Learning From The Past: What Our Grandparents Could Teach Us About Minimalism

admin // November 22 // 0 Comments

“Our mind has evolved in such a way that new wants keep appearing in it relentlessly. But do not confuse them with needs. Needs are necessity, but wants are luxury.” Abhijit Naskar

If you really want to learn about living with the essentials, try hanging out with your grandparents, or people of their generation, and ask them to tell you stories from their younger days. We’re still in the era where people remember a time without indoor plumbing, toilets and electricity, let alone cell phones, internet and credit cards. There’s a lot to be garnered from these people’s experiences when it comes to remembering how to appreciate the little things and separate our needs from our wants.

These days it can be easy for many of us to confuse luxury with necessity, even if there are still people across the globe, including in the wealthiest nations, living without adequate food, shelter and basic amenities.

Sure you may not want to go back to the “dark ages” and live without the modern comforts that make life a lot more pleasant than it was a generation or two ago. There’s a balance that needs to be struck between all-out survival mode and total excess. That’s where the living history of your grandparents, or other elders, can be incredibly helpful.

27.1 Luxuries Versus Necessities

“The further away you get from fulfilling a need and into making people believe that they need to buy a certain product or services as a necessity, the more tension builds into the system.” Ajay Chaturvedi

An article from frugaldad.com gives a list of all the things the authors grandparents lived without (and found no need for even when they became available!). This list includes cell phones, microwaves, debit and credit cards, televisions, calculators, tanning salons and health clubs, as well as, interestingly enough, disposable items.[1] The list of things you have in your life and consider necessities that your parents or grandparents lived without is in fact much, much longer, but you get the picture. We take a whole lot of things for granted these days. What would happen if you sat down and really thought about eliminating anything inessential from your life?

It depends how far you want to go with the exercise. Sure you can survive without a computer, but if you absolutely need to have one in order to do your chosen job or life-calling, then it’s intimately linked with your income, thus is a necessity up until you decide to do work that doesn’t require one. Similarly, you may not really need a cell phone, but your life may require you to have one at the moment for reasons related to work or family life. There are certain things like washing machines, say, that any working parent would not want to go without these days, even if you technically could and your grandparents almost definitely did.

On the other hand, you may want to seriously contemplate which of your luxuries may actually take away from your quality of life, despite being symbols of prosperity. Television sets are one of the easiest examples of a luxury that many don’t realize actually lowers their quality of life in many ways, primarily because it’s become synonymous with comfort and “relaxation” (or it’s just an easy way to occupy the kids so you can get some work done!). “Whaddya mean TV lowers my quality of life?” Well there are lots of studies out there linking extended inactivity to diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer. There is also research linking hours spent watching TV to lowered life expectancy.[2]

But that’s all beside the point. The argument can be made both ways for most luxury items and you can doubtless find a reason why you “have” to keep whatever it is around if you’re not convinced that it’s inessential and even having a negative impact on your life. What’s important is to sit down, be honest with yourself and make a list of the things you could eliminate from your life and home environment. Compare and contrast with the lives your grandparents led whenever you’re not sure if something is a luxury or a necessity. Anything they didn’t have access to you can technically live without. Anything that giving up would make your life way more complicated is probably worth keeping around. Otherwise, it’s up to you to judge if something adds or removes value from your life.

27.2 Self-Awareness: Luxury or Necessity?

“The difference between poverty and prosperity is the mindset of living out of necessity instead of possibility.” Farshad Asl

There are those of a certain generation who would say that today’s focus on self-awareness and self-actualization is in and of itself a huge luxury. This mindset of course usually comes from having lived most of their childhood and/or adult life in survival mode and growing up with the firm belief that “life is suffering.” It can be challenging to listen to the stories of elders and family members who’ve become embittered and not get let it rub off on you. You may come away feeling that life is indeed hard and you’re pampering yourself by even contemplating living in line with your values and making time and space for fulfilment of your dreams and aspirations.

People who claim that anything beyond survival and hard work is hedonism and luxury are not seeing the big picture however. Neuroscientist and global peace advocate Abhijit Naska puts it very aptly when he states that “The very first existential purpose of one’s life, after securing the means to acquire food, clothes and shelter, is to understand oneself, that is, if one truly, genuinely, actually wants a peaceful world for one’s children.”[3] In other words, self-actualization, aiming for your highest potential, is a luxury when your situation is that you aren’t, or are barely, able to meet your basic needs. Once you are able to meet those basic needs without it taking up all your time and energy, then there’s in fact nothing more important than understanding who you truly are and being the best version of yourself possible.

27.3 Your Sense Of Meaning: Now and Then

“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.” Sebastian Junger

Existential angst has gone through the roof with the advent of the digital age (also known as the Third Industrial Revolution). People are more anxious, more stressed and more likely to have multiple identity crises over their lifetime then ever before. Online presence is all about image and how we’re perceived by others. In a time where it’s very easy to get sucked into the superficial,where the outcome of our work and existence is often completely intangible, the quest for meaning and purpose is ever-more challenging for many.

