The Joy of Keeping Things Simple: My Interpretation of "Simplicity's Warmth"

The whole point of advertising is to cause fear.

If you don't buy the new toilet cleaner, you'll become ill from all of those nasty germs.

If you don't buy the new iPhone you'll be a social leper because your phone doesn't have a new feature that is only a very marginal improvement on previous iterations.

If you don't buy that new pair of trainers, you'll be a loser. Your old trainers were the height of fashion up to a week ago but now the new fashions are out you look like an idiot and everyone will dance round you in a circle, clapping, and chanting "Scruffbag! Scruffbag!"

I may be joking and making light of this phenomenon but there is a dark side to advertising in this way. An individual company is not necessarily doing anything nefarious by advertising their products in this way. Causing fear is a very good way to get people to buy your products and obviously they have to sell things to pay their staff.

The problem arises because everyone is doing this; everyone is adding their little bit of fear to the mix. Consumers can't afford everything so that's a lot of fear that is not being dealt with. Let's take the examples at the top of this page. Imagine that Reggie can only afford to buy some new trainers and the toilet cleaner. But now, he's stuck with a two-year-old phone that everyone sneers at and he doesn't have access to that "sparkly, brand new, marginally better than what came before" feature. Add all of the other things that he can't afford to buy and you've got a recipe for anxiety and depression.

One solution to this problem is to buy as much as possible. This is something I've got experience of. I used to buy a lot of stuff, an obscene amount of stuff. Nothing too expensive, but a lot of stuff nonetheless. I justified it by saying that I was a collector, or that I worked really hard so why not treat myself, or that I needed it so badly because it was so new and shiny.

Every purchase was a short term fix though. That initial burst of pleasure soon dissipated. I would very quickly lose interest in something I'd just bought and be on the lookout for the next thing to buy. Thinking back now, I probably can't remember even a quarter of the things I bought. They can't have been that important.

In the end, the sheer amount of stuff I had made me miserable. The house was cluttered. I felt guilt over things I'd bought and hardly used. With a not small amount of shame, I can admit that some purchases never even made it out of the shrink wrap. They never even got opened up and looked at, never mind used.

Then three things happened over a period of several years that made me change the way I thought:

Number 1. Fight Club

I haven't seen this film in many years but my initial viewing had a profound impact on me. I hadn't questioned my consumerism before, hadn't seen it as a problem, it was simply the way things were. But Fight Club made me think, maybe there is another way.

Number 2. Stuffocation

If Fight Club planted a seed in my mind then the book Stuffocation by James Wallman fed it, watered it, and popped it out in the greenhouse. I wasn't alone in having these thoughts. The problem was much bigger than that. Here was a book about people who'd done something about it. Minimalism is the main topic of the book but it also looks at a future where people don't consume as much to protect the environment. The argument is made that if people don't spend money on stuff they will still want to spend money to get a buzz and also to show their status. The author suggests experiences as the way forward. Spas, theatres, escape rooms, restaurants, holidays, etc are all examples. Making these experiences more luxurious and expensive allows people to post about them on social media to make everyone else strongly dislike them for being privileged show-offs. These new experiences would become the equivalent of a BMW with a personalised number plate.

I can see this experience-based economy becoming a reality in the future. It's already happening now. And it's already causing anxiety and depression. Rising inequality is not helping matters either.

Advertising is having the same effect as before, it's how advertising works, but now it's with experiences. This may be better environmentally but it's not good for our mental health.

And so we come to...

Number 3. Favourite memories

Everything suddenly came into focus one day when I was thinking about my favourite times with the people I love. Not one of my favourite memories involves expensive stuff. Not one of my favourite memories involves expensive experiences. But they do all involve simple things and time. They are not things that I would feel the need to post about on social media. They are events that are personal and special to me. I better give you one example so that you can see what I mean though.

I could tell you about many of my memories of my Granddad, they are all great memories and they all are based on him spending time with me, but I'll just tell you my favourite. It was a gorgeous day in Summer and he had come to pick me up from school. As we were walking home, he brought out a small brown paper bag. In the bag were some strawberries that he'd picked from his garden. We sauntered back to his house eating these sweet treats and chatting about our day. It was happiness distilled into a single moment. The total cost? In today's money, probably less than a pound. The time cost? Ten minutes to find a bag, pick the strawberries, and wash them. Twenty minutes to walk to school and wait for me. Ten minutes to walk back. So about forty minutes in total. The gift he gave me was his time, not money.

This holds for all of my other favourite memories.

