Paperlessness, Ephemerality, and Death

Dawn on the Ganges 2008Three or four years ago I spent a lot of time and money creating a series of scrapbooks that combined photos, art, and artefacts to describe my life.  Last weekend I ripped them all into pieces.

Most of the pages and photos were thrown away. The rest will be scanned and then thrown away.

Minimizing is an exercise in detachment; how much can you bear to lose? When I scan and then shred the photographs and documents that record my life — grade-school report cards, achievement certificates, diplomas — I know I’m losing something. Paper texts can survive for thousands of years. Digital texts are likely to corrupt or become obsolete in a matter of decades.

So my fingers linger over the items a moment before I rip them in half or consign them to the shredder. Their destruction is a commitment; by destroying them, I loosen myself from my past. The digital files are still there, of course, like a safety net, but how often will I look at them? How long will it take before they’re lost or corrupted?

I destroy documents with an awareness that I’m destroying the very data scholars like me love to consult for information about the past; with an awareness that I’m going to forget many of the times recorded in these artefacts because I’ll no longer have them at my fingertips as reminders; and with an awareness that I’m saving my relatives the pain of deciding what to do with those documents after I’m dead.

For me, simplicity, minimalism, and paperlessness cannot be separated from my awareness of ephemerality and death.

I didn’t always think this way. When I was an Air Force brat, home was where my Stuff was. Houses and schools and friends might change every few years, but my Stuff was always with me, a sign of stability and security.

Of course, as I matured, I realized there is no stability and security. Everything changes. I began practicing voluntary simplicity after my divorce, looking for answers that couldn’t be found in other people or in material objects. My practice shifted toward minimalism after my mother died and my sister and I had to decide what to do with all the things she’d left behind.

Now, every object I give away and every paper I shred means one less thing to attach me to the past and one less thing to trouble my heirs in the future.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not completely unsentimental. I’ve kept my share of nostalgic items: my dented silver baby cup; the Alice in Wonderland books my mother read to me as a child; mementos from some of my trips, and the like. Nor do I live like an ascetic: I enjoy artwork and own nice furniture and buy rather too many blazers. But I’m trying to keep my eyes on the future rather than on the past and to put my faith in the spiritual rather than in the physical. So I keep paring down, editing, and streamlining, reminding myself that these items are simply passing through my life the way I pass through the lives of others — for a very brief period of time measured against the vastness of eternity.

Image Credit: Dawn on the Ganges, Varanasi 2008, by Dru

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