The following is an excerpt from The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything You Own.
In 2008, Memorial Day weekend promised to deliver beautiful weather—not always the case in Vermont at that time of year. So my wife, Kim, and I decided to spend that Saturday shopping, running errands, and catching up on chores. Spring cleaning was our big goal for the weekend, starting with the garage.
Saturday morning dawned, and as Kim and our infant daughter slept on, I got our son, Salem, out of bed early for some eggs and bacon. I thought that after a nice breakfast he might be in a state of mind to help his dad. Looking back now, I’m not sure why I thought a five-year-old would feel eager about cleaning a garage, but nevertheless this was my hope. After breakfast we made our way to it.
Our two-car garage, as always, was full of stuff. Boxes stacked one on top of another threatened to fall off shelves. Bikes were tangled together, leaned against a wall. A garden hose slumped in loops in a corner. Rakes and shovels and brooms leaned every which way. Some days we’d have to turn sideways when getting in and out of our cars to squeeze through the mess that filled the garage.
“Salem,” I said, “here’s what we need to do. This garage has gotten dirty and messy over the winter, so we’re going to pull everything out onto the driveway. Then we’re going to hose down the entire garage, and after it’s dry, we’ll put everything back more organized. Okay?”
The little guy nodded, pretending to understand everything I had just told him.
I motioned to a plastic bin in the corner and asked Salem to drag it out.
Unfortunately, this particular bin happened to be full of Salem’s summer toys. As you can imagine, as soon as my son was reunited with toys he hadn’t seen in months, the last thing he wanted to do was help me clean the garage. He grabbed his Wiffle ball and bat and began heading for the backyard.
On his way out, he stopped. “Will you play with me, Dad?” he asked, a hopeful expression on his face.
“Sorry, buddy. I can’t,” I told him. “But we can play as soon as I finish. I promise.”
With a pang, I watched Salem’s brown head disappear around the corner of the garage.
As the morning crept along, one thing led to another, and the possibility that I would be able to join Salem in the backyard began to look less and less likely. I was still working in the garage hours later when Kim called Salem and me in for lunch.
When I headed back outside to finish the job, I noticed our next-door neighbor June working in her own yard, planting flowers and watering her garden. June was an elderly woman with gray hair and a kindly smile who had always taken an interest in my family. I waved to her and got on with my work.
By this point, I was trying to clean and organize all the stuff I had dragged out of the garage in the morning. It was hard work and taking much longer than I had expected. As I worked, I thought about all the times lately that I had been feeling discontented while taking care of our stuff. Here was yet another time! What made it worse was that Salem kept appearing from the backyard to ask questions or try to convince me to play with him. Each time I’d tell him, “Almost done, Salem.”
June could recognize the frustration in my body language and tone of voice. At one point, as we happened to pass each other, she said to me sarcastically, “Ah, the joys of home ownership.” She had spent most of the day caring for her own home.
I responded, “Well, you know what they say—the more stuff you own, the more your stuff owns you.”
Her next words changed the course of my life. “Yeah,” she said, “that’s why my daughter is a minimalist. She keeps telling me I don’t need to own all this stuff.”
I don’t need to own all this stuff.
The sentence reverberated in my mind as I turned to look at the fruits of my morning labor: a large pile of dirty, dusty possessions stacked in my driveway. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my son, alone in the backyard, still playing by himself. The juxtaposition of the two scenes dug deep into my heart, and I began to recognize the source of my discontent for the first time.
It was piled up in my driveway.
I already knew that possessions don’t equal happiness. Doesn’t everybody? At least we all profess to know that our things won’t bring us true satisfaction. But in that moment, as I surveyed the pile of stuff in my driveway, another realization came to me: Not only are my possessions not bringing happiness into my life; even worse, they are actually distracting me from the things that do!
I ran inside the house and found my wife upstairs scrubbing a bathtub. Still trying to catch my breath, I said, “Kim, you’ll never guess what just happened. June said we don’t need to own all this stuff!”
And in that moment a minimalist family was born.
I have learned a lot about minimalism in the eight years since my garage-cleaning experience. The best of my discoveries appear in The More of Less. Yet the point I will keep coming back to is the same insight I had on that first day: Our excessive possessions are not making us happy.
Even worse, they are taking us away from the things that do. Once we let go of the things that don’t matter, we are free to pursue all the things that really do matter.
“Becoming Minimalist” is an excerpt from The More of Less.
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It’s telling that every time I’ve ever heard the phrase “the joys of home ownership”, it has been sarcastic.
I’ve never heard somebody sarcastically say “ah, the joy of charitable giving.” Hmm.