The Kindness of Emptiness

Each Sunday, a task pops up on my to-do list to “goodwill or trash something.“ And, y’know, I feel like writing about that.

Surprise! This is a blog post about minimalism. I’m very self conscious about being a huge cliche. Seriously, let’s take a quick cliche inventory for minimalism writing:

  • Indie blog? Check.
  • Disposition to disparage material things? Check.
  • Hints of an underutilized liberal arts degree? Check check check.
  • Black turtleneck?


Okay, but why am I so skeptical of being an Internet minimalist blogger? I think my wariness comes from how easy it is for such writing to spiral into caustic cynicism railed against material things.

To explain, let me tell you about my relationship with stuff.

I’m no stranger to the binge-purge cycle of “hey, I think a 3-in-1 hygrometer-barometer-thermometer would be pretty nifty, thanks Amazon!” that makes for a nonstop stream of <$20 nicknacks arriving on my step until something snaps. Suddenly I have to move, or I’m just overwhelmed with all the stuff around me and then comes the fiery purge of 14 garbage bags to abruptly relieve the constipation of material accumulation.

I rinse and repeat this cycle through the rapid fire move-ins and move-outs of college and then unironically guzzle anti-consumerist media. Suddenly I’m uncharitably roiling with fury against possessions, describing them as “burdensome tat that accumulates to fill every space in one’s life, suffocating the mind and soul.”

Yikes. Slow down there miss liberal arts education. Look around you. There are plenty of things in your life that don’t suffocate your soul! Just look at this material possession:

Yeah. You can’t look into those eyes and call them tat.

And what about this thingamajig:

It’s that thing that doesn’t actually do anything but you keep because it really caught your attention as a child and it still feels special in a way you cannot explain.

Or hey, how about this literal actual rock:

It’s a rock. But it looks pretty. And the blend of warm earthen grey and icy blue sure does remind you of home.

On the same windowsill we have these things:

You hold onto them because they remind you of playing with your brother.

Things themselves aren’t evil, but I do want to acknowledge the truth in the feelings that make me cynical about them. Having too much stuff for me is stifling. Clutter makes me stressed. When I was depressed, the junk on my floor got knee deep. I don’t want to live like that.

So how do I practice some degree of minimalism without loathing things to the point that I turn on all the nice stuff above?

My advice to myself is: Don’t loathe things. Instead, value open space.

There is a gentle kindness to an empty desk, shelf, or countertop. It breathes with opportunity, inviting you to make of it what you will. An empty desk is an invitation to write, to sew, or even to do your professional work. A desk busy with things is limited. Fill a desk with job trinkets, and it no longer affords the mind with the open potential to do anything other than work.

Open space has value in that it invites one with the opportunity to play, express, create. Open space invites you to imagine. When you say things suffocate you, this is what you mean. It isn’t that the things are bad. It is that your heart yearns for the whimsy of emptiness.

When I acknowledge this, the weekly “get rid of 1 thing” task starts to make a lot of sense. It invites me to walk through my home and to look over my things. Without malice, I can ask “does this thing bring me more value than the empty space it takes?” If the answer is no, then I may kindly allow it to leave my life. This way, instead of the furious 14 garbage bag purge, I allow for a gentle flow of objects through my life. My home is allowed to breathe with open space for interests to bloom and perhaps to fade, and then to leave and allow their space for something else. Each week I do not think of how I will remove a thing. I think of how I will gain a small patch of happy emptiness.

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