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.
Thanks for this article Joshua, and thanks to all the commentors for the discussion. Inspired articles like this are the reason I like to come back to this blog, although I am no longer a beginner at minimalism.
I live in the UK, and I can still see the effects of WW2 rationing on the older generation, many of whom learned to hold tight to their possessions. How much harder it must be for those Europeans who lived through wartime occupation and then communism!
I am aware that sometimes, past experiences can make it harder for us to fully embrace our freedom. I hope and pray that the people of Poland, and all of us around the world, will learn to use our freedom wisely.
Thanks for this very inspiring post. We have a great deal to learn from different cultures
Thank you for sharing this. I have felt for some time that it is important to be conscious of what we own and why we own it. But it’s more than just freeing up space and time to do what is important. It is about being free. This perspective adds an important layer to think about!
As a Polish immigrant who remembers the communist bread lines I must interject with one point of view that has yet to be mentioned. All but the youngest members of my family still feel an overwhelming obligation to NOT throw things away because they can be fixed, reused or repurposed. This inevitably leads to clutter and lots of it. “Don’t throw that old sweater away because there may come a time when we won’t be able to afford a new one if the prices go up.” “It may not be good enough for church but we can wear it while working in the garden.” It is not that they don’t like the principal of minimalism or that they wouldn’t benefit from the lifestyle, it’s just that it’s ingrained in them to hold on to stuff because there may come a time that they will need it. His mentality is so very hard to break.
Am I the only one who rolled her eyes at prizes being given out for fatherhood?
I want t share my mantra:
the money you don’t spins doesn’t need to be earned.
Loved reading this. As a Pole living in London, I appreciate my modest upbringing.
Hard L says
Pablum, as noted by polite Polish posters…and “40” year generations?
Steve Hill says
Very powerful quote from the person who survived Auschwitz and then lived in occupied Poland. Thanks for sharing!
Great article!, except it is generally accepted a generation is 25.5 years, not 40 years.
Great article! Minimalism is the most freeing gift one can give oneself.
I almost cried when I read this. Growing up in East Germany and moved to the US, this resonates so much with me.
Thank you for writing this piece. Some of the content here has been lacking in meaning as of late. This struck me as an important message. The lesson is not just about less stuff. It’s about choosing what’s important. It’s so interesting to see that from the perspective of a country that has a nearly clean slate, in a way. They can choose how to proceed. This example resonated with me. Thank you for sharing. Minimalism is so important.
Donald Duck says
I usually enjoy reading your articles, Joshua
and this one is no exception.
I must remind you (and your readers), though, that the history of Poland as a nation goes back to year 966.
Yes; year nine hundred and sixty-six.
Poles have been a hot-blooded, troublesome and a drunk society,
for most of this time, including today.
The free-market economy over the last thirty+ years has given them the ability to acquire goods with more ease (Before it was done on the “black-market”, but it was always done!).
They are no different to any Western society in their consumerism and the pursuit of status, by owning “things”.
In fact, to a much greater degree, Poles show off and try to outdo each other with personal items of wealth, clothing, cars, equipment,etc.,
as signs of status and achievement, exceeding populations in other countries, because of their huge cultural pride (and vanity).
Unfortunately, their (lower) incomes do not suffice and most try to earn extra, by taking menial jobs abroad. Those who can’t, remain miserable and gloomy. (Have you noticed nobody smiles to other, out on the streets there..?)
I’m glad you enjoyed your stay there.
That’s my 5 cents worth and the third side of the story.
As a Pole, I find it hard to agree with some of the statements you make here.
People do smile on the street and there are still people who will stop and have a chat with you.
Having experienced what Joshua so kindly described, a lot of elderly people are distrustful and I think that deep inside our identity as a nation is still broken.
But I wouldn’t say that for most of our history Poles were hot-blooded drunks. In fact, I think it’s a rather ignorant stereotypic and hurtful comment.
After all, Poland is the second country in the world (and first in Europe) to have had the Constitution. (US 1787, Poland 1791)
There used to be a time when Poland was a place of refuge from the persecution in Europe (In 1573 Polish nobility signed a treaty of unprecedented religious tolerance) Hence Poland was a called a country without stakes.
