Less is more and charity

Some of my articles I write as a figure of authority, others as a confession. Minimalism is not something I am good at.  Giving away is something I do often, but without real joy. This is an issue of personal style and it comes with warranties. Read more here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Binary perception

People who actually were really poor both romanticize and fear poverty.

I was poor as a new immigrant (age 14), to the point that I had to eat slightly rotting food and clean schools for money. This period was very short, yet it had a minor traumatic effect on my life. I love certain pleasures and do not ever want to lose them. Possibly this fear of losing too much keeps me from getting rid of things I do not really need.

My wife also had her period of poverty which was significantly longer than mine, only she experienced it as freedom and autonomy. Poor people can be burdened by their fears and needs, but rarely by material possessions.

We are different not only in this. I want to know everything, while my wife is happy with a laser-sharp focus on learning abilities.  I feel perfectly happy indoors, while my wife always wants to travel.  What is common: we tend to think in binary terms of good and bad,  while the truth is in the middle.

People who have less give more

There are several types of research explaining why people who have less tend to give more:

  • Their time orientation is on today’s joys and not on the future
  • Contextually poor people feel more compassion to others in similar situations
  • Poor do not have much to lose except their ethical position and are less likely to lie and cheat
  • Giving is a way to establish status and poor people are happy to give

Numerically the differences in inclination to charity are 4.95 percent vs. 2.95 percent of the income. For comparison, religions often ask for 10 percent charity.

Personally I feel that the differences between individuals are much larger than this disparity.

How much text is enough

We can write texts of any length we want. It is usually harder to write a very good short text than an equally good long piece. There is a story of a famous Chinese poet, who as a boy submitted a very short piece for the state exam that was about to determine his life. This puzzled everybody because the poem was much shorter than the usual format. Yet it was so complete and powerful that he won the highest honors.

What is especially remarkable in people writing short pieces: their precision both in taste and in choice of words. My natural tendency would be to the short format (I used to write poetry as a child), however this is not what you see:

  • English is still a foreign language and I do not feel it sufficiently precisely
  • Search engines prefer a long form of text
  • Both I and most of my readers are simply too busy to meditate deeply over each and every word

My wife chooses to write long sentences because she is not sure in her ability to say everything that needs to be said. So she adds more.

Short texts are harder not only to write but also to read, as we need to generate more visualizations per paragraph. Many of our students feel good to visualize just one word from a paragraph, so they probably read a lot of redundant text. I usually need to visualize around 9 words per paragraph, because my texts tend to have many details. When I read Wikipedia I often need to visualize 6 words per sentence, because Wikipedia favors short texts.

What actually burdens us?

Are we more burdened by having more or by having less? I have a friend who is an alpinist. He literally weighs all of his possessions on digital scales, trying to minimize the stuff that he takes. As I travel in comfort, my luggage is redundant, but I pack for two weeks in 15 minutes. Is he more limited by his minimalism or I by my abundance? I definitely will not climb with my luggage, but other than that I feel free…

We also work on the same projects. I always feel that his approach is too specific and we often need to rewrite his code, while he feels that my code is harder to read and understand. Interestingly, I complete my pieces of code faster, because I do not weigh each and every line.

I would argue that we are more burdened by our fears and limitations, than by responsibility or resources. Somehow the busiest people always find time for what needs to be done, while people who have time tend to use all of it on their task and then ask for more. [Parkinson’s Law is usually expressed as “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”]

Changing the reference levels

Our perception of happiness is relative. The more we have, the harder it becomes to be happy, locking us in a vicious cycle. As we start with less, we experience more joy.

Minimalists know how to enjoy removing everything they do not really need. The result often tends to be much more expensive than the full package due to better materials and more precise work. It also tends to be less adaptable to variations in the environment, yet it has the sublime joy of optimality.

I was trained as a mathematician and as an engineer. Each time I could prove optimality the mathematician in me rejoiced, but then the engineer tested the result and added a mechanism for robustness.

Some people are simply more secure and optimistic than others, and they feel good enough with something beautiful. Others need safety mechanisms, even when these mechanisms are ugly. Today’s cars are infinitely safer and efficient in fuel consumption than the classic cars of 50s and 60s, yet which cars look and sound better?

Mindfulness is not always positive

Taking the tools of psychological support, positive self-talk, and mindfulness to criminals might lead to uneasy results. This theme occasionally appears in films and TV series like Sopranos. Some people use every tool they have to become more efficient in doing bad things. Others do not like the person within and need a way to escape themselves.

We have different needs and values. I felt comfortable meditating 2 hours every day as a student, but now these two hours will be taken from my family and people who trust me to promote their interests. Each time I truly rest for several hours beyond the “maintenance” of sleep and sports, I feel a sort of guilt. My “to do” list is longer than the American constitution, and if I do not make progress I feel that somebody suffers.

Back to personal differences

What is our reference level? Are we looking for optimality or robustness? Are we worried about the future or joyful about the present? Do we value higher the security of possession or the joy of giving? Do you value beauty or functionality?

I guess we need to accept who we are, and at the same time to change in positive ways. Some solutions will be optimal and beautiful, other solutions will be robust and effective. Both should be acceptable.


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