All the shiny products, or just a simple bar of soap?
June 1, 2013 4:45 AM   Subscribe

How do you deal with competing desires to track and have things, histories, libraries (bookmarks, favorites, notes, saved emails, filled-up calendars, etc) and yet also be unattached and minimalist (get rid of things, be unhindered, untraceable, simple and de-cluttered)?

I suppose it's about finding balance, but I never seem to be satisfied with whatever I settle on for very long. I vascillate between wanting (and working on) a very open, public, catalogued/documented life full of nice collections and (also putting energy into) a very reserved, private and fleeting, in-the-now one with just the basics. I find it equally satisfying to have a referenceable history (say, years of saved online bookmarks and tracked music listening history) and a clean slate (paring down and/or deleting accounts/histories, wardrobes, things I own). Am I to accept a constant cycle of clearing out and building anew? I enjoy change, but lately I find this loop exhausting, prompting this self-reflection. How do you reconcile these two competing motivations?

I notice I tend to do this with many things, contact lists, fridge contents, files and photos, public vs. private settings/availability on social media, going out a lot vs. staying in for long stretches, journaling every day vs. intentionally abandoning the book for weeks at a time, you get the picture. Is this normal behavior/thinking, or a sign of a bigger issue?

I'm already big on mindfulness and self-help/self-care and am generally well-adjusted, busy with hobbies/activities and relatively happy despite some current (manageable but unfun) life challenges.
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (16 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
To me, they don't seem like competing desires but symptoms of a personality which wants control over every aspect of their life (not in a bad way).
posted by 0 answers at 5:14 AM on June 1, 2013

It sounds to me, at first glance, like there might be a bit of an imbalance between who you naturally are, and how you'd like the world to see you.
posted by gjc at 5:26 AM on June 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am quite hesitant to ever suggest anything resembling religion to another person, but one thing that has helped me the most in this sort of lifelong vacillation of extremes is my interest in Taoism. Balance in all things, even balance in balance. It's helped me come back from highs and lows of mental fancy with its unfailing steadiness. And I suppose it's helped me a lot in providing validation for my imperfection.

The things you describe in your question sound like the regular challenges of a modern life. Some people are more aware of them than others, and want to control them. 0 answers' answer (good username!) points to this - I think they are not competing desires either; instead both coming from the same part of you. You can try to control some things - objects you own, organizing experiences, where and how you live - but you simply can't control others without breaking away from society in a way that is unhealthy - your contacts, your history, your relationships. It seems you've acknowledged that it's futile to go all the way in either direction.

For me, it helps to see things in a constant state of change. I can never be still, because I am alive. So there is never a perfect state of being that I can achieve and remain active in reality. All I can do is continually reflect on what I need to handle in the moment, and then try my best to handle it. Sometimes what I need is to get rid of something, sometimes what I need it to get something. Ascribing a moral component to these needs is a great way to make myself nuts. Allowing myself to be incomplete and imperfect keeps me from veering to one extreme or the other, but that doesn't mean I'm not striving towards one thing or the other at any given moment. It's just that reality causes me to stop and switch. And that's good, that's okay.
posted by Mizu at 5:37 AM on June 1, 2013 [11 favorites]

For me, easy: you get old and Stuff means a lot less
posted by Postroad at 5:48 AM on June 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Folders. Put things in folders.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:07 AM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, if you have an iPhone, put your browser, email, and Facebook into a folder called Anti-social, then turn off everything in the notification center.

Then it's all a matter of willpower.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:09 AM on June 1, 2013

So when you get, or become, or become associated with, "too much" you get anxious and have to get rid of it. (the clearing out seems to be an Undoing of the accumulating, a "defense" against it).

So what's the anxiety about? (nobody here can tell you, because we don't know you)

(and that's how you want it)

(I am not your therapist)
posted by DMelanogaster at 6:09 AM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am a self-proclaimed minimalist although I still have a lot to get rid of in my life. The moral aspect that Mizu mentioned is important to highlight, I think. I once felt like not owning quite as many physical objects made me a "better person" - now I just feel like, hey, it just makes me lighter and happier. That doesn't mean it's the right choice for everyone, and it doesn't make me better than someone who holds on to everything. It is just a way that we differ.

