The Traumas of Downsizing


Selling up and moving house is a very stressful process. If I had to characterise the key drama in our recent move from a large three bedroom home to a two bedroom shoebox it would be, paradoxically, ‘downsizing’. In our future life, downsizing will probably be only a temporary aberration during an expansion into 50 acres and a renovated shoe box. Currently we are still downsizing – but as Monty Python episodes so clearly demonstrate, personal difficulties expose the contradictory absurdities of life. Is it possible to downsize into an expanded physical space? In our case ‘yes’ is hopefully a possible answer, but who knows?

There is at least one good moral lesson here: downsizing is such an absurd idea in contemporary culture, that it may be key to everything: the holy grail of a post Trump world.

Indeed, downsizing is an anti-zeitgeist word – it stands for everything good and healthy in modern worlds of excess and decline. One could usefully talk of downsizing most things: the economy, population growth, personal possessions, house sizes, consumption, and waistlines; yet the avoidance of downsizing is an even more pressing concern.

We have to wonder why such a good idea as ‘downsizing’ is so often resisted. What makes such an obvious antidote to human excess so unpopular? Could the logic and practice of growth economies be so dominant? Could human nature be at the bottom of this - does all life move ‘naturally’ towards excess? Could humanity be fundamentally perverse in its drive to maximise self-interest?

These social forces are obviously compelling. And this reasoning can be reinforced through reflection on personal experience - which reveals that downsizing may be a difficult and painful process. Could it be that the zen of simplicity is an aesthetic most easily achieved in Japanese movies, and in the ideological contemplation of spiritual and counter-cultural ideologies . . . but rarely achieved in anyone’s material practices? After all everybody avoids pain and struggle if possible – except characters in zen movies.

As experienced, downsizing can be traumatic. Downsizing means loss, non-attachment, identity change . . . basically, contraction - with all the attendant emotions (it is sobering to think that this kind of pain is the beginning of future processes of adjustment humanity will not be able to avoid).

Even in the most banal circumstances downsizing may be traumatic. For instance, moving house generally requires radical and traumatic action. Chucking out the accumulations of years of living – including clearing out the shed, throwing out old files and downsizing book collections – raises flags and presses buttons. Old memories return; childhood returns. All that was repressed returns. Letting go is as complex and painful as a Woody Allen film.

But there is a curious fascination in contemplating projects that failed or never got started – such as careers that sputtered, failed or diverted, relationships that no longer are, and so on. Why does one tend to hang on to past emotions and frustrated aspirations? What use are personal histories that might have been?

Indeed, who is actually watching, and who really cares? According to the wisdom of ages, the absurdity of any individual life can be a release from self-importance; the smallness of an individual world can be a relief and not a catastrophe. Two things are absolutely certain: life is short and increasingly fragile in old age. And perhaps there is a third great truth: downsizing has something for everybody.

In other words, the third great truth is that downsizing is an ecological project that humanity must undertake. We will not get off the planet in time to keep growing into the future.

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