The obvious question is if my favourite memories don't revolve around money, stuff, or luxury experiences, why did I spend so much time and money chasing these things? Peer pressure, dopamine addiction, and advertising will have all played their part but I think there was a deeper problem I was trying to alleviate. I'll come back to this when I give you my interpretation of my next painting.

I've made quite a few changes to the way I live based on these thoughts. I still have a collection of DVDs and Blu-Rays but it is a lot smaller than my video collection used to be. I operate on a one-in-one-out basis so that it never spirals out of control and becomes cluttered. When I first heard about Netflix a few years ago, I thought that all of my problems had been sorted. The idea that I could watch films at any time without any physical media was very exciting. The reality of Netflix, and indeed all streaming services, is extremely disappointing. I had a free trial for a month and managed to watch all the films I fancied in about half of that time. I had wanted to sell my collection of DVDs and go completely digital but none of the films I own are on Netflix. Add to this the problem that films can be taken off at a moment's notice and streaming becomes a poor proposition. I live in the hope that eventually every film will be available to stream along with all of its extras and commentaries. Until that time, I've limited the amount I spend on films. I have what is called a Hammer fund. I put away £1 a week to be spent on films. The reason for it being called the Hammer fund is that for the vast majority of the time, I buy films made by Hammer, especially the ones made in the fifties and sixties.

Spotify has meant that I can get rid of my CD collection though. Now, all we need is the Spotify of film.

I have a fund for board games that I pay into weekly and have a one-in-one-out policy. If there is a game I'm not playing that often, I sell it. Board games and films, that's pretty much all I buy, so now that I've got a system for those I'm pretty much sorted. Well, almost.

The other thing we've done is to drastically slim down the stuff we've got in the house. We regularly go through our cupboards and either sell things we don't use or send them to a charity shop. If possible we try to get rid of our storage too. At the moment, my wife has cleaned out a free-standing cupboard and we're going to get a charity shop to pick it up. If you don't have storage space, you're less likely to buy more stuff.

An unintended consequence of all of this minimalism and decluttering is that dusting and cleaning are so much quicker and easier. Every time we get rid of something, I feel lighter and my head feels clearer. I only realise now how much my past self was a real-world embodiment of the Prince from Katamari Damacy, rolling around a landscape picking up stuff until I was a huge unwieldy ball of junk.

Something else that I've tried to do is spend more time with the people I care about. This doesn't always work because everyone else is so busy all of the time. When I do get the chance though, I enjoy spending time with people, whether that is in person or by speaking on the phone. At the time of writing, we are amid the COVID-19 pandemic so talking on the phone is the best option for me. Changing my mindset and spending more time with people has led me to have some very special times with my Mum and Dad. I'm incredibly happy to have these memories. Leaving teaching has led to me having a lot less money but a lot more time. I have no regrets about giving up my wage. I don't think I could put a price on these new memories that I wouldn't have had if I'd had less time.

So how does this all fit in with my painting "Simplicity's Warmth"? Let's have a look...

The main character is a marionette. I wanted something very simple but also something that was being controlled by an external force. In the painting, you can see that the strings have been cut and the figure is floating up into the air as if it is as light as air. There is a sense of awe and wonder in its face as it looks at the sphere at the top of the image. There are some elements within the painting that even I'm not sure why I did them, such as the marionette having the feel of a sea creature. Some ideas came out of the free association phase I do when I'm planning my paintings and some just seemed to be the right thing for the painting. I let my subconscious do a lot of the work for me.

The design of the sphere was heavily driven by my story about the strawberries. I went for the simplest of shapes, a sphere, but then gave it many complicated layers. I re-enacted my trip home from school eating strawberries to help me come up with ideas. Savouring those strawberries in a very mindful way allowed me to experience many layers of complexity in the flavour and texture of the fruit. I allowed myself time when I got home to come up with lists of words based on my trip. One word that came up often in this free association session was "warmth" and also words relating to it: "warm", "heat" and "all-consuming warmth".

I added the ribbons for two reasons: one was for the composition and the other was to show the joy the character was experiencing. The ribbons were great for making the painting three-dimensional. They can move in and out of the z-axis and create a lot of depth in an image that was desperately lacking.

The vortex at the bottom of the image with the strange abstract town falling into it represents me moving away from stuff and clutter. I wanted the shapes of the buildings to be meaningless and not relate to any real-world objects just as the vast amount of stuff I used to own was similarly nonsensical.

The overall feeling I wanted to impart with this painting is the joy of the simple and taking the time to appreciate that. In your life this could be something like having a cup of tea with someone you care about, looking at a flower, or the feel of water hitting you as you have a shower. I'm sure you can come up with examples of your own. So be present, live in the moment and take your time so that the joy of these simple moments doesn't pass you by.

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