A Mixed Blessing

“The Internet is like alcohol. It accentuates what you would do anyway. If you want to be a loner, you can be more alone. If you want to connect, it makes it easier to connect.” ~ Esther Dyson

When it comes to the role that material objects in our lives, computers are one of the most complicated. While a computer is a physical object, it is primarily a gateway into the more abstract digital world. So when it comes to a more focused and simple life, computers can be either a blessing and or a curse. It all comes down to how one interacts with computers. More likely than not computers are a mixed blessing in your life that at times both helps and hinders you.

At their best computers are powerful tools that make our lives easier. When used mindfully computers can greatly improve our lives for the better. The modern minimalist movement was only made possible by laptop computers and smartphones. Think about all the devices that a laptop computer and smartphone can replace … alarm clock, bookcase, camera, CD player, DVD player, filing cabinet (via computer scanner) GPS, library card, television and video camera. This alone allows one to not only save space but also money thanks to the virtue of the multipurpose nature of computers. Computers also allow us to streamline our workflow to get more done in record time. Not to mention how much information computers can store which rivals even the most advanced paper filing system. Digital file storage is also easy to backup which greatly lower the risk of losing things. Of course, this is not to say that computers are not double edged. If one is not organized in their file storage structure computers can enable a new level of disorder. Information is only useful if it can be found in a timely manner when needed. Digital clutter and disorder can multiply much faster than physical clutter in our lives. Not to mention computers can also make it possible to lose things faster than ever before if one neglects to keep proper backups. Finally, computers can only help one be more productive when they are used mindfully. Digital distractions unfortunate allow us to take procrastination to a new level.

As a society, we have reached the point that it is unrealistic to avoid computers due to their potential pitfalls. Thus as Christians, our spiritual lives need to be inclusive of computers. Anything that plays a large role in our lives has the potential to help or hinder us spiritually. Ideally, our spiritual approach to computers should be positive and focus on the strengths. So what are some ways that computers can support your spiritual life?

Possessions That Really Matter

“If your house was burning, what would you take with you? It’s a conflict between what’s practical, valuable and sentimental. What you would take reflects your interests, background and priorities. Think of it as an interview condensed into one question.” ~ Foster Huntington
 
It is amazing how much a single picture of one’s most prized material possessions can reveal about a person. The things that a person value is a very insightful window into their priorities and values. Foster Huntington created The Burning House to invite people to answer this question with a picture. The Burning House asks the question in a metaphoric sense to get people thinking about the role material possessions have in our lives. As the reality is that no material possession is worth risking one’s life for in a fire. In the moment such a question would almost seem too overwhelming on the spot when one is mentally in the flight survival mode. In which case the universal first thoughts are people and pets as nothing else matters. If that is not an issue, then a person may grab their bag, laptop, phone or wallet, but only if it is next to them on the way out.
 
With that in mind consider this similar question: Imagine you live in a small village in a tiny one or two room hut. In the middle of the night, you wake up to an anti-Christian mob going through the village. They are going from house to house and hacking all the Christians to death with machetes. You realize that your only chance to survive is to immediately flee into the night toward the forest. Praying that you can avoid detection long enough to hide and not be found. Assuming that you are dressed and that you do not own any weapons, what if anything would you grab before running out of the house?
 
I wish the above situation was purely hypothetical for the sake of an argument but it is not. It comes from an article about modern persecution of Christians I read years ago. A Christian woman in a third world nation really did wake up in the middle of the night to an anti-Christian mob going through her village and hacking to death all the known Christians with machetes. Without any hesitation, she grabbed her Bible and hymnal and ran off into the night. The situation leading up to her split second evacuation is clearly nothing to glorify. Although I feel what it flushed out about her values was a very beautiful thing. The woman’s actions demonstrated that she knew the true value of the material things in her house in terms of her relationship with God. Strictly speaking there is nothing remarkable about a Bible and a hymnal in how they are both physical books made out of paper. Bibles and hymnals are only significant when they are used as tools.
 
In this case it demonstrated the woman’s value in being able to read God’s Word and worship God with hymns. So she valued these two books as the most important items in her house to grab on her way out. I realize that some critics will try to downplay this given her context. Sure Bible are a lot more rare in areas of persecution where they are illegal to own. So how much do you value your Bible? Or I should say Bibles given that you likely have several physical Bibles and eBibles on your computer and or phone. If you are like most American Christians you likely own more copies of the Bible than the times you have read through the entire Bible. Can you honestly say that your most treasured material possessions are a Bible and a hymnal or prayer book?

