Asking the right question is powerful. Answering it honestly is a superpower. Good questions unlock doors and windows in our minds and hearts, and honest answers allow light into dark, dank, haunted places within us.
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For me, part of the magic of good questions is the challenge to think bigger and more creatively. Questions help me focus on problem-solving.
Life is all about problem-solving.
So, here are three questions. The first is from Joshua Becker on Becoming Minimalist. The others were inspired by his post:
If I didn’t have this thing, what would I use instead?
If I wasn’t doing this activity, what would I do instead?
If I wasn’t investing my time, energy, and power here, where would I invest them instead?
In the first questions, the thing, whatever it is, may be something you’re not using in the first place. But if you are, or you think you are, or you have, or you think you might need to sometime in the future, ask yourself if you didn’t have it, what would you use in place of it?
If I didn’t have this apple corer, what would I use instead?
A good kitchen knife is multipurpose. An apple corer is not.
If I didn’t have a TV habit, what could I do instead?
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Spend actual face-to-face time with someone. Read a book. Take a walk. Play with pets. Exercise. Play a game. Go outside.
If I wasn’t consumed and exhausted by stress, anxiety, toxic mimics, or unhealthy relationships, what could I have energy for?
I don’t suggest a ban on apple corers or TV. These questions are not weapons with which to make ourselves bad and wrong. The point is that asking the questions reminds us we are making choices and gives us a chance to consider whether or not our choices are adding value to our lives and taking us in the direction we want to go.
Do we really need a bigger kitchen to house our collection of apple corers and other gidgets and gadgets that do the work of a good knife?
Do we really need three, or six, or nine different streaming services and a steady diet of however many hours of TV a day?
If we ask and answer these questions intermittently during our day, what might we learn about which activities and objects are useful and valuable and which are not? How would our relationships look through the lens of these questions, beginning with our relationship with ourselves?
This is the old French story about Bluebeard. Once his young wife looked in the forbidden room and saw all his former headless brides, she couldn’t unsee it. There was no going back.
This kind of self-inquiry is a choice. We may not want to. We may not be willing to. That’s OK. Life has a way of increasing the pressure until we are forced to go in the direction of our fear and resistance. On the other hand, maybe you’re a person with no emotional, physical, or thought clutter. Maybe you have no time-wasting coping mechanisms and habits. Maybe your kitchen drawers are clean, functional, mouse free, and contain nothing but a few useful multipurpose tools you use regularly. Maybe all your relationships are perfectly healthy. Good for you! I’m jealous.
My life (and my kitchen) is messier than that. I spend too much time and energy in non-useful activities, and even more time and energy being hard on myself for it. I worry, and make up stories, and work hard to stay defended and hidden.
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If I didn’t spend time playing online solitaire in an effort to manage uncomfortable feelings or fatigue, what could I do? Write? Take a walk? Relax with a book? Dance? Journal? Talk to a friend? Scrub a floor?
It’s not that solitaire is necessarily bad. The question is, would another activity be better? A walk takes care of exercise; spending time outside; and spending undistracted time with myself or a friend, pet, or loved one. A walk is a multipurpose activity. Solitaire is not.
I need a good kitchen knife. I need to be outside and exercise.
Do I need an apple corer and online solitaire?
(Well, no. But maybe I want them. That apple corer is mine (this is called the endowment effect). I paid good money for it! Maybe I used it once. Maybe I’ll use it again one day. I deserve to relax and take a break now and then. Solitaire is better than TV or a social media habit. It doesn’t hurt anyone. I need some downtime in my day.)
I’m not here to argue with you. I want you to have what you need. I want what I need, too.
If I want peace in my environment, I need to remove everything obscuring it.
If I want peace in my relationships, I need to clear away whatever obstructs it.
If I want internal peace, I need to peel away whatever destroys it.
It’s such a simple idea, and so monumentally difficult to put into action.
How do we figure out what’s strangling our peace?
