Addition through Subtraction

It’s human nature to want for more.

We live in a growth paradigm. Grow or die, as the saying goes. Never mind that it can’t be sustainable, no matter what our politicians and CEOs say to defend the status quo that feeds them wealth and power. Growth in perpetuity is a nonsensical concept — at least within the confines of a finite planet — which assumes an unlimited supply of food, energy, water, space, oxygen… the simple things that we all need to survive; things which are becoming increasingly scarce, controlled by a privileged few who thrive while others suffer.

In our modern version of civilization, whenever we run into a roadblock we try to solve it by adding something. It usually goes something like this:

  • Bored with the daily grind? Time to buy some more toys.
  • Have too much stuff? Buy a bigger house.
  • Still have too much stuff? Add a storage unit or three.
  • Need a bigger vehicle to haul all that stuff? No problem… I’ve always wanted a truck!
  • Can’t afford that new truck? Just add another mortgage to the house.
  • Can’t pay that second mortgage? Hmm… time to get another job.
  • Hey? Where did all my free time go?

This philosophy of addition — of growth — is not limited to material goods; it permeates our entire society. For instance, when a loophole appears in our tax system, governments add more rules to plug the hole. The same principle applies to stock markets, patent laws, insurance policies, security systems, sporting rules, packaging, waste management, banking, compensation structures, union negotiations, education, health care… and the granddaddy of them all: digital technology. The Internet, which grows more elegant and powerful by the day, is a patchwork quilt of software technologies held together by an increasingly sophisticated web.

When in doubt, our automatic reaction is to add something. So we add complexity to already complex systems, which results in… are you ready for this? … even more complex systems. The problem is that for every complexity we add, we create more problems to solve.

Blaise Pascal purportedly said (long before a similar quote was attributed to Mark Twain): “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” Which, according to Wikipedia, translates to: “I made this [letter] very long, because I did not have the leisure to make it shorter.” There is so much wisdom packed into this little 17th-century quote — not only as it refers to writing, but to life as a whole.

I used to be one of those people who turned toward growth whenever I encountered a challenge. I assumed the only way to “progress” through life was to play the addition game. When I wanted something, I bought it — whether I could afford it or not (that’s what credit cards are for, right?). When buying one thing led to “needing” something more, I accepted that as a logical consequence of my initial decision. I applied this principle at work and at home, my life becoming more complicated with each growth-based decision. Then I let go.

Ever since I packed my family into a camper van and downsized from 1700 square feet of living space to less than 100, life has consistently reinforced my instinct that less truly is more. It hasn’t been easy to downsize — while Sheila and I reprogram our minds, shaped by over forty years of materialistic consumption, Iris and Simon put up strong resistance to their parents’ desire to travel counterflow to the world around us. So we muddle our way through experiments, some more successful than others. At one point last year we owned a three-storey house, a 32-foot trailer, a camper van and a Honda Civic… along with three computers, two iPads, two iPods and two mobile phones. That’s not exactly the asset list of a minimalist family. We have since sold the trailer and the car, and our house has been listed for almost eight months. We’re still working on prying our collective fingers off all of our gadgets, and we’re holding on to the camper van with the optimistic view that our house will sell and we will move back into the van while contemplating next steps.

Sheila and I don’t agree on every detail, but we are united in our desire to move toward a simpler lifestyle… with less stuff. With two kids who are turning the corner toward teenagedom, we recognize that some amount of personal space is going to be important. And we can’t force our children to agree with — or even comply with — our shifting values. But we are determined to avoid the trap that constantly woos us… the temptation to buy all that stuff on our wish list and fill out the space we already have. Because we already know that doing so will lead us to wanting more.

And more, it turns out, isn’t better. It’s just more.

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