The Paper 100 Things Challenge

The 100 Things Challenge has both clear virtues and clear pitfalls. The main virtue of the 100 Things Challenge is that it forces one to reflect upon what is important. Given that it is only after one is in touch with what they value that one is able to think about what is most worth keeping. Once one knows what is most worth keeping, it is a much easier to figure out what to discard. Another advantage is that the challenge sets limits that force one to remain mindful. The other virtue of the 100 Things Challenge is that it sets limits. The limits force one to evaluate everything that is coming into and out of their life. The 100 Thing Challenge inventory main advantage is forcing one to remain mindful of the role of material things in their life.
 
The main pitfall of the 100 Things Challenge is that it tends to be wasteful of money and resources. Given that the 100 Things Challenge focuses upon getting rid of things for the sake of doing so. I agree with getting rid of things that one does no reasonably see oneself using again. And all the more so if one can sell it or pass it on to somebody that can make use of it. But what about the extra things that one will reasonable need in the future? Let us consider clothing that still fits and looks good on you? The fact that one has too much good clothing is merely a side effect of the rate of new clothing coming in at a rate faster than one’s existing clothing is wearing out. Good stewardship and common sense would say that a better solution is to stop buying new clothing until there is a real need and then only buy what one needs to make it through a typical wash cycle. Thus, decluttering should ideally be accomplished through everyday wear and tear.
 
It is with this concept of more responsible decluttering in mind that I suggest one approach the 100 Things Challenge in the style of paper trading. Paper trading is normally used within the context of a person simulating stock market trading without putting any money at risk. The Paper 100 Things Challenge is a middle of the road alternative that is ideal for people who are attracted to the idea of the 100 Things Challenge but feel it is too extreme to actually do for real. Keep in mind that 100 is just an arbitrary number which could just as easily be 150 which is Dunbar’s number. I feel that 150 would be a better starting point as it is both more practical and meaningful. As I think it is a given that everybody has a personal relationship with their material possessions even if they do not want to admit it.
 
The Paper 100 Things Challenge is easy to complete. Simply take a piece of paper and number it from 1 to 100 (or 150) and list out the things that are the most important to you that would make the cut if you were to actually take the 100 Things Challenge. If the space on the list seems a bit short for you, make one of your items a wardrobe sublist of 100/150 articles of clothing. Also keep in mind that you do not have to own everything on the list as this is more of an ideal list of minimalist personal possessions. Once you are finished with your Paper 100 Things Challenge list you are now armed with a valuable tool. The most important part of the Paper 100 Things Challenge is taking the time to create your list of items which takes you through the heart of the 100 Things Challenge. At its core, the 100 Things Challenge is an exercise in mindfulness of one’s personal possessions. Therefore simply doing the work of preparing a list of what is most important to you will make it easier to let go of items that were not valuable enough to make the list. The list can also help prevent impulse buys on unimportant things that are not in line with your values. Finally, if you go through the work of creating a Paper 100 Things Challenge list, I would recommend taking the time to review and possibly update.
 
I realize some people may think this is too much of a cop-out when it comes to the 100 Things Challenge or desires to take it to the next level. To take it up a notch, try packing away or at least boxing up anything that does not make the list to see if you can live with it on a daily basis. That way you can both reap the benefits of the experience of a radically simplified life and not have to worry about getting rid of things that you will later need to replace. In time through normal wear and tear you might find yourself living a real 100 Things Challenge lifestyle. Or you might realize that in reality a 150 to 333+ things lifestyle better fits your needs and values. The truth about minimalism is that living with less can help streamline your life to free up more time and energy for what matters. Above all remain mindful of what you really need as minimalism is about living with the right amount for your lifestyle. Finally, if you do not see the point or feel that the Paper 100 Things Challenge takes up too much time, then please disregard my suggestion.

A Critique of the 100 Things Challenge

When we talk of the 100 Things Challenge it is important to keep in mind that the main reason David Bruno created it was to regain control of his life. In his case, the 100 Things Challenge was a year-long exercise in mindfulness to reset his priorities and regain control of his life. The 100 Things Challenge was never intended to be a one size fits all requirement to being a minimalist. Many minimalists pride themselves in being nonconformists to the materialistic culture around us. Simple living and its minimalist subset, are growing counter-cultures within our materialistic society. Thus simply because it has become the in thing to do among minimalists, is the worse reason for doing it.
 