Not to mention, Copernicus, Maria Sklodowska-Curie, Chopin and many others who changed the course of history.
I do agree, however, that we’re quickly catching up with a very materialistic way of life.
Neighbors Pogrom says
(In 1573 Polish nobility signed a treaty of unprecedented religious tolerance)
Alin Maxon says
I gulped when I started this read since I was concerned that the prototypical over consumption of things by our society, generally, would be a stark contrast to the limits of materialism in a war torn history. This shows how little I know and how wonderful it is to be educated with new perspectives and information.
Thank you for sharing this beautiful series of experiences and the wisdom of the conference leader in foreseeing the risks of over consumption.
Change is not easy – but in this re-tooling of our priorities I can see the long term benefits. Terrific!
Ian Celada says
“To inspire us, both as individuals and as a society, to not use our newfound freedom to acquire further bondage.” – Blown away by this line Joshua. Beautiful post :-)
Amazing story and insight, thank you. I write this from China this morning, and unfortunately Poland is not the only country recently being changed by this mindset.
Dawn Starks says
Terrific post, very enlightening. I also enjoyed Thomas’ comment above. I’m a first time commenter, but long-time reader of yours. I really enjoy your work – books, blog, Uncluttered course. Keep up the good work!
A very powerful article and a new perspective on minimalism.
As I grew up in Eastern Germany, I can relate to what happens to a society that experienced lack in so many ways and then, when the Iron Curtain dropped, had everything available if you only could afford it.
The economy changed but the mindset, our parents grew up with in a destroyed country where they couldn’t afford to throw away something what could have been useful later, did not. So we experienced all the downsides of the plethora of things coming in.
A silent competition started. Material upgrade might be the most adequate term for it. We also bought into it, aquired things, renovated homes, bought new cars and piled up debt, sometimes just to keep up with others.
We became more independent and less interdependent.
And, as a result of this, community and people started to suffer. Some couldn’t afford it and were excluded, neighbours started to compete (my house, my car, my X and my Y) and stopped supporting the community or taking part in civic life. Stress levels increased tremendously and illness like burn out, depression and hypertension, for example, became familiar to us. Some of we have never heard before, sometimes.
To become aware of these downsides makes it possible to change an outdated mindset and to develop a healthy relationship with stuff.
Thanks for sharing, Joshua, and thank’s for your encouraging writing. Keep up the good work!
Aimee Adamec says
Thank you so much for sharing. I appreciate your insights as they are quite valuable and refreshing. I am in the middle of a downsizing move and this was a much needed reminder that I have this unique opportunity to minimize my possessions so I can better live my life. thank you.
Hi Joshua, many thanks for this perspective from Poland. I would be interested to hear more about the minimalism movement in Europe. Tanja
Thoroughly enjoyed this article; what a brilliant perspective. I look forward to reading everything you write, and I’ve truly been inspired by you. Thank you!
Fantastic article! We are traveling in Amsterdam this week and have found that the trinkets and material offerings hold little interest to us. Yet the history and experiences are giving us much more than. We love our home, have worked minimalism into our plan and travel more than we did before with larger, even multiple homes. We do not lack anything and have so much!
Thank you so much for sharing – the history, the hope and future of Poland are good to hear. It is helpful to see minimalism from another perspective.
Very powerful story . We learn a lot from history. Great article!
Great article Joshua! I live with a minimalist intention… I’m not perfect but I do try. Your article got me thinking again about something I’ve wondered in the past… If everyone was a minimalist, wouldn’t our economy collapse? Have you seen examples of prosperous nations that aren’t “consumed” by consumerism? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Thank you for all you do to inspire me and so many others.
May I comment. 1st Travel and tourism is expensive and does a pretty good job feeding the economies. We also support our local areas in the same manor. Travel in our own back yard so to speak. 2nd minimalism is different for everyone. We live with less, but better quality which again keeps our local economy going. To us, minimalism is the freedom to make better choices and truly enjoy how we live. Judging from the crowds we see when traveling, many feel as we do.
Hi Angie, I have also wondered if widespread minimalism might harm the economy. I don’t believe it would. I think humans are highly resourceful, and when enough of us are ready to do so, we can contribute to a compassionate, thriving economy that really serves us rather than the other way around. The economy is really an expression of human culture.
