A Holy Message Learned from the Minimalist Lifestyle
At age 27, Joshua Fields Millburn was the youngest director of operations at a large telecom business in the Midwest. He had it all: a six-figure salary, a powerful job that came with a prestigious title, a wife, and a dream house with closets bursting with stuff. This privileged lifestyle came with some sacrifices though: 80-hour workweeks, high stress, and the feeling of being trapped in the vicious cycle that consumerism inevitably creates.
In 2011, Joshua’s boss asked him to figure out how to close eight retail stores and lay off 41 workers. There was one thing that Joshua’s boss did not anticipate when he passed this responsibility onto his prize employee: the wheels in Joshua’s mind had been turning for the past two years, searching for answers to the questions most of us ask when we are looking for fulfillment that we just can’t seem to feel.
Two years prior to being asked by his boss to lay off workers, within the span of one month his mother passed away and his marriage ended. Joshua began to ask himself about what his life stood for and where it was going. He felt trapped and weighed down by the demands of his job. All the “stuff” he had accumulated was a reminder of the price he had paid for the lifestyle he was living.
Joshua decided to take bold steps to clear his life of the “clutter” standing between him and that nagging sense of lack of fulfillment. He gave his boss a list of the names of the 41 employees he had been asked to lay off and included a 42nd name: his own.
He then chose to embrace a life of minimalism. Within eight months, he decreased his spending and buying of what he considered to be frivolous items, gave away many of his possessions, and downsized to a one-bedroom apartment.
His longtime friend and co-worker Ryan Nicodemus commented to him that he noticed how Joshua had changed. For once, Joshua was happy. He explained that it was due to his new minimalist lifestyle. Ryan was moved and inspired to emulate his friend’s lifestyle. He experienced the subtle yet powerful internal longing to find the secret of true fulfillment.
Joshua and Ryan launched a website about their journey called TheMinimalists.com, and published a book called, “Everything That Remains.”
Ryan and Joshua’s noble efforts to live a simpler life is reminiscent of Hillel’s teaching in the timeless work “Ethics of the Fathers”: The more material stuff one has, the more anxiety and worry one will have as well.
“Ethics of the Fathers” also mentions another idea that embodies one of the greatest moral values a person should aspire to. It says what is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours.
In a masterpiece of a book I often read to my own children called, “Super Social Skills: Helping Kids with the Basics” by S. Licht, this idea is quoted, translated, and then represented in the form of a story of a little boy who begs his friends to share their snacks with him, but ignores the snacks in his own bag. He goes home dirty, sticky, and with a tummy ache from overindulging on his friends’ snacks. He has a sheepish look on his face when his mother finds out what he did.
Ideas from “Ethics of the Fathers” teach us how to become the ultimate givers. By always looking to share what we have and never looking to take from others, we can gain a sense of fulfillment. We can fulfill that urge that constantly nags each and every human being when they are not necessarily living their life in a way that brings them the truest joy.
Joshua and Ryan are to be commended for discovering one of the secrets that creates that ultimate sense of fulfillment. They have transformed themselves into givers and dedicated their lives to spreading the word to others about how they too can cultivate this fulfillment by living a minimalist lifestyle.
However, they missed an incredibly important point. Everything we own or have, including our jobs, our talents, our families, our spouses, our cars, our houses, and so on, are gifts we can use to fulfill our personal spiritual mission in this world. They are tools and privileges rather than rights and “what I deserve.” They have been given to us and can be taken away at any time.
It is incumbent on us to constantly reflect on the lifestyle choices we are making, and whether or not we are using these possessions properly. That nagging sense of “I am not fulfilled!” is our soul’s way of trying to communicate to us that we have gone in the wrong direction and need to shift gears and change course.
Though it is commendable to live with less materialism, it can in some cases confuse us with the job we are actually supposed to be doing. I know stories of incredibly wealthy people who use their money and possessions to fund all kinds of amazing charitable causes. They use their enormous homes to hold charity auctions or host sleeping and eating arrangements for poor people who have nowhere else to go.
Many of them do this anonymously as well, without the desire to receive credit. They blend the idea of minimalism with the idea that material items can be in one’s possession and used to build a better, richer world. Materialism in our world can be used for the ultimate sense of fulfillment we all long for.
Tamar Shtrambrand lives in Monsey, NY with her husband and three children. She wears a variety of hats (and wigs :-)), including
homeschool mom, freelance writer, adjunct professor at Rockland Community College, and clinical psychology doctoral intern at CAPS at Bikur Cholim.