D. T. Brown didn’t quit owning things. He quit materialism.
For years I had heard stories of people simplifying their life. I saw people making changes, from deciding not to buy any new shoes for a year to going full-bore minimalist. I saw pictures of uncluttered cottages, trash-free garbage cans, and pristine white countertops graced with only one white coffee cup.
While I knew the real minimalist life most likely was not that simple, I felt the weight of my too-big house and boat and cars and furniture and toys I rarely used. And I would hear these stories and something inside me ached for a simpler, less-cluttered life like that.
But, I figured, I had to provide a “full” life for myself and my wife, and stock up on life for our future kids. I would later come to realize that part of me also wanted to maintain an image of success, to show that I had my life together, that I was a hard-working, upwardly mobile, blessed American man.
Then came the anxiety attacks. After suffering for more than a year of not being to fall asleep because I thought I was going insane, and frequently waking up my wife for her to talk me down from my panicked spirals, I finally started talking to a therapist. And I soon realized that I was living for other people and not being really true to myself.
Fortunately, my wife had also been re-evaluating her life, and we were on the same page as far as a desire to adjust our life. We wanted to start living more in line with who we really were instead of who we thought we were supposed to be. We wanted to focus on what we wanted instead of comparing ourselves to some American Dream ideal. So over the course of a few years, we began to slowly eliminate the things that felt like extra weight.
And we lived happily ever after, and simplified, and lived a minimalist life with trash-free garbage cans, right? Wrong. We got a divorce. Then three months later, with the divorce still in process, I lost my job.
Out of habit, I began applying for corporate jobs, just like I had been doing for the past 15 years. Even though they were jobs I really didn’t want, I needed a job to pay for my house and car and possessions. It’s just what you do. The idea is that I’m irresponsible if I don’t. There’s the tape that played in the back of my mind that if I don’t continue with the same pattern of life, everything would fall apart. But it had fallen apart anyway.
I remember one point, face in my palms, I reflected on all that had happened up to that point. Images of all the major events of the past few years rushed through my mind in a fast-forward montage. Proudly owning the big house. Self-discovery. Selling the big house and buying the smaller one. The divorce. The job loss. I felt like crying, but something deeper took over.
I experienced awareness, deep inside, that this was exactly how it should be. And it was okay, and even good. So much of my life had been stripped down by that point, and all that was left was the real me. No more to lose. And no need to surround myself with stuff.
I realized that the main reason I would be going back into Cubicle Land was so I could stay surrounded with proof of my success. So I could maintain the American Dream, complete with all the cool modern furniture, clothing and toys. Nothing wrong with those things, but I just wanted a truly fresh start. A life I could live wherever I wanted and how I wanted, without having to worry about where I would keep things if I wanted to travel somewhere. My thinking boiled it all down to the fact that it was really just a simple trade-off:
“If I keep all these things, I will need to pay for somewhere to keep them,” I thought. “I could buy keep the house or rent someplace to keep them, but I just don’t want to be weighed down with that cost. Because that cost will require me to have a certain type of job, and that type of job will limit my freedom. So which do I value more? These possessions or freedom?” I chose freedom.
Many will read that and think, “But it’s not that simple. It’s not that dualistic. You can have possessions and have freedom.” Of course.
But I didn’t quit possessions, I quit materialism, which for me is the idea that more possessions are proof that one is following the prescribed model for what freedom should look like. My old thinking (even if it was subconscious) was that the American Dream means freedom to accumulate wealth, which is made visible with possessions, the amount and quality of which may vary by user.
I wanted to take tangible action to get out of that system. And I had an opportunity, thanks to divorce and job loss, to take big, bold action, so I did.
I sold my house. Gave the furniture to my ex-wife. Sold my car. Gave away many of my clothes. Sold almost all my books. Got rid of a lot of stuff I had held onto just because I didn’t want to let it go. And I left, with just a backpack of necessities. And I felt the easiest way to start over with this cleaner, smaller slate, was to do something I’d been wanting to try for some time: move to another country.
I’ve been living in a one-room cabin in a remote jungle village in Central America. I write for a living, and can work from anywhere in the world that has Internet. I don’t have much money, or a permanent home. I don’t know exactly how long I will be here, or where I’ll end up, even in the next few months. But I do know that I am free.
Image credit: Number Six (bill lapp)/Flickr