We can start by supporting companies that do business in a way that aligns with our values, if we are able to do so. And by being good citizens and good neighbours, so that we are part of a supportive community. If we create the right conditions through our actions now, we will be able to conduct business in a healthy and responsible manner in the future.
Thanks for the excellent read! As a kid raised in post-communist Poland, I can relate to everything you said. I started writing a comment, which grew into a blog post. Hope it’s okay if I share it here :-)
Amazing Joshua. Happy that you like Poland. Love you blog and books. I have been reading them from the beginning. Love you! Cynthia from Krakow (The best city Poland – saved from bombarding during II WW) currently living in Dublin, Ireland.
As Polish immigrant, on American soil for last 12 years, I want to express my gratitude.
I was hoping for You, Leo Babauta or Joshua and Ryan to visit my mother ship, squeezed between 2 superpowers.
When I left Poland in 2005 after getting my master’s title, ravenous capitalism was roaring louder than communist insanity.
After over a decade under uncle’s Sam arm, distance and time allowed me to compare Monthy Pythonesque scenes of people dressing up and putting on smile #5 for Communist Labor Day March vs Madness of Black Friday sales 6000 miles to the west and 2 decades later.
Members of my family had concentration camps id numbers tattooed on their forearms. They had no choice.
We have choice to not engrave bar codes in our minds.
All the best from Beantown, I hope to see you soon somewhere in New England!
Joshua, this is a stunning post..and perhaps even more so following the horrific week we have had in the USA, where a madman chose to use his freedom and wealth as a means to destroy hundreds of lives. In the face of all that is evil in our world, it is essential to live a life of compassion and meaning, with reverence for each other and for our home, this planet.
Well written article, except it is generally accepted a generation is 25.5 years, not 40 years.
Can I watch your appearance from Poland ?
Oh I didn’t even know you were in Poland. Glad you enjoyed it. I love my country, but I can’t imagine living here forever.
Consumerism hasn’t caught on so much in Poland yet, but it’s on it’s way. The young generation does not want to be different from the cool Western youth. Who knows where it will go… I hope they don’t get consumed by it. I’m glad that you enjoyed Poland!
I enjoyed this article and you encourage me everyday. I even have a Pinterest board dedicated to minimalism with a lot of your articles. I want to encourage people to lean towards minimalism. I wish I heard about this long ago but it is never too late to start. You are a blessing to many, many people.
Christine Hamberger says
Excellent perspective. We say we are “The Land of the Free”, but we are not. We are a land in bondage to our greed for more. Being a minimalist is freedom, and an adventure all in one. Great article! Please keep them coming!
Excellent article. In fact, I think it’s your best one ever. What an amazing and inspiring trip for you to have taken. Thanks so much for sharing it with all of us. God bless you.
Joy Nelson says
Very powerful and inspiring perspective!
Joanne Czarnik says
This was truly an excellent article that I thoroughly enjoyed as my husband’s grandparents came here from Poland and worked so very hard!! I really realize how very materialistic our society and I am learning I was very drawn into it and “bought” into it!! As I have gotten older, my priorities have definitely changed and I can see the true beauty of minimalism! Thank you for your books and great articles!!!
I am so glad you keep encouraging us on a regular basis. Your blog is the only one I return to every week for years. I don’t read any other blogs on a regular basis. Thank you for choosing not to be discouraged by nay sayers, even on here. You are doing good important work.
Michael Wireman says
That is a very inspirational account of your visit.
Mary Prise says
Great story. My observations from visiting Sweden 3x while my daughter taught art in an international school were much the same as the stories you heard. She lived in Sweden for one year but was very careful to enjoy the experience & not clutter her life with stuff. As a teacher I enjoyed watching the family interactions. It was very noticeable that fathers took their time off with children equally as often as mothers. Thanks for sharing.
We each have special gifts to share with others that help us make the world a better place. You have a unique message to share and I appreciate your thoughts. They are a reminder to focus on the truly important things or people in my life. Keep growing and please continue to share.
Sarah M says
What a powerful story. Thank you for that.
I enjoyed reading this post of yours. Such an enriching experience you shared with the world! Thank you!
Derek Van Tonder says
Hi Joshua what a moving and powerful piece of writing. Thank you.