As I have been thinking both about what to replace (unhealthy) shopping with, and what makes an adequate or smart purchase, I have been pondering the question of the place of objects in my simplified life. If minimalism is about shifting values and priorities - away from material possessions and toward growth, relationships etc., does it mean objects have no importance at all?
A few days ago, I entered my silver-by-the-weight shop, where a thought-provoking event happened. This shop specializes in silver and semi-precious natural stone jewelry - pendants, rings, earrings and bracelets made of turquoise, cornelian, quartz, amethyst, ox-eye... - and housed a significant reduction last week-end, to make room for the Christmas season's collection, I suspect.
Among the clients, there was a woman, who seemed to have been looking around for bargains for a while, necklaces and bracelets on a counter, when she saw a quite big, and expensive, necklace. She had to have it "such a beautiful piece", and wanted to pay it by card "so it can be debitted next month". Only, the card machine didn't work quite properly.
That's when I was left quite in wonder. She wasn't aggressive or unpleasant, but she was... frantic, giving them several cards to try. From the body language, the short breath, the quick movements, there was a sense of urgency, as if she was bargaining food for her children. Yet she was trying to pay for a necklace she couldn't afford this month, and which she didn't even know existed ten minutes prior. I reminded me of all these awful news we hear from the other side of the atlantic after Black Friday. People battling for objects as if their life depended on it.
And, paradoxally, what happens to these objects later? I will never know if this woman will wear and cherish her necklace for the years to come, but I've read many stories of untouched items, price tag still on, at the back of a closet, while the person is frantically making their next bargain at the department store.
The Importance of AcquisitionIn minimalist literature, it is often said that the consumerist society gives too much importance to material items. And this uncanny scene of the woman with the necklace in my jewelry shop could be a proof of that. Buying objects to show off a certain image, social status...
But, I don't think consumerism gives importance to objects. Because once bought and shown off, they are forgotten and replaced by the desire for a new acquisition. The desire to acquire never ends, as shopaholics, for the most extreme example, can attest. When you look at a "regular" Western home today, I'm not sure every single object looks like it is important, and well taken care of.
So may I present you my alternative theory: I think that, in a consumerist society, it is the acquisition of new objects that is important, more than the object itself, once acquired. This woman was frantic about acquiring a new necklace at 40% off. Of course, this is a general idea, and she might cherish it until the end of her days and pass it on to her daughter. But how many times have I, myself, given a lot of thought, time, energy to crafting a wishlist, looking for the perfect addition to my closet, interior or bookshelf, only to move on to the next wishlist once the object acquired? I have always been careful with my possessions so the object was well taken care of after purchase, but it wasn't "important" anymore, the prospect of the next acquisition was.
In a simple life, it is the importance of acquisition that diminishes, above all. At least in my opinion, I find the main benefit of simplifying my life has been to mind less about wishlists and shopping trips, freeing more time for other things. And also, to never have that sense of urgency when you realize that you may not be able to acquire this object after all.
The Place of Objects in a Simple LifeSo, if the acquisition of new objects is less important in a simple life, what about the place of objects themselves, the ones you already own? The whole point of my shopping fast, item-wise, is to increase the "use" part of the consumerist cycle - meaning, making the most of what I already own and slow down both acquisitions and purges.
That's when I realized that, contrary to what common "minimalist wisdom" may suggest, material items are not unimportant. On the contrary, it is about cultivating gratitude for the moments we spend, the objects full of stories that we own and make our life more joyful. Ever since I've slowed down my purchases three years ago, acquired fewer new things, I've been more careful about my items. I've taken better care of them, organized them in a more practical way, and always made a point for my items to be adequate - the proper quality and characteristics to meet my needs.
I find that the importance of items is double: the utilitarian importance, of having an object that fulfills its job flawlessly - mainly because you have few objects and don't look at replacing the ones you have any time soon. Then there is the life improvement importance - a nice teacup which makes your morning coffee more joyful, a luxurious cashmere cardigan, soft and warm, which makes your outfit comfortable and elegant. So you'd be picky about what you surround yourself with - useful, or joyful items, there wouldn't really be a place for a cheap approximation if it creates daily annoyances.
Finally, there are the stories an object tells. In my version of a simple life, I have fewer objects and make fewer acquisitions, but they are more meaningful. Purchases I have pondered, saved for, looked forward to. Objects that have a meaning - a present from a loved one, a souvenir from a travel, a hand-made object for which I met and talked to the craftsman. In a way, simplicity gives back to the object, the creator and the craftsmanship its due importance, instead of just buying cheap crap to be disposed of without a thought.
But These are Only ObjectsI think that, when the minimalist literature says objects aren't important anymore, it's because they mean "compared to your loved ones, your objectives, your growth". And I agree that in that sense, there is a shift of priority - it isn't that important to curate the perfect collection of items.
I have noticed that, in the transitional period between full-blown consumerism and progressing at living a simple life, there is a shift of obsession, from acquiring a lot of objects and accumulating, to an obsession of curating the perfect collection. I have seen it on blogs and articles, and I have lived it myself. Maybe because the shift of priorities is still ongoing at that time?
But, in the end, even if objects are not unimportant, in the way that a simple person wants to surrounds themselves with useful and joyful objects, they aren't a top priority in life either. When something breaks down or a new need arises, you'll spend a reasonable amount of time looking for the best option for a replacement, and stop your research as soon as you found an adequate option (as opposed to looking at all the options to make sure you found the perfect object). Then you'll move on to other activities.
In a way, objects are tools, and, if carefully selected at the start to be adequate, they make your life easier and improve your every day moments, but "silently". Meaning, you don't have to think about them constantly. You don't have to think about how to maintain them, or will the cat destroy them, you won't get angry because your friend's child broke a vase: it's only an object. In a way, what matters is the moment, as improved by the object, rather than the object itself.
The second aspect of objects being "tools", is that they don't define you, your identity, cultural background or social status. They are here to fulfill a role (which can be only to make your interior more beautiful), make your life easier and more joyful, but you don't consider them as an extension of who you are - they do not raise above their condition of "objects" in your priorities.
In Summary...In a simple life, you grant more value to the objects you surround yourself with - selecting them carefully, valuing the time and craftsmanship necessary to create them, picking items that do the job best - but the objects themselves and your collection of items are not a high priority - in the sense that you don't spend that much time curating and making wishlists and maintaining your collection, and you don't get a heart attack if something breaks. And you don't get frantic if your credit card doesn't work when purchasing a necklace you can't afford.
To take the coffee cup as a concrete illustration, I would buy a hand-made coffee cup from a craftsman on a market over a cheap Ikea one, I would take good care of it, and I would be satisfied with owning only one cup of coffee. I would value this cup as the result of the craftsman's work, but it doesn't define me as "a savvy shopper", it's just a coffee cup. I would enjoy my morning coffee time before going to work, because that's what matters. If the cup breaks, I'd be annoyed but it wouldn't be the end of my world, because the morning coffee time still exists, I just need to find another tool (a new cup) from now on.
Does it make sense? This is the kind of abstract article in which I'm not sure how clear my ideas are exposed. What do you think? How important are objects in your life, and what do you aim to achieve?