Likely, at least some of what’s killing our peace are habits of action and thought we’re deeply invested in or frankly addicted to. Things we don’t want to give up or feel unable to give up. Sometimes we’re so attached to certain habits or possessions we feel life is not possible if we can’t have them or engage with them. Our survival depends on them, and peace takes a back seat to survival.
Except maybe it doesn’t. Maybe, in the long run, we can’t survive without a certain amount of peace.
If we undertake the work of identifying what’s between us and peace, we’re going to find feelings. Lots of feelings. Feelings we don’t want to feel. Feelings we don’t know what to do with. Feelings we’re afraid to express. Feelings we’re ashamed of. Feelings that are tearing us apart.
Until and unless we find appropriate, effective ways of managing and processing our feelings, we’ll never uncover the peace buried beneath them.
What if there’s nothing to make and nothing to buy? What if there’s no app to use or post to make?
What if what we have to do is discard everything concealing the peace, love, health, time, self, or authentic life we want?
We can’t discard our feelings, but we can learn how to manage and integrate them. We can discard toxic pieces of identity. We can discard thoughts, beliefs, patterns of behavior, and addictions. We can discard digital and real-life clutter. We can discard time-wasting and destructive habits. We can discard toxic relationships and toxic relationship dynamics.
It’s easier to buy something. It’s easier to get on Facebook or a dating app. It’s easier to have a drink, or turn on Netflix, or get high, or get numb. It’s easier to eat a box of donuts.
Easier, but all those choices layer a further crust of chaos over the magnificent life we long for.
Uncovering peace. And other things. My daily crime.
This article from Joshua Becker of The Minimalists landed in my Inbox this week. It made me smile, because I certainly am a person who, when problem solving, frequently considers adding something rather than subtracting something.
The way this shows up in my life is not with stuff, but with the demands I place on myself. My default response to low energy, not feeling well, emotional or physical pain, frustration, and feeling discouraged is to drive myself harder, do more, move faster.
I could write for the rest of my life on all the ways this does not work, but I’ll spare you.
Yet it continues to be my unconscious default in every case.
A case in point is my exercise routine. I’ve begun working with a personal trainer.
I haven’t been able to exercise regularly until the last three or four years because of my autoimmune disease. When I finally fixed my inflammatory problems with a carnivore diet, I discovered I could participate in regular exercise and stretching without throwing my muscles into spasm. I bought some weights and put together a couple of workouts.
The combination of repetitions, weights, and stretching I’ve been using has occasionally made me sore but not triggered a catastrophic inflammatory response in my body, as long as I don’t eat plants or sugar. However, I began to get bored with my routines, and I didn’t always feel like spending an hour getting through them. I discover I also wasn’t very even in the muscle groups I was working and stretching. Who knew?
A personal trainer knew!
My trainer is well aware of my propensity to push myself too hard, a trait we share, so she is developing new routines for me, briefer, more balanced, and without so much weight. I started following her guidance a couple of weeks ago, but I felt guilty about it. If working for 20-30 minutes is good, working for an hour must be much better. If working with 3-lb hand weights is good, working with 5 lbs must be better, along with ankle weights.
My trainer gave me several new stretches and asked me to spend more time with them, but stretching is surely not as good as lots of reps and weight. Holding a stretch for 30 seconds eats up a lot of time I should be spending working harder, right?
I followed her advice about everything, curious but also convinced I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough.
Then I read about additive vs. subtractive problem solving, and smiled to myself. Less weight. Shorter, more evenly balanced workout routines. A few targeted slow stretches, which I’ve begun doing throughout the day, as I’m chronically tense and stretching reminds me to slow down, breathe, and be kind to myself.
What I discover is I feel better. I have more fun exercising. It’s easier to face a 20-30 minute session than an hour-long one.
Instead of using exercise as one more way to push myself too far, following the expertise of a personal trainer has transformed it into self-care. Real self-care. Loving self-care. More effective, more appropriate self-care.
