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The Blog of Photographer Steven Gray

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Fear of the Void, Frasier’s Waistline, and the Art of Reduction

Lately, a recurring theme in my thoughts and conversations has been reduction.

By “reduction,” I refer to it less as a reference to quantity or chemistry, but as an idea. More specifically, the common idea of “cutting back” on specific elements of daily life in order to improve its overall quality. If someone talks about "cutting back, it is usually means that they are reducing some form of expenditure or consumption to see an increase in some other area of life.  At a basic level, it's the most sensible way to streamline and improve life: to have extra time, you must do less. To have more money, spend less money. To improve your weight, eat less.

What I find interesting about reduction in practice is the way in which people often miss the point of the concept entirely, confusing reduction with exchange, or even addition. Sometimes people have such unquestioned assumptions or misconceptions that they actually add elements to their lives in misguided attempts to achieve some form of minimalism.  You don't have to look any further than people's smart phones for proof of this point--how many separate "productivity" apps can one person use before the returns become diminished to nil?

My favorite example of the reduction-through-addition confusion is in a classic episode of Frasier. In the episode “Frasier-Lite,” Frasier and his coworkers at the radio station enter a group weight loss competition. At their second weigh-in, they discover that their team is heavier than when they started. Frasier, with his ever-present glass of sherry and penchant for gourmet cooking, is identified as the weak leak.

“How can that be?” Frasier sputters in indignant disbelief, “I added a salad to every meal!”

That scene makes me laugh just by writing it out, because Frasier’s glaring misconception sums up many of the innate confusions people operate by on a daily basis.  It is my belief that true reduction is hard for many people to understand because it is simple in theory, but uncomfortable in practice. It is easy to say that something needs to be given up. Actually giving something up is much harder. I think this has to do with the human fear of change, but I think it can also be defined a more specifically as fear of a void.

We are confronted every day by choices. It doesn’t matter if we want something to eat, watch, buy or do; we can be guaranteed of multiple options to choose from. For a culture, this is a double-edged sword. Positively, it is an indicator of wealth and success. Negatively, it betrays an entire culture’s over-reliance on material elements at the expense of objectivity, critical thinking and spiritual fulfillment.

Why else would weight loss or budgeting be so complicated? At their core, they both concepts can be condensed to a single sentence apiece: Spend less. Eat less. Entire bookstore shelves could be replaced by single placards if a perceived need to fill all empty spaces did not exist.  If the basic concepts were better understood, individuals' methods of implementing them would cease to be a reliant on the systems and advice of others, and would instead be expressions of personality.

This is extremely apparent when I listen to people talk about time management, then watch how they go about doing it. Everyone wants more time, but as soon as they liberate some space in their schedules, they immediately seek out something new to fill the void. After striving and cutting back activities to have "a moment's peace," the reality of being alone with one's own thoughts is suddenly too terrible to bear, and the void must needs be filled.  Western cultures in particular often perceive voids as a symptom of idleness or of having a lack of constructive activities. In reality, extra time for one’s own self can be a wellspring of creativity to benefit the areas in life where meeting goals and fulfilling obligations is important.  Creative people find creative ways of dealing with problems.  They are valuable no matter where they work or what they do.  And yet we deny ourselves the ability to be comfortable in silence or solitude.

We need to be comfortable with margins. We need to embrace the void.

This same concept applies to weight loss, the area in which many people, like Frasier, often choose what they think is the "least worst" option when, just maybe, the best option was never even thought of.  As such, reduction inadvertently becomes addition.

“I added a salad to every meal!”

“Yes, but you didn’t decrease the size of your meals!”

This is a personal theory, but I firmly believe that the United States labors under culture-wide acceptance of false dilemmas. In situations where the individual must choose between a set of options, they often forget to check and see if they have to choose one of those options at all. Perhaps there is another option that they haven’t been shown yet. Or, perhaps the situation is not so dire that they have to choose anything at all, and can safely reject what they are offered and create their own paradigm for better living.

Easy example:

“Plain chips, or sour cream and onion?”

“No chips for me, thanks.”

Another:

“Regular or diet?”

“Water.”

One more:

“Let’s not spend too much on food; which is cheaper: Joe’s or Charlie’s?”

“Why don’t we just eat at home?”

Not every void must necessarily be filled.

Choosing the “least worst” option is not the same as reducing consumption.

Choosing only from the palette of options offered to you by others is never the same as making your own decisions.

Don’t be coerced. Don’t be fooled.

Let your decisions always be your own, and don't be afraid of a void. Learn the Art of Reduction.