While it’s not necessarily a problem for everyone, many, myself included, complicate our lives with too much stuff. And even if you are a person who has pretty good control over the clutter, many of us can agree that this society is driven by consumerism and materialism.
In response to a culture of materialism, countercultures take shape that seek to correct this saturation with stuff. From my observations, it’s either the environmental or the religious/spiritual camps that are most vocal about this issue. How many times has someone thought they were clever by asking, “Do you have stuff….or does your stuff have you?” Or how about, “you only have two feet. How many pairs of shoes do you actually need?” Both camps have their reasons why they think having too much stuff is an unwise and even an immoral practice, and these reasons can overlap. Among them: having too much stuff keeps you bound, from living a life of freedom; it’s a waste of precious resources; why do you keep that for yourself when you can give it away and help someone else?
We instinctively know we would like a simpler life, so these messages ring true for us, but they can also weigh us down with guilt. Rather than freeing us, we feel their accusation. Every thing we own is looked at with suspicious eyes. They tell us to think about what we really need. Do you need that many books? Do you need that many coats? Do you need this? Do you need that? Simplify! Simplify! But what about what I want? What about the way those things we own can make us happy? Not, “there’s a hole in my soul that I’m trying to fill by shopping” kind of happy, but the way that your favorite picture on the wall makes you happy when you look at it, or the way your favorite sweater makes you feel good when you wear it. This is why I really liked the response given by Marie Kondo in her little book, New York Times bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Kondo, a cleaning consultant from Japan, agrees that we need to start with getting rid of things, or as she puts it, “discarding”. The difference is in how she believes one should decide what to keep and her respect for the things themselves.
Her obsession with organizing started at a young age, and it was then that she was inspired by a book called, The Art of Discarding by Nagisa Tatsumi and realized how much we keep that we neither want nor need. Her aim was to get rid of as much stuff as was possible, but it took a negative turn. She says, “At home, I was always uptight, constantly on the lookout for superfluous things that could be discarded. When I found something not in use, I would pounce on it vengefully and throw it in the garbage.” After some frustration and a moment of enlightenment, she realizes that “we should be choosing what we want to keep, not what we want to get rid of.” She further explains her evolution in thought and sums up, in my opinion, the main point of this book in this passage:
I had been so focused on what to discard, on attacking the unwanted obstacles around me, that I had forgotten to cherish the things that I loved, the things I wanted to keep. Through this experience, I came to the conclusion that the best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item by the hand and ask: “Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it. If not, dispose it. This is not only the simplest but also the most accurate yardstick by which to judge.
While asking “does this spark joy?” might sound hokey, she’s actually pretty tough in her advice about what to actually keep. She keeps that standard high, telling you to let go of books, for example, that only give you moderate pleasure, and books that you’ve never read, letting go of sentimental items that you know you’ll never look at that are just kept in a box. She gives permission to let go of things that you don’t actually want but you keep out of guilt because of their usefulness. “When it comes to selecting what to discard,” she says, “it is actually our rational judgement that causes trouble. Although intuitively we know that an object has no attraction for us, our reason raises all kinds of arguments for not discarding it, such as ‘I might need it later’ or ‘It’s a waste to get rid of it.’ There thoughts spin round and round in our mind, making it impossible to let go.” When talking about items of clothing that you never wore, an example of those kinds of things that our rationale tells us to hang on to, she says, “… if you no longer buy clothes of that same style or color, it has fulfilled another important function—it has taught you what doesn’t suit you. In fact that particular article of clothing has already completed its role in your life, and you are free to say, ‘Thank you for giving me joy when I bought you,’ or ‘Thank you for teaching me what doesn’t suit me,’ and let it go.”
Her outlook is a welcome relief from the negative ones I first described. Others sneer at the problem of having so many possessions, and while she agrees that we most definitely do, her measurement of keeping only what brings us joy brings us back to an attitude of gratitude towards our things. Some environmentalist and religious/spiritual people become judgmental when they ask us if we really need something. There are so many wonderful things that people put effort in making and that we have bought that don’t fit into this category. Overly practical attitudes towards life have a way of cutting out art and beauty. But Marie Kondo’s outlook sets up a standard for not only what we need, which is easy to identify, but what we really want. She makes you be honest with yourself about whether you really cared for something, and whether you will actually use it or look at it in the future. She also shows a high regard for her things, even the ones she lets go, as seen in the quote above. Instead of dismissing everything as superfluous trash, or feeling high and mighty because we live a simple lifestyle, let’s see the things as gifts to enjoy, not as chains. Kondo’s high standard when deciding what to keep will ultimately free you of the burden of having too much stuff while not asking you to demonize every material possession as something to be suspicious of. It also, as she points out in the book, will make you more grateful for the things that you do end up keeping.
I don’t think I can come up to the high standard she sets for keeping things when deciding what to keep in my own life, nor will I be following her methods exactly, but her book has given me a goal. As she says, “Keep only the things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.” I hope what she says about her successful clients can be said about me someday: “They are surrounded only by the things they love.”