It feels strange. Too easy. Too gentle.
Working smarter rather than harder has always been an idea I don’t quite trust. It makes intellectual sense, and I would encourage anyone I care about to consider it, but when I think about applying it to myself it feels like a cop-out. I expect myself to work smart and hard.
Whatever our challenges, from our most personal to our most public, it appears we naturally think of additive solutions. This tendency certainly benefits a consumerist culture. How would our power change if we taught ourselves to consider subtraction as well as addition when managing problems and challenges?
I’m usually good at focusing. I can multitask, but I don’t like to, and as I get older I’m less and less convinced multitasking is effective for more than simply staying afloat.
These days, though … wow.
Last week I worked more hours than usual, my work schedule was all over the place, my laptop broke down, and I had a migraine and didn’t sleep well.
Those are all normal life challenges, but working more hours meant more exposure to news and the feelings and thoughts of people in our community. Maintaining boundaries between my own anxiety, incredulity, fear, and stress and the opinions, beliefs, and strong feelings of others while remaining respectful and professional is taking everything I have and makes normal small irritations seem overwhelming.
When the weekend came, I felt like I never wanted to talk to another human being again. Ever. About anything. I knew the feeling was temporary, but I also knew I needed to pay attention to it. I went on a news fast (helped by the absence of my laptop), slept, meditated, did some ritual, and took a day to do nothing and indulge my introversion.
Now, on Monday, I’m feeling better, but the coming week looms and I’m anxious about what it will bring. I’m also finding it difficult to concentrate on any of my usual small and pleasurable at-home tasks.
As I don’t often struggle in this way, I haven’t thought much about tools for getting motivated when we feel unable to move smoothly forward, but I’ve read quite a bit about how to do so, especially since I started practicing minimalism. This morning I had an article in my Inbox about using 15 minutes at a time to approach whatever the task(s) at hand is.
I sat down in front of my old clunky computer screen, put the keyboard in my lap and started writing this post. It’s been exactly 15 minutes since I started.
Clearly, I haven’t finished, but I made a good start, which is more than half the battle. Getting the flow going makes everything easier. The cats are tearing around playing. The laundry rack is folded on the floor (because the cats think it’s a climbing frame when I erect it), waiting for wet laundry, which is sitting in the washing machine. I haven’t worked on my book today, or cleaned the bathroom, or vacuumed, or swept. I haven’t exercised yet.
What I really want to do is take a nap. Or read, which ends up in taking a nap. I don’t want to think about working tomorrow, or getting gas, or the fact that I need to register the Subaru this month, or when I’ll get the laptop back and how much the repair will cost. I don’t want to think about this week’s bills or even this week’s blog post. I don’t want to think about the inauguration, politics, violence, or crazy conspiracy theories.
I don’t want to think at all. That would be good. No thinking.
I’ll never pull that one off.
In my old dance group we used to tell newcomers to dance small if they lost control of breath and balance. Dance small.
How does one eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
How does one write a book? One word at a time.
I’m writing this post 15 minutes at a time. Hanging laundry will take less time than that, but first I have to evict the cats. That might take longer.
It’s still early afternoon. I have lots of 15-minute increments I can use.
I recently read (sorry, don’t remember where, no link!) about taking on an exercise program this way. One stretch. One set of ten repetitions. One Yoga pose. Heck, anyone can do that. The trick is to start, even if it’s the tiniest baby step imaginable, and build from that.
If I take the trouble to down tools and stretch, I’m going to want to do more than one. If I write one sentence, I’m going to want to write another.
Focusing on one step at a time. One dollar at a time. One breath at a time. One work shift at a time. One sentence at a time. One 15-minute interval at a time.
I recently read an article from The Minimalists about problems and solutions. The first time I skimmed through it, I thought, “Huh?” and saved it for more concentrated exploration later. It was one of those pieces of inside-out thinking that stuck in my head, like a small rock in one’s shoe, and I puzzled over it for a few days, until I went back and read it with more attention.
