Minimalist Philosophy: Not-To-Have and Not-To-Be

Today I’d like to share with you a little philosophical piece by Dutch author Janwillem Van de Wetering:

You are eight years old. It is Sunday evening. You have been granted an extra hour before bed.

The family is playing Monopoly. You have been told that you are big enough to join them.

You lose. You are losing continuously. Your stomach cramps with fear. Nearly all your possessions are gone. The money pile in front of you is almost gone. Your brothers are snatching all the houses from your streets. The last street is being sold. You have to give in. You have lost.

And suddenly you know that it is only a game. You jump with joy and you knock the big lamp over. It falls on the floor and drags the teapot with it. The others are angry with you, but you laugh when you go upstairs.

You know you are nothing and know you have nothing. And you know that not-to-be and not-to-have give an immeasurable freedom.

Ah, the freedom not-to-be and not-to-have…that’s what I love about this quote!

It’s so refreshing in a society where there’s so much pressure to-have (the big house, the new car, the right clothes) and to-be (the perfect spouse, the supermom, the model employee).

But isn’t a life of acquisition—of property, of cars, of possessions, of status, of power—little more than a game of Monopoly? For in the end, we can’t take it with us; all the spoils go back into the pool, for a new round of players. We’re not even guaranteed to be remembered for the perfect people we strove to be; our loved ones are more likely to recall that we were fun to be with, rather than that we maintained our abs or chaired the PTA.

Although I recently purchased a house, and some furniture, and a few plates for dinner guests, I still feel relatively detached from it all. Back in my younger adulthood, I might have agonized over finding the perfect house, the perfect sofa, the perfect tableware—and goodness knows how devastated I might have been if circumstances caused me to lose them.

Now, however, I see all these things as just things—serving a practical function for the moment, and readily disposable (or, more accurately, saleable or donateable) when they no longer do. Sometimes I almost feel like I’m playing house, as the material things in my life have little more significance than a game.

I’m also learning to reject the pressure to-be. I’ll do my best to be a good writer, a good wife, a good mom, a good friend—but not stress out too much when I sometimes fall short of my goals. Far better to devote my days to enjoying my work and my family, rather than striving to achieve some prescribed ideal.

I’m grateful that as minimalists, we can keep the expectations of society, and their relative unimportance, in perspective—and instead of striving for more and more, we can laugh, jump for joy, and enjoy our immeasurable freedom.

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

Related posts:

  1. 10 Minimalist Quotes from the Tao Te Ching
  2. Nothing to Steal
  3. Minimalist Philosophy: To Walk Away, Empty-Handed

25 comments to Minimalist Philosophy: Not-To-Have and Not-To-Be

  • Apple

    All I try an be is good ENOUGH.

  • Sue

    This reminds me of another quote (by Hugo von Hoffmannsthal from the libretto of Der Rosenkavalier):

    Leicht muß man sein:
    mit leichtem Herz und leichten Händen,
    halten und nehmen, halten und lassen …

    You have to be light: with a light heart and light hands, holding and taking, holding and letting go…

    Even though the quote is about a love relationship, I find it true in general, for material things, ideas, etc.
    There are things you have acquired now, but you can let go of them easily if you have a light heart and light hands.

  • Beautiful quote, I’d like to know where you found it. Dutch is my native language, so I’d like to read some of Janwillem Van de Wetering’s books.
    I discovered minimalism at the same time as being in the process of buying our own house, that’s now being built. (We’ll be moving in next summer.) Although that brings a lot of thinking (and sometimes worrying) about material things, I always try to keep in the back of my mind that it’s ‘only’ a house. More than a house I want to make the place a nice home for my boyfriend and I, and hopefully one day our children. And we are already thinking about selling it and buying a smaller house or apartment as soon as our children move out. We’re seeing in our family a lot of people who are getting older and can’t let go of their way-too-big house with stairs they have trouble getting up and gardens they no longer enjoy but only see as a burden because they no longer are physically fit enough to do the gardening.

  • AussieGirl

    “Back in my younger adulthood, I might have agonized over finding the perfect house, the perfect sofa, the perfect tableware—and goodness knows how devastated I might have been if circumstances caused me to lose them.”

    I am still somewhat like that. But I am also very visual – I like knowing that everything I use for practical purposes, I also find beautiful in appearance. :)

    Thank you for another thought provoking post Francine.

  • “The moment you want to be something, you are no longer free” I love this quote.
    We just lost ALL of our possessions (we had a serious mold problem in our apartment). Everything we (my husband, myself and our daughter) now own fits in three grocery bags. We are renting my childhood home from my father, fully furnished and equipped. I really feel like playing house – and I love that none of it is really mine! I’m a painter by profession, but I do not want to be successful, celebrated or making money. That really is just like playing monopoly.