Looking back to the lives and stories of our grandparents and ancestors is one way of connecting the dots on your path to life-purpose. As long as they don’t fall into the “embittered elder” category, it can be worth having a conversation about life-purpose with anyone of a certain age. The perspective it can provide you is incredible. First-off, talking about the meaning of life with anyone who has had to,or is currently, coming to grips with their mortality is enlightening in and of itself. You get to peek into the other side of things and imagine yourself looking back on your life…talk about getting down to the essentials! There’s literally no better way to figure out what’s truly important than to face your own mortality.

For the meek of heart, you can always keep away from the “ultimate death” subject and steer towards meaning in a more day-to-day sense. You’ll likely find that most older folks you talk to didn’t have time for pondering their life-purpose – they were too busy living it! Be it the daily routine of a farm, the urgency of wartime work, the traditional roles of family-rearing or the pressure of higher education, many people may never have even questioned their path due to having it laid out for them by parents and society or to being stuck in survival mode and the uncertainty of life.

While it can be difficult to hear stories from the past when we realize the struggles, limitations or injustices our ancestors went through, it can also be truly inspiring. If you’re in for the wisdom there is a pearl in every story, no matter how bleak, disheartening or banal. When you’re reminded of how much certain people have overcome in life it usually puts everything into perspective and can give you renewed energy in facing your own obstacles.

27.4 Taking Pleasure in The Simple Things: A Cliché That’s True

“Sometimes, the simple things are more fun and meaningful than all the banquets in the world …” E.A. Bucchianeri

We often forget that the past wasn’t all strife and suffering. There were in fact some very good times had by many. Whatever your family’s situation may have been back in the day, the pace of life was undeniably different, as was their way of processing information and experiences. Those of you who remember the pre-internet days will know that everything just worked a lot slower back then! As a result, people took more time to do things. Getting from point A to point B or getting in touch with X could take your entire day instead of a 5 minute subway ride or video call. The fact that slowing down and taking time is what allows us to tap into the simple pleasures of life is wisdom as old as the first recorded texts in known history, so it’s probably fair to say that people living in “slower” times were better equipped to appreciate said simple pleasures (p.s. if you’re not clear on what “simple pleasures” are, then that in itself is telling. Think about enjoying the breeze on a warm fall day, reading a book in a hammock for an afternoon or skipping rocks on a pond or whatever floats your boat. Simple pleasures.)

This different relationship to time is also one of the things that makes a lot of tropical countries so attractive to over productive occidentals – when we’re in a context where people treat time differently and live life at a slower pace, be it for cultural, technological or climatic reasons, we start to loosen up and allow ourselves to sink into observation and enjoyment of just being alive. Just ask your grandparents about what they did for leisure or fun as kids and teenagers. Even those in the unfortunate situation of zero leisure time can probably scrounge up memories of what they enjoyed doing in their youth. The types of things they mention can be great food for thought when contemplating how to apply minimalism (i.e., getting down to the essentials!) to your leisure time, whether it be solo or as a family or friend group.

27.5 Action-Point Summary: Here’s What You Need to Do Now!

“The elders are the history and mirror of the living past. Study them to brighten your life and future.” Ehsan Sehgal

Most of us live in societies that do not emphasize the importance of learning from past generations enough. Families no longer live in multigenerational homes by default. It’s a lot harder to access the wisdom of older people than it used to be. But if you’re looking for inspiration and renewed passion or your shift to a holistically minimalist lifestyle, you’ll find stories directly transmitted from those who lived in completely different times to be a gold-mine.

  1. Have a talk with your grandparents (or someone else of their generation that you’re close to) about what were considered luxuries in their youth. *Note: if you don’t have any friends or connections in your grandparents age group, now would be a good time to start making them! The effort of building such a relationship is well-worth it!
  2. Make a list of things you own that you don’t “need,” using your discussion with your grandparents as a reference point.
  3. Adjust the list to fit your current work-life context and eliminate the things you truly don’t need or don’t add value to your all-around quality of life (remember, things that you like for one reason but that which have negative overall impacts on your life are definitely not needs!)
  4. Have a chat about the meaning of Life with the elder of your choice. Seriously.
  5. Slow down! Learn about the leisure activities of the past and boost your quality of life by enjoying the simple pleasures!
  1. 15 Things Our Grandparents Lived Without (And We Probably Could Too), Jason (Frugal Dad), frugaldad.com
  2. Why Is Watching TV So Bad For You?, ABC Health & Wellbeing, abc.net.au
  3. A Push In Perception Quotes, Abhijit Naskar, goodreads.com

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