I laughed when I reread, because it’s a short and simple piece, but it suggests an unaccustomed way of thinking about problems, especially to someone as goal-oriented and problem-solving as I am.
The idea is solutions, the magic bullets everyone wants, take our attention away from problems and often compound them. The solution becomes more of a problem than the problem was in the first place.
This phenomenon is familiar enough to us that we made a saying about the cure being worse than the disease. I just never thought past the context of cures and disease before now.
When it comes to solving problems, especially in a consumer culture, toxic mimics are ubiquitous. We’re also in a hurry. We don’t like discomfort. We want a quick, palatable fix, and we want it now. This means we throw solutions at problems without taking the time to understand their full extent and complexity. We feel entitled to instant gratification, and that’s what advertisers promise us.
In the last few cold, dark days of 2020, as most of us look ahead and hope for better things in 2021, it’s a good time to pause and spend time with our problems.
Seriously! They’re with us anyway. We might as well give them some real attention. If we’ve tried and tried to solve a particular problem and gotten nowhere, or made it worse, maybe it’s time to go deeper into it, putting possible solutions aside for a while and just being with the problem. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote about loving and living with the questions before living into the answers.
In a lovely demonstration of synchronicity, as I work on this post I’m also reading Holistic Management by Allan Savory. It’s essentially a book about restoring the environment, based on a lifetime of study, experience and success in reversing desertification and building healthy land, but it’s also a framework for decision-making and management of any context, from a household to a community to a business organization.
Defining and understanding as much of the problem as possible is key to managing anything holistically. The metaphor Savory uses is taking aspirin to relieve a headache brought on by someone hitting us in the head with a hammer. Taking an aspirin is quick and cheap, but the real problem is not the headache, it’s the fact that someone is hitting us in the head with a hammer! Taking aspirin does not address the real problem.
This is a simple metaphor, but it’s surprising how often we respond in just this way to the symptoms of problems rather than excavating the root causes and addressing those, which often involves time, patience, learning new information and creating entirely different ways of responding and utilizing resources.
Perhaps this year we could make a different kind of New Year’s Resolution list.
If we have financial problems, instead of trying to figure out how to make more money, we could investigate our relationship with money.
If we have weight problems, instead of trying a diet, we could explore our relationship with food.
If we don’t get enough exercise, instead of buying an expensive piece of home equipment (which I hear make great laundry racks and/or clothing storage), we could take a look at our ability to keep our word to ourselves and our willingness (or not) to self-care.
If we feel disorganized and overwhelmed with our stuff, instead of buying storage space, organizing systems, or looking for a bigger house, we could simplify our lives and shed some stuff.
If we’re lonely and searching for romance, instead of spending time and money on dating platforms, we could strengthen our relationship with ourselves, learn how to meet our own needs, and take a look at our expectations of relationships.
I’ve always thought of problem-solving as a strength, with the emphasis on solving problems. I’m only now realizing the power of simply experiencing problems, patiently and fully, even affectionately, before racing to a solution and applying it as quickly as possible. Could there be more power in the problem than in the solution, at least in the beginning of problem-solving? That possibility makes me smile.
Visual noise is a term I’ve been looking for all my life. I’ve always hated shopping, even as a child. I’ve always been overstimulated and overwhelmed by too much auditory noise (is that redundant?). I’ve never liked crowds or being in crowded places. One of the most joyful experiences of my life was creating a home for just me. For five years I had complete control of visual (and other) noise in my living space.
Now, looking back through the lens of my practice of minimalism, even that home seems, in memory, crowded and visually noisy, and I’ve let go of much of what I had in that space.
For most of my life, though, I’ve lived with others, and done my best to negotiate a workable compromise between my stuff and their stuff. With adolescent boys, the problem was simple. I reminded myself it was not forever and closed their bedroom doors. Firmly. I could still hear the mutter and growl of what was behind the closed doors (and I’m not talking about the boys), but I could live with it. For a while.
