The heart of essentialism isn’t about asking how little we can live with, but determining what we simply cannot live without.
Like its austere doppelgänger minimalism, essentialism dislikes excess. But you don’t have to wear only black, drink coffee without cream or purge your secondhand books to hone life to a fine point. Although living sparely has its virtues, the grand task of essential living is to uncover the elements that bring us rapture.
The thing that encumbers one person is often the buoyant must-have of another. If you search online for “things people can’t live without,” you’ll find lists including anything from a morning cup of coffee to punctuation and a good cry every now and then. We’ve all witnessed the caprices of another: A friend of mine can’t go a day without drinking a shot of melting chocolate, and another never travels without his pillow, stuffing the goose-down rectangle into even the smallest luggage. A digital artist may go home to no screens but 56 houseplants, while a nomad writer constantly relocates with only a large duffel filled with rare books. What might seem to be eccentricity is actually fine-tuned discipline.
Arbitrarily inviting everything that appeals to you into your life is just imprudent excess, like a good dinner party gone haywire because the host didn’t bother revising the guest list. Without the guiding discrimination of our inner voices, our lives can be filled randomly with things that may be generally good, but not the best. A cultivated selectivity can transform plain objects into relics of our life story.
Our personal relationship to items gives them significance, an essence that goes beyond their physical properties. Perhaps the ratty paper in our wallet is actually a scrap from a once-visited abbey in Ireland, a reminder to always adventure. Or the random accumulation of hand lotions at our desk is more about our attention to self-care than a product fetish. We might keep an item out of sentiment, to better equip us for life or simply because we just like having it around. Whatever our motivations, this often illogical but honest act of curation humanizes our existence.
Even the questionable habits we can’t seem to break help to refine our individuality. Maybe we take conference calls in the bathtub or bust out the bad jokes when we’re nervous. The freak flags we may disregard or be embarrassed about might not exactly be virtues in and of themselves, but they’re vital elements that make us who we are. Oscar Wilde walked his pet lobster on a leash, Flannery O’Connor doted on her 50 peacocks and the German writer Friedrich Schiller could only work with rotten apples piled in his desk drawer. Friedrich Nietzsche always ignored lunch invitations and instead dined alone on beefsteak and fruit in the middle of a crowded restaurant. He was convinced that the sometimes lonely and awkward struggle to not just be one of the tribe is a worthy price to pay for owning yourself.
Perhaps the entire point of essentialism is this process of self-actualization. If asked to identify the non-negotiables in our lives, we probably wouldn’t think about the restraints of our five item wardrobe or our abstinence from sugar, but about the times when we’ve palpably lived. We couldn’t imagine life without the tribal rug we bought in Tangier or dad’s smoking jacket in the back of our closet, unworn but revered. As we follow those internal pulls and sometimes irrational desires, the superfluity disappears and leaves us each with our own messy and eccentric authenticity. And nothing is more essential than that.