  • meg

    So glad to find someone quoting Van de Wetering–I own nearly all his books and am extremely unlikely to let go of them, minimalism or not!

    You are lucky to have this philosophical realization at a young age, and at the beginning of parenthood. I wish I had been of this mindset thirty years ago, as it would have saved me a ton of time and grief.

    It is, indeed, all a game.

  • Kurkela

    I like the saying “after the game the pawn and the king go back to the same box”. It could be from Italy, I guess.

  • Abby

    This is one of my favourite posts by you. Even the writing is minimal, and conveys a great deal.

  • Love the comparison to Monopoly! I never thought about it that way before. So true! Excellent post overall, really enjoyed it. :)

  • Olivia

    Francine, love this post! Agree completely..your views are so refreshing.

  • I love this quote from your post: “and instead of striving for more and more, we can laugh, jump for joy, and enjoy our immeasurable freedom.”

    It sums it up beautifully for me,x

  • KBY

    This piece is exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you so much!

  • Jason

    This is a very good post, Francine, and very timely for me. I bought my first house nearly 5 years ago and am now selling it (closing next month). I have been consciously downsizing for the past 2 years and will actually have very little packing to do when I move out. I find myself in the position of being able to decide for the first time in my life exactly what I want to do. With no debt and no commitments, I feel as though I will finally have the freedom for which I have been searching. I have plans to enter into a completely different career that will allow me both free time and opportunity to travel the world. Given that I have been very predictable, cautious, and status-quo my entire life, this will be such a welcomed change.

    I will indeed be nothing and have nothing once this happens. And I absolutely can’t wait!

    Thanks for all of your continual inspiration!

  • Gunhild

    I almost cried, reading this. Letting go of being and becoming is my biggest problem at the moment. Within a year I will have finished my university degree and I don’t have a clear picture of what kind of job it will lead to. If I didn’t have a little son I wouldn’t be that worried, but now I do wish to live in my own house with a garden some time within a few years, and my husband want’s to continue living near the capital … so I feel the pressure for acquiering a “real” income. Still dreaming of and implementing minimalism whereever I can though.

  • Trish

    Am curious about the outside of your new abode – so many people spend endless hours mowing, pruning, weeding, etc. I have turned into a minimalist for the outside of my house as well as the inside. I refuse to spend my weekend manicuring my lawn. My neighbor bragged that he has $50,000 in lawn mowing equipment! I would love to hear about how people minimize this part of their lives.

    • Debbie

      I totally agree with you. I am planning on hiring a landscape architect next year to see how I can simplify our yard. I am overwhelmed by the amount of time it would really take to keep up our yard. I think I would love a small space … just have way too much!

      • Nicole

        We are always complimented on our backyard and we hardly spend anytime at all caring for it. We have artificial lawn – all very curvy and groovy, surrounded by shrubs, ground covers and trees which are ALL natives. Barely need watering after the first year. We do prune once a year, but that is only once a year and we are proud of our lack of skills in this area. So far so good :)

  • Fantastic post. So powerful.

    I have seen it written before but I love the comparisons with the game Monopoly. It is such a perfect way to sum up how futile it is to care, worry and strive for greater consumption. It’s really important to not get bogged down with such trivial things, but to spend your days just enjoying yourself… it’s just hard finding a way of spending all your time enjoying yourself whilst having enough money to live on!

  • Jaci

    Wonderful post. Letting go is always the hardest – emotionally and sentimentally. But once you cross that threshold, it becomes much easier.

    Trish, I hear ya there. I find it the easiest to just hire the neighborhood kid to take care of things. He makes a little cash during the summer and I don’t even have to be home when he comes by. Win-Win situation. :)

  • I love so many of your posts and this one especially. Motherhood has allowed me to reject perfectionism. My kiddo has taught me that it is better to be good than to be perfect. And I have found tremendous freedom in swapping and donating one of my most beloved possesions, books. The easier I let them go the easier new, delightful ones come into my life (whether via swap, loan or library). Great metaphor for just about everything else in life too, isn’t it?

  • Lynn

    This post really spoke to me! I’ve been getting rid of things consistently for over a year now. It’s getting easier but somehow I still get stuck emotionally with my children’s things. Like I’m letting go of their childhood. But reading this reminds me that we are only here a short time and stuff is only stuff- it doesn’t matter!

  • I have found your site and am inspired and renewed. I’m 27 and have been on the road of minimalist living for a couple years now, however, I’m finding living with family, moving and job changes to be quite the obstacles in shirking extra unnecessary things. Love your posts on here and perhaps your book will bring extra guidance in my efforts to declutter, consume less and live more simply. I hope you don’t mind if I link your site to my blog http://www.joytotheworld.tv.

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