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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3 Responses to Is Minimalism Uncivilized?

  1. Lally Cadeau says:

    I know that I’m quite content having less.Although to be fair, some of what I had was pretty nice..I’m really grooving on the simple things, but a little depression and no money can cloud things, because I fight depression by eating and drinking in restos..Maybe we need to get together more often and share..

  2. Karen says:

    Every day.
    But fuck em.
    I prefer uncivilized.

  3. Catherine says:

    Thank you so much for voicing this in this way! I so agree with you – “civilization” is such a crazy concept, if you really take a good, hard look at what it has made (and still makes) people do and think…

    In the Myers-Briggs system, I am a “freethinker” (INTJ). I have always questioned authority, the accepted status quo… I read somewhere that INTJs do not grasp the social rituals – I would contend that I grasp them well enough, I just more often than not refuse to play along if I don’t think there’s any real reason for doing so!…

    Like you, I’ve been asked at times why I don’t set up my own translation agency rather than just working freelance – no thanks, no desire to undertake more than I’m comfortable doing at my own pace.

    That book quote is so profound, and so, so sad… Thank you again for sharing – I’m 100% with you!

    (Sorry for the disjointed comment, I’m in work mode but just had to say something! 🙂 )

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