the native people to do their bidding, at the end of which this line jumped out at me: They must want more than they need. That is civilization.

And I dropped the booked and stared off into space for a good long time, thinking, holy crap! that sums it all up, doesn’t it?

Because I have, in my adventures on the minimalist path, and I know I’m not alone in this, been made to feel like there’s something wrong with me for not wanting more. You can find articles arguing that simplicity and slow living are wrong and somehow unsustainable, which is weird, because they are actually far more sustainable than what passes for the norm.

Have you had those conversations with people? You go to their house and you think it looks perfectly lovely and comfortable and they apologize for its smallness and poorness. They tell you that they want better, implying that they deserve better, but circumstances dictate otherwise. Just don’t think they’re satisfied with this, because they’re not like that. That being the uncivilized type who is content with less.

It’s a feeling that’s been in the background of so many discussions and encounters, one that I couldn’t fully articulate until that line jumped out at me. But I think it is an assumption that we carry deep inside. We’re told to always want more, to always have goals, to strive for better, whether that is in material goods, our golf score or our career advancement. Good enough just isn’t. Good enough is uncivilized, slightly immoral and possibly unhygienic.

When Alan and I had our B&B, we offered dinner to our guests. It was a four-course meal with a choice for the main course and dessert. We liked cooking for people and enjoyed the pace of making dinner for up to a dozen guests, knowing that they would all be gone to the theatre by 7:40. We built ourselves a really satisfying life while we were there.

And on a regular basis, one of our guests would ask when we were going to open a restaurant or, at the very least, expand the B&B. And they would look at us with deep confusion when we explained that that wasn’t in the plan and we were happy just the way we were.

“But don’t you want to grow?” they’d ask.

Ummm… not really.

And we’d both walk away shaking our heads. And sometimes I would feel a bit bad that we had no ambition, that we were letting down…. something.

I didn’t know what, exactly, we were letting down, but now I do. We were letting down CIVILIZATION.  And how cool is that?

I mean, it’s one thing to keep the top shelf of your closet empty just because you like the breathing space, it’s quite another to know that doing so is uncivilized. It’s so much more radical and rebellious.

Please let me know what you think about this. Have you ever felt a bit uncivilized or morally suspect for wanting to simplify your life? Do you feel a little more badass  now?


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