I write these words on my thirty-ninth birthday. Like many unmarried thirty-somethings living in California, I have lived a life of great and varied pursuits, achieving all of my goals. I’m part of the “be all you can be” and “never give up on your dreams” generation. I earned a master’s degree in teaching English and then became a national-level bodybuilder, a lifeguard, a nightclub bouncer, a magazine cover model, an inner-city schoolteacher, a reality TV star, a missionary to Kenya, a published writer and photographer, and an Emmy-nominated film producer. Now all I think about is what’s next: the perfect marriage and beautiful children.
I read somewhere that my generation is so addicted to success that for us it’s not enough to simply be president; we would also require a two-term presidency with a strong legislative legacy in order to feel truly accomplished. Now, to be certain, there are movements toward minimalism, especially in the Gen-Z crowd, that on the surface seem to repudiate the “grab life by the horns” attitude of role models like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Navy SEAL Jocko Willink. Contemporary minimalism is often characterized by what devotees refer to as “van life,” wherein young people live (often cohabitate) inside of vans or renovated school buses or trailer homes ensconced in America’s national park system.
At a glance, van life seems to shuffle off the addiction to sublunary pursuits in a poetic surrender to a Kerouacian or Whitmanesque “freedom” for living. However, I can say from experience that this sort of self-involved exploration breeds its own form of addiction (just look at the lives of those two authors). When I was twenty-five years old, I had a bad experience working in business, so I escaped the rat race for a while and became a drifter, working odd jobs to pay for new tattoos and ninety-nine-cent burritos, couch-surfing my way up and down the California coast for the cheap rent and killer sunsets. My whole life centered on the carefree pursuit of fun new experiences, and I was always looking for the next fix.
The combination of both of these addictive lifestyles is on display in the character of Ruben Stone, a professional drummer who suffers sudden and acute hearing loss in Amazon Prime’s original film Sound of Metal. Ruben, played brilliantly by Rizwan Ahmed, and his vocalist girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) live together in a vintage RV. These starving artists tour America playing heavy metal music to small crowds in the pursuit of landing a record deal. Tragedy strikes when Ruben descends into a nightmare of silence, and we begin to see that this couple is damagingly codependent. Since Ruben is a recovering heroin addict, Lou fears he will begin using again and calls his sponsor. Together they compel the now-deaf musician to enter a church-sponsored sober-living home for the hearing impaired. Without Lou as his crutch, Ruben has little choice but to adapt to his disability while devising a way to afford the cochlear implants that would, in his estimation, give him his life back.
The problem of dependence is a powerful motif woven throughout the film, which is first revealed in Ruben’s addiction to worldly success. The opening scenes relay the obsessive way in which Ruben pounds his way through life. We read the tattoo “Please Kill Me” across his sweaty torso as he violently strikes the skins of his drums night after night. He wakes up early and follows a strict regimen of green power smoothies, organic breakfasts, and exercises followed by the meticulous cleaning and fixing of his musical equipment. After a doctor warns him of the damage he’s done and the importance of protecting his last bit of hearing, Ruben heads straight for the next gig and completely obliterates his eardrums. Even after becoming deaf, he tries to convince Lou to let him play by memory even though he can barely communicate with her. When he arrives at the sober-living facility, the paterfamilias of the church community, appropriately named “Joe” (as in St. Joseph, patron of the Church), wisely explains that Ruben needs to fix what’s going on in his mind and not what’s happening in his ears.
The protagonist’s addiction to the carefree pleasures of the “van life” comes to light during his stay with the deaf community. Ruben Stone—how like “Rolling Stone”—wishes to gather no moss, to keep moving, and he hates the idea of settling into this home. Joe notices his need for sense-stimulation and establishes a new morning routine where Ruben must wake up at 5 a.m., only to go sit in an empty room with a desk and a chair, where he can do nothing but write. The goal, Joe explains, is not the writing, as no one will ever read what he’s written. The purpose of the exercise is to wear himself down by writing—to write until he can sit in silence and be at peace.
Despite the fact that Ruben builds wonderful relationships with the community members (he becomes a role model for deaf children while learning sign language), he remains restless and unhappy. Like a true addict, he sneaks on to social media and views the life he left behind: Lou is playing shows in Paris. Unable to cope, he tells Joe that staying here means “my life will mean nothing, and when I die no one will remember me.” This is reminiscent of the scene in the classic film A Man for All Seasons, where Sir Thomas More listens to a similar lament from Master Richard Rich, who speaks about the prospect of being a schoolteacher instead of a famous politician: “If I was, who would know it?” To which More replies, “You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.”
On the eve of my thirty-ninth birthday, I watched Ruben stubbornly resist a beautiful life with his new family. I couldn’t help feeling the weight of G.K. Chesterton’s famous line: “The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.” What if the right path is not being all that you can be? What if choosing to do less brings more joy than experiencing the whole world? These questions made me think of minimalism in a new way.
What is authentic minimalism? Perhaps it’s less about your shrinking your carbon footprint and more about choosing a life of humility. I think here of my grandparents. Their marriage was far from ideal, but they chose to be happy in it. My grandmother was a sharp woman who loved to argue. She would have made a great lawyer, but she lived the opportunity most present to her, which was to be a homemaker. My grandfather built all his own houses. He was a brilliant man and could have been a mechanical engineer. However, he took the opportunity presently available to him, which was to be a factory worker.
My grandparents made caring for each other and their family the only real priority. In essence, their lives were about love, willing the good of others (not themselves). Whether their work was personally fulfilling to them was never of paramount concern, nor how much they were able to travel, nor how many fancy things they could afford. When I look at the fullness of their lives, I see a richness that’s beyond my striving.
In a word, our generation’s obsession with “optimal living” might be making us miserable. The antidote might be to embrace the ordinary rather than pursuing whatever we think is ideal. Perhaps we might be better off cultivating a willingness—even better, an eagerness—to work an ordinary job, marry an ordinary spouse, have ordinary kids, and be buried in an ordinary cemetery. Living such a life might free us of our selfish, relentless pursuit of wealth, power, pleasure, and honor and redirect our energy to the everlasting—to God and the things of God. Now, that’s not to say we hide our lamp under a bushel basket (see Matt. 5:15) and live pusillanimously, denying ourselves the fullness of life. Christ came that we might have life and have it to the full! (see John 10:10). The question is what does a full life look like?
Thomas Merton, the great writer and Trappist monk, was visited in his hermitage by a group of Christian students after one of his books became popular. The pastor of the group asked Merton why he wastes his talents sitting in a cell in rural Kentucky when he could be out giving talks and making a much bigger impact on the world. The monk replied with a smile, “I believe in prayer. It is my vocation.” For Thomas Merton, there was nothing he could be doing that was more important or impactful than praying.
Bishop Barron reminds us that there is a difference between ambition and magnanimity. Ambition is a worldly desire for an increase of self. Magnanimity is literally “large-souled-ness.” A magnanimous person has no fear of taking on any mission given to her by God, no matter how large or how small. The key, Bishop says, is that “your life is not about you.” A magnanimous person only pursues things in the measure that they increase her capacity for self-forgetting love. It seems that, most often, the greatest acts of love are found in the little way, the paths closest to us that require no pursuit, only surrender.
I recommend watching Sound of Metal and perhaps considering how your life might change if you were no longer able to march to the beat of your own drumming. As for me, I’m going to use this thirty-ninth year of my life, beginning with the season of Lent, as an opportunity to step out of the cacophony of my own desires and open myself to pursuing less and loving more.