When Everything is Taken Away, We See Who We Truly Are

 Last week, I had the most engaging opportunity to meet Gracia Burnham.

Gracia and her husband were kidnapped by gunpoint on the night of their 18th anniversary. They were taken hostage by the Abu Sayyaf, an Islamist terrorist group operating in the southern Philippines. For the next year, they would live in the jungle alongside their captors routinely relocating to new areas avoiding (and engaging) the Philippine military. She would eventually be rescued by the national army on June 7, 2002. However, her husband Martin would be killed by three gunshots in the chest during the rescue attempt. You can read her captivating story in her New York Times Bestselling Book, In the Presence of My Enemies.

While I was listening to Gracia recount her horrific story, she made a statement that immediately engaged my heart. She said, “When everything is taken away, we begin to see who we truly are.”

In her context, she spoke about her living conditions for that year in the jungle. “We were taken with nothing but the clothes on our backs. We no longer had our comfortable home, suitable clothing, warm food, or even shoes to wear. And there was no place for my heart to hide.” She began to tell us about the utter hate she felt for the terrorists. She experienced deep levels of jealousy and envy when others would eat more food than her. She struggled to find hope… much less love. And in her own words, “I didn’t like what I saw deep in my heart. But because we had nothing, there was nowhere to hide these feelings. We had to confront them head-on.”

I would never, ever compare my self-chosen journey into minimalism with the story of the Burnham’s. But on the surface, I do recognize some valuable opportunities identified in her story. Namely, as our possessions have been stripped away, we do encounter new heart areas that would not necessarily have been engaged before:

1. Motivations. When we began delivering van loads of things to Goodwill, the first trip was easy – so was the second. But on the third or fourth trip to Goodwill, we began asking ourselves some pretty hard questions such as, “If we didn’t really need this thing in the first place, what was our ulterior motive for purchasing it?”

2. Values. Minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts us from it. To accomplish this journey successfully and intentionality, we were forced early in the process to clearly identify and articulate our most important values and pursuits.

3. Contribution. As we chose to no longer live as consumers, we had to identify what other contributions we would be able to offer this world.

4. Interests. Jules Renard once said, “Being bored is an insult to oneself.” With fewer possessions in my life, I have had fewer places to find cheap entertainment (and consumption). I have learned to engage my mind and creativity in other areas. As a result, boredom is a word that has been removed from my vocabulary.

Done correctly, minimalism is far more than just an outward journey focused on possessions. It is also the ultimate journey inward resulting in valuable self-exploration and self-discovery. And when everything is taken away, we begin to see who we truly are.

Thank you, Gracia, for sharing your story with me/us.

Photo Credit: Oscar E.

Joshua Becker

About Joshua Becker

Writer. Inspiring others to live more by owning less.
Bestselling author of Simplify & Clutterfree with Kids.

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  1. says

    Possessions are the great distraction. They often keep us from becoming all we were intended to be. When we simplify our lives, we can really discover and start living our whys!

  2. says

    How compelling! I think that the less you have, the less you have to hide behind. Well, that is unless you are ashamed of having less. This is probably why it’s easier to choose miminal-scale living than it is to be deprived. However, I think that when you start to weed uneccessary belongs out of your life, you are faced with the uncomfortable truth that you made a mistake in buying or taking in all the stuff you are now getting rid of. IMO, facing the divestiture of your excess belongings is a lot like telling the truth. So many people lie because it’s easier than telling the truth. But if you make honesty your policy, it hurts less and less to be truthful with each lie you refuse to tell. Soon honesty becomes a habit and it no longer stings. But I think that’s why so many people have a hard time leading an honest life — or being honest with themselves (like the person in this story experienced).

    • says

      Wow AlexM, your comment really hit a nerve for me. As I am in the early stages of this process, I do find the ridding of “stuff” while freeing, to be painful in a way. The truth of all that I bought to assage anxieties or to position myself in culture or for entertainment… hard to face it, but worth the experience. I love what you wrote, I think it’s very, very true! I work on being more honest in speech as well, all the little half-truths we pave our days with to make things easier for us, (such as claiming a migraine to get out of an event instead of owning up to not wanting to go) yet we end up deeply discomfited because we are not leading a life of integrity. I had not thought of divesting myself of clutter to be a form of truth telling, but what Joshua wrote and what you commented are very true, less places to hide, more opportunity to be real. I look forward to the day it stings less. :-)

  3. says

    I love #3, because that’s the one I am having a hard time with. What do I do with the time and money that I do have now that I don’t spend it on mounds of clothes, and shoes? How do I ensure I am not just a burden on society? That I am helping people and being valuable. That requires some stringent thinking. And time.

      • says

        It is the Type-A personality in me that believes that the contribution has to feel substantial otherwise it is nothing at all. The all-or-nothing mentality of today. I need to realize every step, little or small counts. I just have to keep telling myself that. :)

  4. Gary says

    2. Values. Minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts us from it.

    Choosing to live with less is dramatically different from being deprived of those items. The operative word is – Intentional – and involves our approving and accepting our choices to keep or remove.
    Deprive: to remove or withhold something from the enjoyment or possession of (a person or persons). Being deprived removes our choice in the action or acceptance.

