The Self-Righteousness of Minimalism and Vagabonding

June 14, 2017

I never knew how luxurious my childhood home was until I met Paula.

Paula was raised in a one-room apartment in Poland during communism, I was raised in a four-bedroom house in the suburbs of Massachusetts.

Here’s a picture of it.

I still remember the look on Paula’s face when we she saw it for the first time — it was like we had pulled up to Buckingham Palace and were being greeted by the Queen’s guards.

In that moment, it finally hit me — I had a very privileged childhood.

Now, you may have read that last line and thought “jeez Dave, how come it took so long for you to figure that out” — and I would agree. It’s easy to overlook how lucky we are, especially in a culture that encourages us to always want more and keep up with the Joneses. I actually have memories as a kid of feeling inadequate, because I compared where I lived to my friends who had bigger houses, or second homes on Cape Cod — and yet all that seemed completely ridiculous in light of Paula’s reflection.

And, as if a nice house with my own bedroom wasn’t enough, my parents were meticulous about making sure all my needs were met. I never had to worry about my basic needs so I got to do things like pursue my interests, take music lessons, play team sports, and eventually grow up to be a minimalist vagabond.

And that’s what I want to talk about — how being a minimalist and a vagabond is made possible by circumstances I can’t take credit for.

Stuff = Security

I’ve spent the last eight months living out of a medium-sized backpack, which means that I own a lot less stuff than the average American. While it’s true that it’s taken discipline to live this way, it’s also true that I have access to everything I need that I don’t own.

We often feel the need to own things we don’t freely have access to.

I have a vast network of friends across the world — thanks to the fact that I haven’t had to spend all my time working. I’m resourceful — thanks to the lessons my parents taught me, and I have the ability to make money with just my laptop — thanks to the fact that I grew up tinkering with computers and the latest technology.

It’s a bit like this quote, often attributed to Mark Twain — If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.

Another version of that is — If I had more security, I would have less possessions.

While it’s true that there are many people who have too much stuff because they’re lazy, it’s also true that I’m able to roll with just a few possessions because I don’t need the sense of security that an attic full of stuff would give me — thanks to that childhood I mentioned earlier.

It’s almost as if my childhood home — which my parents still live in, complete with my bedroom exactly as it was when I graduated high school — provides the confidence I need to live a risky adult life. Even if I never see myself moving back in, there’s a little part of my mind that knows I can, and that gives me a psychological safety net no Tony Robbins seminar could ever provide.

It wouldn’t be right for me to preach about vagabonding and “throwing caution to the wind” without first acknowledging why I can do that.

All Travelers Are Rich

One of the things you begin to notice when you travel a lot is that many travelers have a similar story. They grew up in a financially and emotionally stable environment, and are now setting out to see the world — partly because traveling can offer the kind of struggle and hardship that their formative years did not.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t give our kids easy lives, but I am saying that it’s disingenuous to think that all you need to be a traveler is courage because you see broke kids from Western Europe backpacking through Asia.

I’ve been that self-righteous traveler who thought my intestinal fortitude was the main reason I could bike through Europe for three months, or live in Bali for five months. I even have the old articles to prove it.

Yes that had something to do with courage, but it’s not the whole story. If I were to compare my experience to someone else who grew up with my same circumstance then maybe, maybe I would have the right to say “just go for it” but the truth is we never know what other people have been through, and what it would take for them to make the same choices as us.

This is one of the main problems with the self-help industry. This idea of “I can do it, so can you” is an incomplete statement. I’m not saying we can’t overcome our obstacles, but I imagine it can seem pretty damn disheartening if someone who has come from poverty, abuse and neglect has to compare themselves to a rich white kid who was born with a silver spoon.

Yes — if someone else can do it so can you, but if we’re not also talking about the fact that we weren’t all given the same opportunities growing up than the self-help industry will just be full of people who came from privilege — as it currently is.

This was the same thing I ran into in the life coaching industry. I was told that it’s easy to enroll high-end clients, but the reality was that the coaches who enrolled high-end clients with ease knew people with a lot of money, either because of their family, a corporate job they worked at or both. The coaches that spent most of their time around middle-class people had a hard time enrolling high-end clients, no matter how good a coach they were.

The White Man’s Burden

So what’s a cis-gendered, able-bodied, well-off white guy like me to do?

Should I give up traveling and burn my passport with all those exotic stamps? Should I trade in my REI membership for a worker’s union card? Should I acknowledge my privilege and shame others like me to create a moral high-ground?

I’ve got a better idea — I’ll become a savior.

I’ll come down from my throne and walk amongst the people. I’ll witness their suffering with compassion. I’ll give up all my possessions and sit under a tree and meditate for as long as I want. I’ll teach common folk that if they only tried hard enough, showed enough faith and meditated hard enough they could feel the same inner peace as me — completely forgetting the fact that my childhood looked nothing like theirs.

Then I’ll start a religion.

And I shall call it, Budhhism Boodaism.

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