With partners and husbands, my strategy has been to take on complete responsibility for cleaning and homemaking, thereby retaining at least some control of our shared space and what was in it. Husbands got a private room of their own, like an office, that I stayed out of. I took care of the rest.
Living with someone is give and take, we all know that. I don’t mind cleaning and I love making a home, so I’m accustomed to taking responsibility for most of the housework, especially those tasks I know any given roommate cares nothing about. I’ve even come to terms with my efforts largely being ignored or invisible. I’m clear I’m working for myself. (Thank you, self!)
On the other hand, housework is easily dealt with and doesn’t take much time if our home is uncluttered and organized. Every single object we have requires energy, space and time for care. As the clutter builds up, so do dirt, dust, time wasted looking for things, and the burden of housework. Home becomes one more stressor to deal with rather than a haven of rest and peace.
Visual noise, like everything else, occurs on a sliding scale. My current home is much less cluttered than it was when I moved in, and I’ve pushed a camel through the eye of a needle for every bit of that improvement (improvement as defined by me, of course!). I’m still not where I want to be with it, but I’m closer. Still, I periodically feel exhausted by the struggle and apathy looms as my patience and sense of connection to what’s important in life are ground away by my constant battle with stuff.
It also means I’m chronically inhabiting a mindset I suspect many women are familiar with: Am I being ridiculous? Demanding? Controlling? Oversensitive? Unloving? Why can’t I just ignore the clutter? Why can’t I be different, or get over it? Why can’t I focus on the long list of what’s good and does work in my life?
It’s a miserable mindset, and the more I try to control myself and not feel what I feel the more resentful I get.
I’m well aware not everyone struggles with this. On the other hand, I’m not making it up. Visual noise is A Thing for some people, and I’m one of them. I’d find life much easier if I wasn’t one of them, but there it is. Furthermore, we know clutter causes stress and takes a mental toll, at least for some people.
How do I explain my struggle to someone who doesn’t experience any problem at all with four filthy old remotes for vanished audiovisual equipment sitting on a cluttered, undusted living room shelf?
The worst thing about the whole issue is feeling hopeless about finding a solution. Of course there are always choices. I don’t have to live in any particular place with any particular person, after all. The thing is, I don’t want to live anywhere else. I just want to have more power to control my space. Not all the power, but equal power.
Ever since I learned about needs I’ve come back to this point. If my needs conflict with the needs of someone I’m close to, whose needs get taken care of? How does that get negotiated? How do we manage power around sharing space, or raising children, or dealing with extended family over the holidays, or a depressingly long list of other life experiences when there’s a conflict of needs?
I confess I’m exhausted by the prospect of such negotiations. I already feel like I’m shouting as loudly as I can and can’t get heard. It’s a thousand times easier to suck it up, say nothing, and exercise my excellent self-control. In other words, I roll over. Yikes. I hate admitting that. In many ways I’m a stalwart warrior, and if someone demanded I roll over, I’d die before I did it. But when gentle remarks or pushes about clearing shared space gets no response, I just give up for the sake of peace. For the sake of relationship. For the sake of connection.
This is exactly like enabling. In the moment, the easiest thing to do is go with the flow. In the long term, though, I wind up resentful and burned out. The relationship suffers; I just delayed it a little. Visual noise builds and builds until it obstructs my feeling of connection with others and myself and distracts my focus and attention. I can’t hear or see anything else. I begin to feel as though I’m fighting for my life. Here’s what visual noise sounds like to me:
Manage me or don’t manage me. I’ll use you up either way.
We objects are more important than you and real life; you cannot possibly compete with us.
There’s no room for you; you don’t belong here.
You cannot escape us; you’ll be gone before we are.
You are powerless.
I have no answers. Perhaps the issue of visual noise is under the heading of Relationship Challenges many of us experience and is not solvable. I wish with all my heart I could be different, and neither notice nor care about piles and shelves and cupboards of stuff.