Monday, July 31, 2017

Book Review: Everything That Remains

Recently I had a chance to watch a film called Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things.  The movie follows two friends, Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus, as they travel around the U.S. to promote their memoir Everything That Remains (see trailer below).

Who are these dudes, and why should we care about their story?

Joshua Field Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus
(Image from their site The Minimalists)

Joshua and Ryan are a couple of Midwestern guys who grew up poor, so they devoted their early adult years to climbing the Corporate Ladder, becoming well paid executives, and buying expensive stuff (lots of stuff) to reward themselves for their onerous toil at the office.

Sometimes they spent so much money that, despite their large paychecks, they went into debt (thousands of dollars into debt).  But hey, as long as the money was rolling in, life appeared hunky dory on the surface, so they continued to live the American Dream with panache.

Tragic events, however, force us to reevaluate, which is what happened to Joshua.  In a single month, his mother died, and his marriage fell apart.  He found himself alone, surrounded by mountains of material things that didn't make him any happier.  Realizing he needed to change his life, he ended up stumbling across a movement known as minimalism.

So what is minimalism?

Minimalism doesn't mean getting rid of all your belongings and living like an acetic.  Minimalism means asking a simple question about what we own and how we spend our time: does this truly bring value to my life?

Asking that question made Joshua realize a contradiction in the American way of life.  In the relentless pursuit of happiness, we've made ourselves unhappy, buying stuff we don't need with money we don't have by working long hours at jobs we don't necessarily enjoy.  As a result, we feel empty inside.  To fill the spiritual void, we buy more things, pile on extra debt, and work even longer hours to pay for that debt.  All the while, we lose track of our passions and relationships that make life worth living.  In the end, we don't really own our things.  Our things own us.

I'm reminded of what Henry David Thoreau says in Walden: "Men have become the tools of their tools."

Henry David Thoreau
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)


(Image from The Minimalists site)

To turn his life around, Joshua got rid of his excessive belongings, gradually paid off his debt, and quit his corporate job to become a writer.  His buddy Ryan soon noticed how much happier he was, so he followed suit.  Their book, Everything That Remains, is a product of this minimalist adventure.  It's a beautifully written memoir, composed by Joshua, with quirky commentary added by Ryan.

Two quick thoughts I had about the book:

  1. Beware: it's not for everybody.  After all, it's a critique of the American Dream, at least as we conventionally understand it: work hard, climb the Corporate Ladder, and then buy your dream car, large house, and all the gadgets you want.  Joshua and Ryan present minimalism as a meaningful alternative to mindless consumerism.  Their goal is to live more deliberately, more consciously.
  2. Minimalism isn't some new fad.  It's about searching for what's important.  Similar messages come from Buddha, Classical philosophers like Seneca, and American writers such as Thoreau.  Owning less minimizes the distractions in our lives, giving us more time for love and friendship.  What's new is how Joshua and Ryan present this message in an updated, accessible way.

In a sense, the word 'minimalism' may be misleading.  Something indeed is being minimizedmindless materialismand yet something else is being maximizedmeaningful living.  So while minimalism minimizes material distractions, it maximizes existential meaning.  If that resonates with your own outlook on life, Everything That Remains is likely a book for you.