Thoreau, The Minimalists, and Opting Out

Opting OutHenry David Thoreau the environmentalist? I appreciate. Henry David Thoreau the abolitionist? I applaud. Henry David Thoreau the father of simple living and the minimalist movement? I have a bone to pick with you.

Before you dig out your pitchforks and fire up your torches, you need to know something: I have read much of Thoreau, including Walden. At one point in my academic life, I owned no less than four different copies, all of which were heavily annotated. Since I was fifteen, Thoreau squatting in his buddy’s backyard has appeared on at least five different syllabi in my life, one of which actually saw me as the teacher. I say this not to prove my wisdom, but to let you know that I’ve done more than read the social media sound bites. And let’s be clear. He is so damn quotable. Henry David Thoreau the Pinterest darling? I admire.

When bloggers who are taking great risks hold Thoreau’s stint up at the pond as a sign of great motivation, I smile. Sure, he simplified his life. But he did not go out into the wild. He was no Chris McCandless*. Not really. He simply positioned himself in a way that he could opt of out of life for a while. He was vacationing in Emerson’s backyard.

Some see that as risk. No doubt he saw it the same way. But it’s actually privilege. Before you tell me that he was the son of a pencil maker, know this. I know. He was also Harvard educated and served as a tutor to Emerson’s children. In 1845, he went out into the woods to suck the marrow out of life and bash coffee. He wanted to live Spartan-like and then write a book about it.

Also in 1845, Frederick Douglass published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass to chronicle his experiences as a slave. At the same time, the Irish Potato Famine sent droves of immigrants seeking refuge here. While you can also turn both of those experiences into books, you can’t opt out of those situations. That’s Spartan living with no backup plan, no failsafe. There’s no aunt paying your taxes that you chose not to pay so you could keep going on adventures.

This isn’t a knock on the simple living movement. It’s a reminder of the privilege laced in it. I can shirk the excess in my life because I’m not really living in a world where I could fathom needing it. When The Minimalists tell a veritable army of people to get rid of items that they could re-buy for $20 in twenty minutes, that’s privilege. And you know what? I actually could get rid of my entire medicine cabinet, because I do live in driving distance to numerous stores that would let me scoop up a bottle of Robitussin for $14.99. And I could afford it. I don’t like to spend my money in that way, but I could do it. Just like Thoreau, I can opt out and opt right back in. No harm, no foul. Just lots of privilege.
Image from Quote Fancy

“As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler: solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.” Let that sink in for a moment. This week, I observed a student swipe half a granola bar from the cafeteria floor and put it in his pocket. Poverty is poverty. To construct a situation for yourself where poverty isn’t poverty is only possible if you’re not actually impoverished. You’re pretending. In a world where nearly a billion people don’t have access to clean water — some of whom live in Flint, Michigan and poorer neighborhoods of Chicago — and in a country where we still cannot rid our cities of food deserts, you absolutely have the right to share and like and retweet Henry David Thoreau quotes like this one. But never forget what an incredible privilege it is to do so.

* McCandless is another blog post for another day. He was many things, including privileged.

So Tell Me…Where do you stand on Thoreau and minimalism?


Thoreau, The Minimalists, and Opting Out

35 thoughts on “Thoreau, The Minimalists, and Opting Out

  1. So good! It is a luxury. And to pretend otherwise, we are only really fooling ourselves. We are taking a year off. That’s luxury. We took a 6 week camping trip this summer. That’s luxury.
    While we are trying to embrace a more minimalist life, it’s in the sense that we only want to keep things that we actually use. And we try to use things up. I buy clothes to replace the ones that have worn out. I try to keep a reasonable amount of clothes so they will wear out in this decade! But part of that is having 5 kids in a 1600sf house. We really only have space to keep what we use! =) And I don’t have time to fuss with a bunch of stuff we aren’t going to use. Everything we own is represents a tiny time commitment. So that item better earn it’s keep in our house via being used. If it’s a slacker that just hangs around, it’s gotta go!

    1. Absolutely! The more I declutter, the more I can appreciate minimalism. However, I also know that it’s a luxury for me to be able to declutter, downsize, and the like.

  2. I think this is why those that went through the Depression (and those who heeded them, like my husband) tend to hang on to everything: Fear of getting rid of something that you might need and couldn’t afford later. Jon wants to save stuff he might be able to reuse, and I counter with storage space and costs. But I do recognize that the reason I do that is because I’ve always been able to purchase anything (well, at least a reasonable substitute for anything) I needed or even really wanted.

