Clutter

I’ve never watched Marie Kondo, but I have certainly heard of her. At the moment she is seemingly everywhere – the new guru of our society, a prophet for our times. She fearlessly delves into our immense piles of stuff preaching the message of throwing out what doesn’t bring you joy.

Without having watched her show I also know why she is so loved. Essentially I’d say it’s because we live in a world that is underjoyed and overcluttered. And while I don’t think that these two things are always related, or that things are only worthy if they bring us joy; I think most people would agree that objects become clutter when they stop enabling us to do the things we want to and begin inhibiting us. Which I think is the situation many of us find ourselves in. And so as Marie Kondo recognises, our proliferation of stuff becomes a psychological and spiritual phenomenon.

The problem of clutter is of course mostly specific to our current epoch. New technologies for manufacturing have meant there are so many more things being made than ever before. They’re cheaper to buy too (plus widespread credit means we don’t even have to be able to afford them anyway), and usually less directly linked to our everyday survival than the possessions of our ancestors would have been. Lifetimes spent immersed in a culture of consumerism; constantly wading through advertising as we go about our daily lives; means we accumulate things for all kinds of reasons other than that we need them.

Our lives are cluttered not only with all the things we own, but also plenty of things we don’t – all the products on store shelves we are taught to desire; all the things our neighbours possess that we envy or fear we are missing out on; all the new technologies being planned that render our current model obsolete.

This is one of the reasons dealing with our stuff is often so difficult – a fact anyone who has moved house can attest to, let alone the hoarders who end up on Marie Kondo’s TV show. Sorting through our possessions means confronting and potentially discarding objects that remind us of our past selves and lives. But it also means confronting all our future selves that never were – all those things we thought we would use but never did, the projects we got so excited about but never had time for.

Around the city, storage units sprout like wildflowers; the most obvious symbol of our cluttered world. So many of us literally own too many things to fit in our house, yet we can’t bear to get rid of them or share them around. On the other hand; while the ugly hoarders’ houses with mazes from one end of the lounge room to the other may repel us or give us some voyeuristic thrill, really hoarders are the ones who take the most responsibility for their consumption – many of us go through mountains of stuff but throw it in the bin without consideration of environmental cost or actual use value.

But to be honest I think the overabundance of physical objects is only one part of our clutter affliction. At the same time as we deal with physical stuff, most of us are also grappling with an over cluttered mind. New technology again is surely part of the reason. Think about work – once there was a much more clear distinction between when we were on the clock and when was our own time to relax and pursue our own interests. Now with smartphones, email, and work from home, many people never really clock off – part of your mind is constantly taken up with business.

Then there’s the other work we do constantly – maintaining our public profile through social media. The work is never-ending and all-consuming. Any moment could be snapped on our camera and put on instagram; any thought could be crafted into a Facebook status. But when is the right time to post it to optimise the number of likes? We always have had a distinction between who we are in private and the public face we maintain, but now we are constantly performing. The instant there is a pause in our lives or a lull in conversation (moments our mind could use to decompress), like a reflex action we pull out our phones and start scrolling through more information than our brain can possibly register.

The internet is like a gigantic warehouse filled with mental clutter. Every thought in human history is constantly at our fingertips – we possess it all yet absorb so little of it. Great works of art and great developments in human understanding coexist on the same level as cat videos, Marie Kondo memes and fake news. And we consume them in much the same way. These days we stream the entire universe of culture on spotify and netflix, but are attached to none of it. Every day we log on to find more new things recommended for us by the algorithm.

On top of all the things filling our mind is the knowledge that it is happening and the stress that brings. Absurdly, there are entire industries convincing us that our lives are too full and busy so we need more things to solve the problem – mindfulness colouring books, yoga classes, ASMR videos.

It is in this environment that the words of Marie Kondo resonate so strongly. “Does this bring you joy?” The answer, for so many of us, is no. It brings us stress, anxiety, exhaustion, paralysis. Trapped in our physical and spiritual hoarders’ houses, we need someone like Marie to excavate our stuff and help us get out for a gasp of fresh air.

Like I said, I’ve never actually watched Marie Kondo, so I don’t know how effective it is at combating our cluttered world. I’d have my questions – does Marie tackle the mental clutter that is also inhibiting us? Does she critique the broader society that influences us to accumulate all these things? Is a prioritising of “joy” just a perpetuation of the individualised consumer mindset that got us here? How ethical is it to treat objects as things that only affect our personal joy without reference to the environmental and social cost of their production and disposal?

Still, I’m a long term and committed believer in having minimal stuff. Over the last few years of living in the one crowded house surrounded by all kinds of objects, feeling my head fill up in much the same way, I’ve been haunted by a memory.  Of a time in my life when I owned only what could fit on my back. I had no computer or smartphone, worked happily for free but stayed flexible enough to go where I felt right. I lived in abandoned houses, often with virtually no furniture.

They were some of the most exciting times of my life, and I’m certain that part of the reason was that the vast empty spaces in my life allowed room for new possibilities to emerge – being open to new experiences but also being able to see what I had in new ways. With each attachment I picked up, good things though they may have been, that scope of possibilities narrowed just a little bit, until I felt so consumed by what I had and did that I had lost the ability to think about what a life and a world that really prioritised sparking joy might look like.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Clutter

  1. Giulia

    Thank you, Andy. Well written as usual. Take care!

  2. Mari

    “The problem of clutter is of course mostly specific to our current epoch.” You’ve never seen a Victorian parlor, have you? The clutter problems you describe are as 1870 as 2019.

  3. I still remember the moment I left the West. We had sold our home, given away our car, given away most of our stuff. A few sentimental items, some paperwork, and our camping equipment filed a few boxes in closets at our parents’ places. Otherwise, our entire lives were contained in the backpack and duffel bag we each carried.

    As we waited for my flight I looked at those bags that contained nearly all I owned in the world, thought about my complete disengagement from any mortgage or car insurance or investment accounts or depreciating objects to maintain, and felt as free and joyful as I had ever felt.

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