I recently received this e-mail message from a reader named Amy:
I have become extremely interested in trying to live in a more simplistic manner and I am totally on board with your ideas about spirituality and nature, finding balance and the other things you write about. However, I am totally turned off by two aspects of simple living that I keep finding mention of in other articles I have read. The first is the extreme decluttering or purging that seems to be rampant. The second is the idea of needing to buy everything used. Does a person HAVE to do these things in order to live a simplistic life? I have noticed that you have not written about either and I have wondered if you would share your ideas about this.
Like most other concepts, voluntary simplicity means different things to different people, but I have to agree that for a lot of people, simplicity seems to be centered around purging and decluttering, and these people do advise going through your house and ruthlessly getting rid of everything that “you don’t need”. This practice often starts with children’s toys, then snowballs on to include other items throughout the house. Very little is considered off limits with the sole guideline being that if you’re not using an item on a regular basis RIGHT NOW then you should get rid of it… and somehow these people believe that this purging will create a simpler life.
So what does simplifying really mean? Personally, I don’t think it means to empty your life down to the barest minimums just for the sake of the purge. To me, simplifying means eliminating anything that is a drain on your time, energy and soul while giving nothing back in the way of enjoyment, contentment or peace. Use this idea as your guide when deciding what things (if any) should be purged. It helps to remember that simplification, like frugality, is a tool as well as a goal. The ultimate aim is not to just make your life simple, the goal is to make your life balanced, happy and fulfilled. I don’t understand how throwing away the majority of my possessions or alternatively, giving them away or selling them, could ever accomplish that.
An idea that seems to go hand in hand with purging is the practice of purchasing items second hand at yard sales, garage sales and thrift shops. Ironically, many of the same people who have purged and decluttered their own homes so ruthlessly seem intent on filling them up again with similar items that other people have discarded. On one hand it does sound very frugal to buy everything second hand at prices that are always far lower than you would pay if you bought new, and if the person is happy with their purchase, that is fine with me. However, the blanket condemnation of buying things new is difficult for me to understand. Just because someone wants to be the first owner of a particular item and prefers buying new doesn’t make them materialistic or morally wrong, it just means that they have a different point of view. Having the stewardship of your home means that it is your responsibility to create a home environment that is comfortable, serene, and happy as well as functional. Your home should feel like a haven for you and your family. Anyone whose only aim is to make their house as bare and “simplicistic” as possible is, I think, missing the point.
It goes without saying that relationships are always more important than “things”, but that’s really not what we’re talking about here. I suppose for anyone who likes the bare spartan look, extreme purging may be the way to go. But I think in your e-mail you are asking me if it is OK not to purge if you don’t want to, and my answer is a definite yes. By all means, keep anything that is important to you (whether you “need” it or not) and continue to enjoy the warmth and character it brings to your home and to your newly simplistic life.