    According to this article Gracia said, “When everything is taken away, we begin to see who we truly are.” I agree with her that our persona is removed with and when things are taken from us revealing our anima.

  5. says

    While I am deeply saddened by the story of what Gracia and her husband had to experience, I agree with this post entirely. It speaks numbers.

    • Tanyawa says

      sometimes I wonder why she could not have learned the lesson gradually instead of so suddenly and traumatically. It was tragic enough.

  6. says

    What a powerful story. And what a pleasure it must have been to meet with Gracia! Thanks for sharing these great insights. I particularly like your definition of minimalism, which is something I struggle with when friends ask me about it: “Minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts us from it.” Good stuff!

  7. says

    The simplicity of Gracia’s statement is exquisite. I came to this minimalist and simpler way of Life by choice and somewhat by default. What I am learning through living with less is that what I had and Let Go was blocking my way to BEing myself. Truly myself.

    It no longer surprises me when I see the Life I wasted in “stuff & bother.” Yet each day Now I discover a deeper Joy in Life than I ever imagined there BEing.

  8. says

    When my grandmother and my parents died, and my wife moved out, and my sister moved away all in about two years time I was shell shocked and yet…. then I had to sell my home and I couldn’t do my home business anymore so I lost my job, and I had to get rid of all my stuff…. and then the children went to live with their mother…
    All I had left was me….
    it was the best thing that ever happened to me

  9. Erin says

    I was so pleasantly surprised to see this post on Gracia! She is somewhat of a family acquaintance and a bit of a legend in the New Tribes Mission circle (the mission agency my parents were with for many years). I think the most important thing to glean from her story, above her strength and survival above all odds, is that her faith in God is what got her through the darkest and toughest days.
    Thank you so much for this touching post, and for again bringing to light Gracia’s powerful story.
    May God Richly Bless You.

  10. says

    Thank you for sharing that story. The unfathomable is only unfathomable until an individual actually experiences it. I know from experience that unfathomable things can happen and it causes a conflict beween the pull to reduce the “things” in my home and the pull to be careful and frugal and hold on to “things” in case they are needed someday. Did or do you experience a similar struggle?

  11. Ilze Rudaja says

    This post just touched me so deeply. After having a day full of good and bad surprises and reading just the title, I felt like you are talking to me personally. Just today I have been thinking so much how we have to choose not only what possessions we have but how we value our time and with whom we spend it.

    Thanks for sharing, Joshua! I appreciate your insights and blog as such!

  12. says

    Hi Joshua,

    your point about your trips to Goodwill to dispose of your stuff and then asking yourself why you bothered to accumulate all that stuff in the first place resonated with me.

    I did exactly the same thing. I sold my stuff on eBay, took the remainder to the charity bin and the bulky refuse dump. I’ve now gone off travelling with just 30 kilos of possessions – everything I have in the world.

    And you know what? I don’t miss any of that stuff I used to have. On the contrary, it feels like a relief and a great weight off my back not to have any of it.

    I’ve done long term travelling before, but the last time I made the mistake of putting a load of residual possessions in storage. Not any more. I’ve learned my lesson. No need for it. I don’t need “stuff” anymore in my life. I have practically everything I need in my 30 kilos of travel baggage.

  13. says

    “With fewer possessions in my life, I have had fewer places to find cheap entertainment (and consumption). I have learned to engage my mind and creativity in other areas.”

    Once I stopped shopping as a leisure-time activity, I got into digital photography. Now I can get out of the house, explore new places, and come home with something new that cost almost nothing and takes up no space.

    I’d be interested to hear what you, Joshua, or others engage your minds and creativity with.

  14. Trane says

    Of course,but having been raised poor and not having much, and watching people who “had it all “,my most extreme desire was to buy things that I could not afford previously. I actually belived that having material possessions bring about happiness.Well, I now know better! You can never have enough possessions! More is always required. I am now a student of Buddhism and now see the folly in which I sought.


  15. Kara Dolchan says

    I have also gone through the goodwill drop offs and re-evaluated motives (about 2 yrs ago). However, I find because I am more discerning about purchases and items that enter our home, it is more disappointing when something doesn’t work the way I intend and ultimately have to let it go. Example : the counter filing box: to help with paper pile up and keep organize….. Big fail. This is my next hurdle deciding to purchase quality vs aesthetic vs function. Do all three need to be present and how to be okay with accepting the time vs money factor involved In procuring items. ( as in I can spend just as much time researching one item then to have bought a few of that item that are par). Just my inner ramblings.

  16. ian says

    I lost everything through ill health and divorce. My home, my job, contact with ,my children, my sanity, most of my pension and savings. Several years on, and having regained a strong bond with my daughters, I decided to sell my car and replace it with a bicycle . This was one of the best decisions in my continued ( and now chosen ) path to true minimalism.

  17. Layla says

    Wow… stories like these are a whole different order of magnitude than most of ours. It’s super sad that her husband died!

    I have a rather tame and pleasant minimalism story, but once I pared down my life to a manageable amount of things I was completely lost about what I wanted to do with my time! It’s hard sometimes to figure out what I want to fill my day with, but a few insights are starting to emerge and that’s exciting because they are insights into who I really am (rather than someone who amuses herself with TV and sugar).

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