    1. That’s a really interesting perspective and dynamic in your relationship. I saw that in my grandparents, especially my mom’s mom who was widowed in her 30s and educated only through 8th grade. She saved everything because she knew what it was like to have nothing.

  3. Love it! I’ve also read that while he was out there at Walden his mom did his laundry for him. He was bursting with privilege! I think critical examination is so key- you can do whatever, but jnow that not everyone is on the same level, and not everyone can make the same sacrifices, or have it mean the same thing as you can.

    1. I think you hit the nail on the head with the different levels idea, Kara. Privilege intersects with our lives in different ways, and it’s important to acknowledge it (or the lack thereof!).

  4. This is great, Penny. It’s been a while since I’ve read Walden, but you are so right to point out the privilege Thoreau was coming from. I think part of the draw is he paints such an inspiring picture with the quotes that are frequently shared.

    I try to keep our “stuff” minimal to save time on maintenance and cleaning, plus I feel more at peace living with less stuff, but I recognize my choices are many.

    And, I have to say, I am looking forward to a post on McCandless! The book and movie were fascinating to me. He had such an interesting journey (sad as it may be).

    1. You said that perfectly, Amanda. They’re choices. I’m trying to make them, too, in terms of decluttering and streamlining. They’re things I’m opting to do or not do; not something forced on me by circumstance. Into the Wild and the research/theories around what actually brought about the end of that journey fascinate me to no end.

  5. Thanks, Penny, for this reminder. We just went backpacking and were thrilled when we found any source of water to filter and drink, even a tiny scummy pond, because it was water and we were thirsty. But we had a filter, and now back at home we have running water with a filter. And we can buy bottled water if we choose (we don’t). It is wonderful to have choices, though making the choice to choose less isn’t the same as not having a choice.

    1. Huh. I haven’t given the opting out/in much thought in terms of hiking. I really value your insight, Julie. That’s not to say that your experience wasn’t authentic. It was. It sounds like they’re always amazing adventures. But I do like the reminder that it’s a choice, not your only choice.

  6. This is so good, Penny. I love Thoreau, and Walden and Civil Disobedience are some of my very favorite pieces of writing. But like you said, our ability to simplify our lives by choice — with the safety net of knowing we’re able to buy everything back if need be — is an absolute luxury.

    1. I love Civil Disobedience! It makes me so happy to hear you say that, Matt. I hope it’s as widely read as Walden, but I fear that’s not the case.

    1. Of course! My thoughts around this are always expanding. I just can’t help but think how fortunate I am to have “too much” when so many have so little.

  7. Yep, right there with you.

    The message of minimalism is great in an over-consumerist society, and I loved that he made many of us stop and think about it, but where I come from, it matters where the bearer of the message comes from because it informs the message. And in this case, with the kind of privilege Thoreau had, it matters a great deal.

    It’s easy to say “simplify!” It’s easy to say “get rid of things!” It’s easy to scoff when others stockpile goods, because “minimalism is great!”

    It’s much more nuanced to understand that if you were living paycheck to almost-made-it-to-next paycheck, you too would stockpile cheap canned goods to get you through those last three days when you wouldn’t have money for food.

    Or maybe, more frivolously, if you never had the money to reciprocate gift-giving as a young kid, much less to wrap them, you may compensate for that by buying rolls of gift wrap on deep discount in after Christmas sales and keep a stash so that you can make it an affordable part of your life.

    It makes a huge difference whether you’re doing it by choice or because you have no other choices, and a motivational soundbite is only good for the first spark of inspiration. For a motto worth living by, you’ve got to dig deeper.

  8. Lila says:

    I’m opting out of minimalism as well. Although I’m an accidental minimalist in some regards. I wear minimal makeup & my bathroom is minimalist. That just happened by accident though. It’s not as if I set out to be a minimalist in those areas of my life.

    I’m not a minimalist in the rest of my life. I can still appreciate Thoreau, he had some other interesting things to say that I still like, however I don’t believe in all his ideas.

    Like when he refused to pay a poll tax. Just look at celebrities that don’t pay their taxes.
    I think you can appreciate someone without agreeing with all their ideas. =)

    1. Absolutely! Civil Disobedience is one of my favorite pieces of writing. And if you’re willing to separate art and artist, Walden is wonderful. Your point about still being able to appreciate Thoreau is wonderful, Lila.

