Earlier this week, I spoke in Warsaw on the topic of minimalism. It was at a conference of 1,000 fathers from a number of European countries. But most men in attendance were from the host country, Poland.
It was, as you might imagine, fascinating.
On Friday evening, my wife and I attended a gala honoring some leaders of the Fatherhood Movement in Poland. There was recognition offered for individuals, industry leaders, and government officials—all of which, in one way or another, were committed to building stronger families in the war-torn nation.
At dinner, I met a man named Piotr (pronounced: Peter) who would serve as our translator for the evening. Piotr is my age and teaches English in the schools. Other than conversations with organizers of the conference, Piotr was the first to offer me a glimpse into daily life in Poland.
Forgive me if you know the historical details already, but here’s a snapshot into Poland’s recent past. It’ll be important.
Germany’s march into Poland during September of 1939 served as the beginning of WWII. German armies traveled east into Poland while the Soviet Union advanced west. By the end of 1939, after the conquest, many of the Polish intelligentsia, noblemen, clergy, and teachers were killed by the Germans in an attempt to completely destroy Poland’s identity as a nation.
The entire territory was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union—an agreement between Hitler and Stalin to not advance any further. Hitler would break that treaty in 1941 in hopes of eventually defeating Russia (he didn’t). And Warsaw would feel the full brunt of his decision being tossed back and forth between the two superpowers.
By 1945, the city of Warsaw had been entirely destroyed. First, by the Germans. And then again, by the Russian army as they marched west to occupy the city and defeat the German army. To this day, Warsaw is called the “City of Memorials” as there is not a single street in Warsaw that did not see death during World War II. The city’s prewar population of approximately 1.3 million had been reduced to 150,000.
And if you think 1945 was a long time ago, you would be mistaken. If a generation lasts 40 years, many of the fathers I met at the conference last weekend are the sons of the men and women who were almost entirely eradicated during World War II and grew up with a difficult family life because of it.
But history does not end there. It continues. Following World War II, much of Poland’s land was given to the USSR, the entire country was put under Soviet influence. Poland would continue to exist under rule of the Communist Party until 1989. It wasn’t until 1991 that Poland’s transition from a communist party rule to a Western-style democratic political system would be completed. And with it, a free-market, capitalism-based economic system.
1991 sounds much more recent. But again, it may be closer than you realize. I mentioned earlier that Piotr, my translator and dinner companion, is roughly the same age as me, with kids back at home the same age as mine. However, very different than me, Piotr grew up in a Communist country and vividly recalled for us looking out his apartment window as a child watching bread lines gather outside the corner store. His childhood was very different than mine.
25 years ago, these men were living in a Communist country. Today, their reality in a free-market, capitalist economic system is very different.
And into this environment, I was invited to present the benefits and the invitation of minimalism. A task I do not take lightly.
Many in the audience could relate to my story of how possessions begin to distract us from meaning and happiness and fulfillment. I have spoken in numerous countries around the globe on this topic and found the message resonates wherever I go. Many would nod their head at the notion of closets too crammed and garages filled with excess possessions.
However, given the historical, political, and economic realities of this audience, I concluded the conversation from a new vantage point. Poland is not a nation that is over-steeped in conspicuous consumption… at least not yet, but personal disposal income continues to rise.
My message for the men in attendance that day? Take every advantage of your freedoms and entrepreneurial opportunities. However, in so doing, do not lose sight of the things that matter most. And keep your passions centered on pursuits that matter in the long run.
Following my presentations on Saturday, I sat down with the organizer of the event over dinner. A lovely meal surpassed only by the lovely company. Darek, the organizer of the conference, shared his appreciation with me for coming. More importantly, I was able to hear more about the important work his organization is doing in Central Europe building stronger families and healthier societies.
He asked me for my impression of his country. I told him it was beautiful and filled with rich history and examples of human resiliency. I also spoke to him about my conversations with Piotr—Poland’s past and its trajectory into the future.
And this is where, I think for maybe the first time, the importance and weight of the message of minimalism began to weigh on me even heavier than before.
“Joshua, can I tell you more about why I invited you here today,” Darek responded with a measured tone. From across the table, I could tell he was debating whether or not to share with me what he was thinking.
“Of course, please do.”
He began to answer, “When I was younger, I had an important mentor. He was a survivor of Auschwitz who would live almost his entire existence in an occupied Poland—first by the Germans and then by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.”
“This man once made an observation to me I have never forgotten. After a trip he had taken to Western Europe, he pulled me aside and said,
‘I have come to realize that materialism holds people captive in many the same ways Communism does. Communism, by force, seeks to destroy personal identity. Materialism does the same. But materialism destroys personal identity by choice.’
“And that is why I wanted you here today. To inspire us, both as individuals and as a society, to not use our newfound freedom to acquire further bondage.”
In that moment, I realized he was right.
Minimalism is an important message. It frees up our most important resources to pursue things that matter. In this way, it is a very personal decision. One that I will continue encouraging each person to consider with their lives. Own less stuff, live more life. My mantra will remain the same.
However, let’s remember, this is not just a personal decision. This is also a societal movement that must be advanced and pushed forward. Minimalism is not just about regaining personal passion, it is about establishing a new identity—both as individuals and as a society.
Freedom is a gift. But our freedom is only as valuable as what we choose to pursue with it.