Untangling the Decluttering Message
Over the past couple of months I’ve come across posts and articles about getting rid of clutter and stuff in places other than those devoted to decluttering and minimalism, from the Style section of the New York Times, to featured articles in everything from lifestyle to fashion magazines, and even a philosophical blog. The subject has moved from topic du jour into perennial concern.
There’s a direction for everyone.
I discovered the whole minimalist, zenlike, uncluttered movement in 2010 and was so deeply impacted I started this blog and even wrote my own small book on the subject. My shopping habits are a tiny fraction of what they were back then; most of what comes in are replacements for things beyond repair or utility–and their boxes, which we keep for the duration of warranties. Clothing is also replaced periodically. The things we need and love shift over the course of time and interests, but are now kept under control by curation rather than purges.
There are different ways–and different reasons–for decluttering. Most accounts and guides promote the clarity and peace that comes when your stuff no longer owns you or your space. Only keeping what you love can’t help but make you feel better about yourself and your life. It’s something I’ve personally experienced, from the first time I did it to just the other day, when I had to make changes in my office to accommodate a desk setup that was better for my body.
But back to the recently-published items on decluttering. Last fall, a book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was published, written by Marie Kondo, a Japanese cleaning consultant. It’s an international best-seller. I haven’t read it because I buy very, very few books and it is in such great demand at the library that even the ebook version has a long waiting list. Imagine that!
Nonetheless, I’ve read quite a few things which reference Kondo’s book, ranging from wholehearted endorsement to snippy dismissal–and those are what I find interesting, because they say so much about our culture and times, and different degrees of looking inward.
Just having enough stuff to unclutter in the first place is an important cultural marker. On one hand, it means you’ve had, well, means, to one extent or another. There was not only enough money to buy, there was stuff available to buy. Even if you didn’t buy all the stuff you want to unclutter now, somebody you’re connected to bought it at some point. Whether you’re the sole heir of a castle full of museum-worthy art and furnishings or the default heir of Uncle Marvin the Happy Meal toy collector, there was stuff to buy and the means to buy it. It just ain’t like that everywhere in the world at any given time.
On the other hand, just considering decluttering begs a look at what our stuff means to us. Even investment-worthy items and things of sentimental value can be fraught with negative emotional baggage. They can weigh us down by keeping us too tied to the past or old ways of doing things. It’s harder to start fresh with a slate that can’t be cleaned.
Kondo’s method of decluttering is the one-fell-swoop kind. No tidying a little at a time here–you’ll rip the bandage off, holding every single thing you own and considering its place on your personal joy meter. According to a recent post by David Cain of Raptitude, who is currently experimenting with Kondo’s method, she is also wary of stuff in storage:
Decluttering is a kind of soul-searching — it requires us to make decisions about our values and our expectations for our lives — and storage is a way of dodging that important work.
Storage is indeed a way of dodging real decisions, of admitting to yourself that you have mixed feelings about things, or that you have fears either about the past or the future. David is in his thirties, and, as far as I can tell, unattached and childless, yet nonetheless has felt a need to deal with the object-baggage relationship. Those with families, like Eric West of Rethinking the Dream, also have to deal with others’ preferences. He follows Kondo’s advice to simply focus on decluttering more of his own stuff.
Then there are those who feel decluttering is neurotic, and the whole point of life itself is accumulating and having and displaying stuff, to celebrate ourselves in our possessions. Of course it helps if the stuff is mostly art, antiques, and artifacts, or at the very least of good design and quality. Since 90% of what most of us accumulate is mass-produced crap, keeping it all simply turns our homes/nests into mini-landfills.
Life is complicated, and the stuff of life can’t help but reflect this. There is no one size fits all formula for decluttering. Not everyone needs to declutter or take up minimalism. Not everyone needs to collect or accumulate. I posit that what we really need, most of us, is to live a considered life, one with a certain amount of awareness, of understanding our own motivations, of learning what is right for us.
If what you need is to travel light through life, to keep things simple and easily under control, then a decluttering experiment makes sense. Your sweet spot can be anywhere along the scale from redecorating to religion. Or you might well discover that the minimum, for you, is comprised of many layers of possessions and spaces. It’s all good, as long as you give your real self a chance.