  9. For some reason, this post makes me chuckle. I think I’m the only person who has read Thoreau and not read anything that ostensibly made him famous (I’ve read Slavery in MA which I think is his most famous speech though, and a few of his essays on walking which are IMO too self-indulgent for something as common as walking, but I’m a navel gazer myself so I have no room to criticize).

    Anyhow, I think that one reason I’ve never embraced minimalism/transcendentialism/stoicism is that there seems to be an inherent disconnect with true suffering that makes it difficult to have a healthy relationship with those that don’t have the same privileges as me. This is a great piece that puts a lot more meat onto that thought. Thanks!

    1. He was SUCH a navel gazer. Thanks for the laugh this morning! There’s a lot behind minimalism that I can (and try to!) support. But it’s my choice.

    1. Privilege is so tricky. I know we talk in broad strokes, but I think it’s much more nuanced than that. There are so many ways to be privileged, and benefiting in one ways doesn’t necessarily mean someone is a step ahead across the board.

  10. Love your perspective! I spent a good part of the day helping a few teachers try to find clothes and old gym sneakers for a few families who are really struggling to make ends meet before school starts. They aren’t at the mall getting a new wardrobe for school – or new school supplies. They were thrilled with used gym sneakers. The kind many of our parents never wanted us to wear. To think that I am decluttering and donating to folks like these is a privilege, and working with them is a good reminder of how just how privileged we are.

    1. Yup. When I see what gets put in our lost and found, I’m just gobsmacked sometimes. Our school is trying to be really proactive about the gap between haves and have nots. It seems to widen every year.

  11. As a formerly poor student, thank you for not shaming the kid when he took the food from the floor. I was lucky that some of my teachers would buy me food during school, but that was never enough. I was grateful, but hungry.

    With my impoverished background and knowing what 3-days-no-food hunger feels like, I have no use for minimalism or dieting, for that matter. None whatsoever. I’m not profligate, but I like that I can buy things when I want or need them. I like that I can buy a nice suit and look swell in it. I like that I eat everyday.

    Thoreau wrote pretty words and I enjoy reading them, but I don’t have time for folks who play at poverty as if it is a life-lesson. They could just believe poor people about their lives. They could just watch and listen.

    1. Sigh. You are always so insightful, but I wish you didn’t have to gain that insight the way you did, ZJ. My first two years teaching, I was in a school that was 80% free and reduced lunch. Kids sneaking food out of garbage cans was a regular thing. The amount of food waste in cafeterias and the amount of hungry kids seems like they could resolve each other, at least to a degree. But I have yet to see that happen.

  12. What a wonderful and fresh perspective , I appreciate you going out on a limb to give us something to think about and reflect on. I found the link to this article over at today when it was mentioned. I’ll have to watch for the McCandless post now. Have a great day

  13. Yeah, I think of minimalism as a kind of affluenza antidote. Powerful for those of us who suffer from too much clutter and compulsive purchasing habits. Totally out of touch for people whose concerns are more pressing.

    I have mixed feelings about this — on one hand I really believe that minimalism is a valuable countercultural force against hyperconsumption, and I wish it would go more mainstream. I think the world would be a better place if it was uncool to buy things you don’t need.

    On the other hand, when I talk or write about minimalism I do have the uncomfortable feeling I’m probably coming across very tone-deaf to people who haven’t experienced my particular set of problems. After all, you kind of need to “suffer” from “too much stuff” (cue violin music) for minimalism to speak to you.

    It’s a tricky one, but I think your article nails it — something to chew on. Thank you.

    1. Thank you! I’ve personally benefitted so much from having less, but I am constantly trying to remind myself of what that actually means and how fortunate I am. Now, giving is a regular part of our budget. I can’t help but think how much good I could have done if I even shelled out a teeny portion of what I was frittering away for an actual cause.

  14. Found your post through a link on 🙂 This was a really insightful post and really gave me something to think about because that whole “$20 in 20 minutes” thing has always bothered me as well, even though I enjoy The Minimalists podcasts. I don’t have an extra $20 to spend and many people are in that same category.

  15. Really an excellent post. I’m glad you brought up the subject. I grew up as ‘poor white trash’ and free lunches were an embarrassment. But I also was a back to land hippie in the 70’s, 80’s, and the 90’s and even into the 21 st century. But I embrace the concept of minimalism and have gained a lot from those endeavors. We still live in a small house ( under 900 sq feet) but I have still needed to declutter and simplify. It’s really a life long journey.
    ‘Walden’, was probably the biggest influence for my husband and I in the late 60’s, probably before you were born. The points you bring up are excellent , plus I think he went back to town after the year was done( I think).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *