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Flipping The Switch: Materialist To Minimalist

Single White Rose This is a guest post by Robert Wall from Untitled Minimalism.  It's the first post in my new occasional series, Stories of Transformation.

I never wanted to be a minimalist.

I actually liked my stuff. In fact, I liked it so much that I had huge piles of it at five different addresses. I had an apartment full of stuff, stuff at a friend's place, stuff in an unused office (rented - not in my apartment), and stuff in two separate storage units. All of these places were packed full, and none of them were neat and tidy.

What I wanted was to get all of my stuff under one roof. Due to discovering a decluttering book in my messy front closet, I'd even convinced myself that I could part with some of my stuff in order to be able to "get control".

But don't get me wrong here. My idea of "getting control" and "being decluttered" were, at the time, what I'd now call "organized excess". I wanted a place for everything, but I still wanted everything....mostly. I figured I'd do this "decluttering" thing, and I'd come out on the other side of the process with most of my stuff consolidated into my apartment. It would be efficiently packed in boxes or bins, and stored on several nice shelving units. I'd be "making efficient use of vertical space", as the organization gurus put it.

The Obstacles To "Control"

The primary obstacle, of course, was that my apartment was currently full of stuff. There was no room to bring in stuff from the other four places.

Since the totality of the plan at that point was "get the junk out", I did what any sane person would do. I went to the hardware store and bought a large outdoor garbage can and a box of 50-gallon drum liners. Then I made myself a simple promise:

Every week, that garbage can would get filled and hauled out to the dumpster.

Once I created some breathing room in my apartment I could bring the stuff from the other 4 places in, go through everything, and organize it into efficiently-packed boxes.

What I didn't realize, however, is that garbage cans have magical powers.

While my clutter was boxed up and out of sight, it was possible to romanticize it, to believe that all of those boxes contained valuable stuff. After all, that's why I was storing it....right?

Believing that an unopened box contains immensely valuable items that, one day, will save you from a dire situation is one thing. But opening that box and finding a bunch of cheap, junky kitchen supplies from three apartments ago is quite another. The arbitrary goal of filling the garbage can forced me to systematically unbox, excavate, and physically handle every item I'd ever stashed, stuffed, or stowed in the past decade. And without fail, box after box, bin after bin, drawer after drawer, I kept pulling out things that were poorly made, in poor repair, of little value, or were duplicates of other things I owned.

Bottom line? The more I filled the garbage can, the more stuff I handled. And the more stuff I handled, the more I realized how much of my old stuff was, well and truly, junk.

Plumbing The Depths Of Self-Deception

It's one thing to be deceived by somebody else. It was another thing entirely to realize that I'd been deceiving myself for the better part of a decade. Realizing that I'd moved all this junk from place to place, and it was really mostly just a bunch of junk. Strike that, "bunch" isn't severe enough. Boxes upon boxes of junk. Truckloads of junk. Junk that required me to call in favors from friends, because moving it by myself was almost unthinkable.

And then the switch flipped. Suddenly, minimalism made all the sense in the world.

Magical powers, I tell you.

This might sound silly to some of you, but clutter is rarely just a physical thing. Apartments (and houses!) full of stuff are frequently the end result of incorrect beliefs about your world. These incorrect beliefs create a powerful inner conflict, and that conflict is what really matters. And the middle of that conflict is where I'd been living for over a decade.

With me, I can identify two notions that were radically out of whack - the notion of security, and the scarcity mentality.

I say "out of whack" because they're not completely false. A few meals worth of food in the cupboard, a flashlight in case the power goes out, those things bring a little bit of security. And there are things in my life that are beyond scarce. If I destroy or dispose of them, I can't get them back. There's a bit of truth to both notions, but that's just what it is - a bit of truth.

The larger truths are almost the polar opposite: compulsive accumulation of stuff doesn't bring security, and the supposed scarcity of most things is greatly exaggerated.

The Aftermath Of Enlightenment

I'm not going to give you a pie-in-the-sky story about how I figured out the Secrets Of The Universe and all of my clutter vanished within days, but I can tell you for a fact that once you begin dealing with the underlying conflicts, the clutter becomes much easier to deal with.

That's not to say it didn't take some time. My initial decluttering took the better part of a year. And it's not saying that decluttering is a "once and for all" thing. As my mind moves away from the scarcity and security mentalities, I find that I need less and less. In fact, where I used to need a large U-Haul truck just for my own personal stuff, my wife and I are now capable of moving using less than half of a 16' moving van. Our bed is the only piece of furniture that requires a moving van (or trailer) at all.

Most importantly, as I move forward, I find that removing superfluous stuff from my life gives me more flexibility and freedom to focus on the things that matter the most to me. And that's the sort of security and abundance that no amount of stuff can purchase.

Robert Wall  is a reformed packrat who writes witty and thought-provoking articles on the topics of consumerism, minimalism, simplicity, and frugality at Cluttered to Clean.

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