One of the main issues that I have with the 100 Things Challenge is that in some circles it has turned into a challenge of who can own the least amount of stuff. In the style of reverse materialism, it has been revised into a 75 Things Challenge and a 50 Things Challenge. For a time there was even one guy that claimed to own only 15 things. These attempts seem to make the 100 things the maximum number of personal possessions one can own and still be a real minimalist. One step further are the single bag minimalists who literally limit themselves to what can fit into a single carry-on sized bag. Please note I am not saying that people who live this way are arrogant elitists who think they are better for owning less stuff. It is the wider culture of radical minimalism as reverse materialism to the extreme that concerns me.
 
The areas of overhead and responsible stewardship of resources are two areas that I see the 100 Things Challenge having major issues. The purpose of minimalism is to get rid of unnecessary overhead caused by having more than is needed. The 100 Things Challenge, on the other hand, adds the overhead of keeping an active numbered inventory of one’s things. The 100 Things Challenge is also potentially wasteful as it involves getting rid of “extra” things for the sake of a number as compared to one’s needs. For example, one may own 3 pairs of regularly used shoes and eliminate 2 pairs for the sake of the challenge. The problem is that when the remaining pair wears out one will need to replace it. So one ends up buying a new pair of shoes shortly after discarding 2 perfectly good pairs of shoes. These two reasons alone are in my opinion enough to be uneasy about taking part in the 100 Things Challenge.
 
Finally, I wonder how much of the attractiveness of the 100 Things Challenge is rooted in materialism. Materialism temps us into seeing material objects as a way to fix problems and provide meaning and purpose. In the same way, radical minimalism also tempts us with the image of a dream escape from the struggles and complexity of modern life. So if one goes after the 100 Things Challenge like a person orders the next miracle kitchen gadget after seeing it on TV. In which case I can promise you that the 100 Things Challenge will fail to life up to that level of hype. This is because our search for lasting fulfillment, meaning and purpose are spiritual matters.

The 100 Things Challenge

The first time that I encountered the concept of minimalism was a blog of a computer programmer that had recently become a Buddhist. His new faith had influenced his view of material possessions and thus sparked a major decluttering spree. He was writing about the 100 Things Challenge, which he considered too arbitrary and lacked consistency. For example, he did not think it made sense that certain things like books and collections were excluded. Overall the post had sparked my interest on the topic. I was amazed that somebody would make an effort to reduce their personal belongings to 100 things or less.
The 100 Things Challenge or technically the 100 Thing Challenge as it was originally called was started by a Christian man named Dave Bruno. Dave felt that he was becoming overwhelmed both mentally and spiritually by the stuff in his life and felt the need to do something about it. His solution was the 100 Thing Challenge as a year long fast from American-style consumerism. There are a few variations of the 100 Things Challenge but most share these common principles. First is that a collection of items only counts as a single item. For example, one’s coin collection or personal library of books only counts as a single item the challenge. Second is that many people set up a memorabilia box which is either excluded or counted as a single item. This serves as a buffer to allow one extra time to process sentimental items. As family heirlooms, and other treasures should not be  discarded in haste. Third is that one is free to make and change rules as they go along to a certain extent. This is because the purpose of 100 Things Challenge is not about counting items. As it is best viewed as an exercise in mindfulness of one’s personal material possessions.
Searching online for more articles about the 100 things challenge I came across my first batches of minimalist blogs. I was amazed at the brave bloggers who actually listed everything that they owned on the internet. Some took it even photographed everything that they owned and put it up on the internet for the world to see. Which got me thinking what it must be like to declutter to the point of being able to easily list and photograph everything that one owns. The practice of listing one’s possessions is not as strange as it sounds. Insurance experts say that everybody should have a documented home inventory for insurance purposes. Which raises a good point that if something is worth owning than it should be worth documenting in one’s home inventory. So if such an important task comes off as insanely overwhelming to you, could it be due to owning too much stuff?

Minimalism and Mysticism

“Whenever material things, money, worldliness, become the center of our lives, they take hold of us, they possess us; we lose our very identity as human beings.” ~ Pope Francis

“Over against this whole array of materialistic infidelity, now, we owe it to ourselves to make sure at least of our own personal hold on the realness of things unseen and eternal; so that the spiritual world shall not be for us a shadowy utopia simply, but a positive substantiality, coming close home to our daily interest and thought. Such habit of mind cannot be in us with the facility of mere natural growth. It requires heavenly planting, and much inward attention and culture. It would carry us too far to go here into the details of this culture. Meditation, prayer, the right use of God’s disciplinary providence, intimate converse with the Word of God, where the powers of the spiritual world are always at hand as indwelling ‘spirit and life’.” ~ John Williamson Nevin, The Spiritual World, 1876

