A recurring theme in my life over the past few years has been a gradual realisation of the true cost of earning and owning. I sometimes wonder if an interest in minimalism or simplicity comes across as a shallow pursuit, focussed on the quantity of material possessions we own. From my own experience, and my observation of other writers, there are much deeper issues involved.
For many people who pursue simplicity, minimalism, or frugality, the change in direction has been triggered by a life event, such as a major illness, or a personal or family crisis. For others its a gradual realisation that the stresses and demands of their current lifestyle are not worth the benefits.
The cost of earning a living was presented to me in the form of illness. Illness is a great teacher, but I am a slow student. I struggled with minor health issues and too many sick days throughout my working life, but it wasn’t until I contracted pneumonia, and battled for 12 months with consequent chronic fatigue, that I began to seriously question the viability of my lifestyle. I was working full-time to pay a mortgage for a unit near my work and I would need to continue to work full-time until I was 67 to pay it off. In the meantime, I wasn’t happy or fulfilled, and it seemed like my real life would have to wait until retirement. Even if I was willing to persist with this sorry situation, my health had other ideas, and I simply couldn’t get away with it.
Post-pneumonia fatigue is not so bad if you don’t try to do too much. Resting at home I was able to read and think and write. It was a very rich time for my interior life, in fact it was a much better life than my regular routine. Of course this made me feel very guilty, as I thought I should want to get back to work as soon as possible. Its not a good sign when being sick is preferable to being well.
When I returned to work part-time, I felt that I was able to maintain a reasonable balance between work and pursuing my own interests because I was able to just do my work then switch off. However when I returned to full-time work, and more demanding projects, the balance was lost, and my stress levels and dissatisfaction began to soar. In order to do the job well I needed to focus all of my mental and emotional resources on the projects I was assigned. Such was the complexity of the work that it spilled over into my free time, consuming my thoughts in the middle of the night, in the shower, on the train. I had to watch TV or do other hobbies to switch myself off. Free time was recovery time, and there was little space for creativity.
I began to take on an idea of myself as a person with vulnerable health who didn’t like stress. However I was mistaking the symptoms for the problem. I now think that I am a creative person, who needs time and space for thinking, writing and reflecting. If I don’t have this time, I can’t thrive. I was trying to fit into a lifestyle that couldn’t satisfy me and it was costing me my health and sense of wellbeing. I was focussed on survival, and unable to find time to put into the activities that were going to make life fulfilling and meaningful.
Eventually I decided to sell off my unit. It had some features, such as a tendency to damp, that were contributing to my health problems and living there wasn’t working out. The process of selling and moving out of a unit while recovering from chronic fatigue taught me a lot about the costs of ownership. I had a lot of things that I didn’t need or use and these had to be packed into suitcases and boxes and moved over to my Mum’s garage. Because the unit was so small I had to make multiple taxi trips to remove some of the surplus to be able to show the place to potential buyers, and to make space for further packing. This brought home to me the costs involved in owning, storing, moving and maintaining stuff.
Last year, when I did the great garage clean-up, I was going through all the furniture and boxes that had been dumped in the garage when I fled my unhealthy unit. The were all piled on top of each other so that for a couple of years I could not access a lot of my things. This indicated that I did not need most of it, although I did occasionally want something I couldn’t get to. I donated the big furniture because it was blocking access to everything else and turning the garage into a storage unit. Once that was gone, I paid to have a few things carried upstairs. I went through all the boxes and did the culling I didn’t have the energy to do when I moved. I have kept the essentials incase I want to set up my own place again, but thats just a few small pieces of furniture and some boxes of kitchen stuff and ornaments across the back wall of the garage.
I am very fortunate to be able to live cheaply with my Mum. We help each other out, and this is giving me time with her, and time to explore my own interests. It allowed me to give up work, to travel, and live on my savings while I make the transition to a different model of employment. The situation could change suddenly, and I need to be ready for an uncertain future. I don’t have a clear plan. In some ways I wish I could put in the long hours and rake in the big bucks in a traditional job, but I don’t want to do that if it means I have to sacrifice my health, happiness and creativity. Whatever path I take, its going to involve minimising the costs of earning and owning so that I can maintain my health and wellbeing, and live a meaningful life.
Thanks to Tammy Strobel for the writing prompt that led to this post.