That said, one thing that I do still think about when I am deaccessioning items from my personal life is "would someone else get better use out of this than I?" It's not my only criterion I use, but it is one. Other things I think about are the size of the item (so a lot of your things are infinitesimally small, like online bookmarks and your listening history) and the other costs associated with keeping it. Does it need maintenance? How often? Do I have another thing that serves the same or a similar purpose?

The other thing is yeah, it is a bit of a cycle. Sometimes I feel like getting rid of a lot, other times I want to acquire things. It helps me to be mindful when I purchase things ("Do I own something close enough to this at home?") and also to remove one comparable thing whenever I buy (e.g. If I get a new book, I need to put one on paperbackswap or in my donation box). I also always have a donation box for our local version of Goodwill in my closet, which makes this process easier. If I do it right away, I've found that I never get to the level of "too much stuff".
posted by k8lin at 6:35 AM on June 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

First, I try to see things that take up physical space (closet full of clothes) differently from things that don't (board full of clothes on Pinterest.) I know this is a practical distinction and your question is more philosophical, but if you figure out why you want to be unencumbered, and why you want to collect things, you might find it's not always a contradiction and you don't have to be all one way or all the other. So to use that example, I give away clothes as much as I can because I want to be able to move all my physical belongings easily and I don't like clutter. But I save images of clothes for future reference, and as a (silly, perhaps) sort of creative expression. For you it might be totally different, like if you want to be pared down because your priority is online privacy, but you have no desire to be able to pack quickly, that's a different set of answers.

Continuing with the practical side, I often want to give away all my clothes and start over but a) I don't have the $ for a whole new wardrobe, and b) finding clothes that fit is hard for me, so that would be stupid. And that can be applied in various ways to everything else you mentioned - will saving or not saving something cause you real life problems? That should come first.

On the less practical side, I think some of this has to do with trust. My laptop died recently and I lost a few years worth of Favorites. Which in a way meant many of the thoughts, ideas, and plans I'd had over the last few years were gone. There's nothing I can do about it, so I just have to trust that if any of them were worthwhile, I'll remember them again. I'm not good at things like trust, faith, etc, but I think that's what it is. Do you trust that you won't miss the music you delete in 5 years? Do you trust that you'll always be able to replace what you lost, or that it won't matter that you've lost it?

Also I think the way you've paired up private/minimalist with public/stuff-saving is...arbitrary. Not to criticize your thought process, but I guess I'm saying it doesn't have to be that way. You could be a friendless, internet-less hermit who hoards and documents everything, or a completely open person who lives entirely in the present and saves nothing. The categories you've established around this whole thing might be more malleable than you're currently thinking of them.

(Sorry that turned out really freakin long.)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 6:36 AM on June 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

i think a good balance is to have a clean slate to work on for what you're interested in currently but not to repeat your experiences by erasing history completely. so keep a solid record of the past, neatly tucked away and available for reference - this should clear enough space out to live fully in the present without clutter.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 6:56 AM on June 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

It will help you to have a taxonomy. Many things represent our history & growth, and can be curated and saved in a way that's not very cluttered. In my house, we have 'memory boxes'. Some parts of your history represent negativity and discarding them is a way to cast off burdens (angry letters, stuff from bad relationships). It's the same with online stuff - there is no one-size-fits-all rule, you have to have a sense of where your privacy boundaries lie, and apply them thoughtfully.

You sound like a curious interesting/interested person. I admire a person who journals every single day, and then I read the blog and a lot of it is dull. I admire the free spirit until I get stuck with the mundane chores of making life work. Your vacillation has a slight hint of Attention Deficit, literally, difficulty trouble keeping the attention focused. Meditation and a rigorous approach to organization are very useful for everybody, and especially for people who have attention issues.

I never seem to be satisfied with whatever I settle on for very long. Your post suggests that your goals for yourself are unclear. It's okay to have a goal that is ridiculous, like saving the world. I'd like you to accomplish it, but it's not actually an accomplish-able goal. But having a lofty goal or 5, having and knowing your values, is a way of knowing what your true compass points are, and gives you an internal support structure.
posted by theora55 at 7:52 AM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have these competing desires too. I haven't yet found the right homeostasis for me either, but I will mention that cataloging the books I read in Goodreads has allowed to me to physically get rid of many of my books (I donate them to the library which has a small bookstore that helps fund it.) This allows me to feel light and mobile while also giving me the ability to look up the name of a forgotten book.
posted by bluecore at 8:38 AM on June 1, 2013