When it comes to a blog with a primary focus on deeper spiritual living, the topic of minimalism may catch some by surprise. Minimalism is normally thought of in terms of material possessions and responsibilities. Minimalism is not about being lazy and only putting in the minimal effort needed to get by. The purpose of minimalism is to seek to reduce the amount of things that ultimately do not matter in order to be able to better focus one’s time and resources upon what matters most. Therefore minimalism is to some extent an essential part of mysticism. Sure I realize that many people turn to minimalism as a way to get rid of the mountain of unneeded stuff that is weighing them down. The truth of the matter is that simply getting rid of stuff for the sake of being free is not a long-term solution. Likewise, a hoarder that simply gets more stuff for the sake of feeling secure is also not a long-term solution. Minimalism is a tool, and like any tool, it is important to understand not only what it can do but also what it can not do. As let’s face it regardless of how high quality of a hammer that one has, a hammer is useless when it comes to fixing a clogged toilet. As a tool minimalism can be useful to help one regain and maintain control over runaway amounts of material possessions. Although minimalism alone cannot change anything deeper than the surface. The materialist can focus on how much stuff that they have just like the minimalist can focus on how little stuff they have. The frugal minimalist can focus on how little money they spend on stuff. And the only the best minimalism can focus upon the quality of the few things that they own. Although in the end all of the above are still slaves to their stuff. Given that obsession over their stuff demonstrates that their material possessions possess them. The real problem is not with minimalism. The real problem is that the deeper problems are ultimately spiritual in nature. Many of us have even been duped into thinking that we can treat the spiritual with material things and activities. Meaningful living requires having a spiritual purpose and meaningful life goals. Thus a radical minimalist living out of a single bag can be equally spiritually malnourished as a hoarder that has most of the rooms in their house filled wall to wall, floor to ceiling with stuff. Given that a healthy level of detachment from physical objects, it can be impossible to make progress on one’s spiritual journey. You do not have to go to the extreme of getting rid of everything and forsake personal ownership of any material object through a vow of poverty. Just realize that spiritual and even life development can be hindered until one is able to put physical objects in their proper place. Material possessions are tools that help you accomplish things and not a source of meaning and purpose in your life.

Gift Giving

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” ~ Jesus (Matthew 6:19-21 NRSV)

In our culture the celebration of Christmas includes the giving of gifts to others. Christmas is ultimately the celebration of the greatest gift ever given. God’s gift of Jesus as the Incarnate Christ in the world to bridge the gap between God and humanity. Which is why as a society we traditionally give gifts in remembrance of God’s gift to us. I realize that some people question if our emphasis upon gifts is healthy. Their concerns are reasonable given our culture of consumerism obsessed with material possessions.  Although I do not believe we should feel threatened by the materialist nature of gift giving. This is because material possessions can not meet our deeper spiritual needs. Thus at their worse

Regardless of your age, more likely than not somebody has already asked you what you got for Christmas by now. So let me ask you a slightly different question: What did you get for Christmas that will still be around in 5 or even 10 years from now? And by be around, I mean things that you would still regularly use and enjoy. Not something like a book that you may read once (if at all) and then put on a bookshelf only to be touched when dusting. Nor an article of clothing that you wear for a time before it gets neglected in the back of your closet for the next decade. No, I mean gifts that will last in the long haul both physical durability and usefulness. Objects that continue to serve a meaningful purpose in your life on a regular basis. This immediately excludes all electronic items and the latest music albums and movies. While it will be safe to assume we will still be using technology in 10 years. Any new computer, smartphone or tablet  even if they are still functional in 10 years will almost certainly no longer be in regular use. The same goes for all sorts of household goods such as blenders, and the latest high-tech coffee maker. I know this may be shocking to think of what our new items will look like and mean to us 10 years from now. That is what makes it helpful as it helps us gain a long-term perspective on what is really important in our lives. Keep in mind I am not saying that it is wrong to give and receive gifts that will not last. Just that it is important to realize that their meaningfulness and usefulness is temporary. They are no different from clothing. Regardless of how well they are made, they will wear out with regular use. This is fine as objects that wear our have served their purpose and were not wasted. This point is the easiest to see in “consumable gifts” such as candy, flowers, gourmet coffee & teas, homemade jam or wine. All gifts that we can give and receive a humans are temporary in nature. Only the gifts given to us by God are eternal and  the greatest gift by far is the gift of Jesus as the Incarnate Christ. This is the best way of viewing the giving of gifts regardless of the time of year, as well-meaning shadows of the true eternal gift given by God.