I think the big payoff is in the act of "clearing" everything (histories, email, closets etc). For me, this is the only upside to allowing things to accru over time. I used to maintain things at a pretty spartan level all of the time. Reading your question, I realize that, for me, the experience of getting everything back under control after a spell of not being able to keep up with my particular control-freakery was more satisfying than the experience of maintaining control over everything all of the time. It feels good to hit a button and clear histories just like that. It feels good to donate a bunch of bags of clothing all at once. Much better than a more constant kind of maintenance/editing would on a daily basis, I think.
posted by marimeko at 9:13 AM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

To me, this is an artistic problem. In one of her New Yorker essays-- which may have also been a book excerpt-- Janet Malcolm talks about how the real challenge of writing is not coming up with ideas, but identifying the really interesting material amid the welter of possibilities that always exist. Sorry, I can't find that essay online right now; like a lot of Malcolm's writing, it's kind of weird and inappropriate; she describes the messy, cluttered kitchen of people who have invited her to lunch. This violates the usual guest-host norms but I think it is a great metaphor for how writers work.

It's a real dilemma. You never know, when choosing to discard something, whether it could have been the core of something interesting. It's at the moment of discarding things that the randomness of your decisions, and the risk involved, becomes very obvious.
posted by BibiRose at 9:22 AM on June 1, 2013

It sounds like you might need more "meaning" or purpose or a larger goal, bigger challenge, worthy quest. What you describe sounds like it has an element of boredom. A lot of bright people whose lives work okay (insofar as they make at least a middle class income, their personal life isn't some kind of private hell, etc) do a lot of things out of boredom and restlessness, in an attempt to adequately occupy their time and their mind.

My big quest I to get well when that is supposed to be unattainable. Decisions on what to keep and what and when to ditch things are mostly driven by questions relating to how it impacts my health (and this is a constant, daily thing -- spartanism is one of the cornerstones of what I am doing to control germs, etc). Since there is a concrete, larger goal which is sufficiently challenging, I have an objective standard for determining what the right decision is. Even if I make small errors, as long as that larger goal is on track, it's all good. So I no longer sweat the small stuff.

If you don't have some big personal issue worthy of Quest status, hey, start a company, take a year off to do a mission to a third world country, set out to save the whales, yadda. Whatever floats your boat. We are all dust in the wind anyway. No point in playing it too safe and enduring perpetual boredom and frustration.
posted by Michele in California at 10:54 AM on June 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

Realize very few people actually care about your carefully-curated public-facing tastes because they're too busy worrying about curating their own public-facing tastes. I have a friend who's obsessed with making sure, say, the stuff Spotify shows on her Facebook wall is carefully managed so she looks like a hip, cutting-edge indie chick. She told us this once and none of us even remembered what she listened to. All those hours and all that energy/anxiety wasted, you know?

As for the collections, when you die--which admittedly may be a ways off--very, very few people are going to appreciate them for what they are. Mostly, they're one more thing to throw away or sell. I say that as someone who lost several relatives in the past few years and aside from a few sentimental things that really mattered to individual relatives, most of it went in the dumpster or to somewhere we could turn it into money. Nobody went "Oh, grandpa had the most interesting collection of zany ties." It was more "So who wants all these weird ties in their house?" It's just stuff to everyone else.

For me, I moved around a lot when I was younger so most of my stuff got thrown out and I still look at things with the cold, unfeeling eye of someone who has space for 3 boxes, 6 boxes worth of stuff, and we needed to be on the road 2 hours ago, so fuck all that sentiment and angst. I save what's irreplacable for sentimental--a memento from a professional project or beloved relative, a souvenir from a trip or vacation--or other--a book I spent 5 goddamn years looking for, a very rare limited edition of a favorite movie that only had 1000 copies made--reasons. The rest is just stuff that I can take or leave.

What's also helped is watching how much stuff controls other people's lives. I have friends who've had great opportunities in other cities come up and they couldn't take them because the sheer cost, both time and financial, of moving their 8 semi-trailer loads (seriously!) of crap would've been too much. Not me, man. I like the stuff I have but I can at any point throw everything I care about in the back of my car and move on. I value that freedom much more than any object.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:26 PM on June 1, 2013 [10 favorites]

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