You have too much stuff. A lot of it is dumb. You’re being lazy about it. Hey, if you don’t want to get rid of it, pile it higher, crowd it in, live your monster life. But if you do de-clutter, it’s probably a good thing. Can we just agree on that? Because this is a fact: De-cluttering is an unassailably good idea.
Before we get into why, let me just say I have no stake in you de-cluttering your life! I couldn’t give any fewer fucks than there are possible to not give about whether you still have your prom dress, your favorite jeans from sophomore year, or six free book fair tote bags. My shit isn’t even in order! I’m sitting across the room from a bookshelf full of pointless, often embarrassing half-read books, just up a stretch from a utility drawer that has broken from the weight of the sheer volume of old lighters, half-used batteries, and cat-hair-covered Stitch Witchery rolls from a cat I had six years ago. I’m round the corner from boxes of old papers from college, which include a copy of an Utne Reader from 1999 I thought was cool once. Pretty sure I still have the mesh underwear in my drawer I wore after giving birth in 2010, too. Shall I stop?
But I don’t have to de-clutter my life to see as plain as the pile of cheap broken sunglasses in a bowl by the door (art?) that there is a better life out there with about half as much of this shit in it, and that anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is just selling you cynicism, plain and simple. Clutter is bad. You’re bad. We are all bad. We should feel bad and get rid of a lot of our shit. People who don’t want to deal with their stuff are people who don’t want to deal with their Other Stuff. You know, their feelings.
And no, I’m not talking about minimalism. You should just probably cut the amount of stuff you have in half, you don’t have to buy a gleaming new Mac desktop and single vase of orange flowers to prove anything afterward. Here’s what this is about: Recently Marie Kondo, a 30-year-old tidying freak whose book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, was recently translated from Japanese into English and sold stateside, has entered the American consciousness and gone over like gangbusters. She brings a simple, streamlined, wildly popular idea with her—basically, that you need to get rid of some of your stuff, that there’s a better way to do it (her way), and that the result is real-life magic.
I was skeptical, too. I hate new ideas, especially if they are popular. First, one friend told me about how good the book was and how satisfying it was to roll her underwear into tiny little tubes so tight they looked retail ready. Soon another friend, and another, and another, mentioned how satisfying tidying in this way could be, how good it felt, how addictive it was. They are all female. All are intelligent, reasonable people who I would not characterize as trend-susceptible as a general rule, nor are they hoarders. They just have too much stuff and don’t know how to get rid of it all.
I saw numerous features on Kondo’s method, “KonMari,” also called “Kondoing,” but before I even got around to reading the book, the backlash had started. Over at New York magazine, Maureen O’Connor wrote a begrudgingly appreciative/critical piece called “De-Cluttering is the New Juice Cleanse (and Equally Annoying).” In it, she lobbed the first grenade when she explained that Kondo and her “Konverts” were driving the author insane. O’Connor writes:
...since the English translation of Tidying Up hit shelves last fall, there has been no way to avoid the exuberant exhortations of Kondo acolytes at every brunch, happy hour, and dinner party; on Twitter, Instagram, and your college roommate’s Facebook wall; at baby showers, bridal showers, and Mother’s Day teas. The “KonMari method” for cleanliness is the new juice fast, the new SoulCycle, the new organic food. Which is to say: It is a method for self-improvement that inspires cultlike evangelism — and passive-aggressive social warfare masquerading as cultlike evangelism. Once upon a time, your cruelest frenemies would watch you snacking on Tostitos, then announce how much weight they lost by giving up gluten. Now, they arch an eyebrow as you dig through the junk at the bottom of your purse, and pointedly ask whether you read that amazing book, the one about tidiness?
She concedes that Kondo-ites have good intentions, that anti-messiness is “both laudable and necessary,” and positions the whole trend in the midst of a recovering economy wherein having less and general neatness have measurable benefits, including weight loss. O’Connor adds:
Correlating health with cleanliness plays into a broader tendency to associate material excess with addiction. It’s no coincidence that Hoarders and Intervention started on the same TV network. Meanwhile, five months after Tidying Up arrived Stateside, American cleaning guru Peter Walsh released his latest self-help guide: Lose the Clutter, Lose the Weight: The Six-Week Total-Life Slim Down. So it’s no surprise that the same social forces that animate healthy-living movements — and backlashes against them — are now animating the way we talk about clutter.
And yet, she just can’t get into it. It’s too precious; she is admittedly stubborn. But I must note here that there is no real critique of the method other than that it’s annoying. That is a perfectly valid critique, far weightier than many of my own of equally good endeavors, I might add, but it misses the point. O’Connor’s criticism mainly includes an eye-roll at the fact that Kondo asks tidiers to consider whether each item in their life “sparks joy” or not. Other critiques poke fun at this standout part of the book also, arguing that items should be able to be perfectly “useful” rather than joyful, and that the definition of useful should be very, very elastic and, by the way, should include being “useless.”
In a recent op-ed in the New York Times called “Let’s Celebrate the Art of Clutter,” Dominique Browning also defends doing nothing with your stuff but keeping it, even suggesting adding more stuff to the pile, because “we forage, root and rummage around in our stuff, because that is part of what it means to be human. We treasure. Why on earth would we get rid of our wonderful things?”
Maybe because a lot of those things are bullshit? It goes on to express excitement at the thrill of leaving all these things to children, which Kondo would call not leaving, but victimizing or burdening, and with which I would agree. Who needs every copy of Us Weekly in existence and 60 pallets of soup. One woman’s Ming vase is an offspring’s heavy breakable. Though Browning may be right that each of us has a set point of stuff to which we invariably return no matter how much we discard, and some of us just like stuff and that is fine, leave us alone, still, that is not the point of Marie Kondo’s book, either. In fact, I’m not sure any of these critiques understand the real message here. It’s not the tightly rolled t-shirts or the nightly purse appreciation.
I finally read the book. In a way, this backlash was the tipping point, in large part because I had to know if I would be just as enthralled or just as irritated by it. I admit I imagined a chirpy call to arms that wouldn’t affect me in the slightest—I would see right through this evangelism as just another self-help trend thing that I didn’t really need, either. But I was wrong. Turns out that Marie Kondo is one slippery, convincing, brilliant little fish. The woman is a genius.
To be clear, I still haven’t de-cluttered a single thing since reading it, and I’m not even sure I will, but I come here to tell you that what Kondo has said is good and true and correct. Yes, she asks you to consider whether the items you own “spark joy” and yes she asks you to thank the things you possess for their function, but what lies beneath these rituals is so much more.
If you take away nothing else from her eagerness to help you put your house in order, glean this: You buy things for a reason, and if you took the time to figure out why you buy what you buy, and why you think you need it, and why you form such an attachment to it, even when it serves virtually no purpose and brings you no pleasure, you would quite possibly have a deeper understanding of yourself, your choices, and your existence that probably would affect the way you make choices—all manner of choices—going forward.
This is not just therapy for things; it is therapy for life. In the same way Kondo asks that you examine each thing you own and figure out its usefulness, when you go into therapy, you take out your feelings and choices, turn them over, figure out what the hell they mean, and see what happens when they are exposed to oxygen and daylight and scrutiny.
And moreover, you get the same result: You realize what the thing means to you, or you realize what the thing does not mean. If it means nothing, you let it go. If it means something, it gets filed back in with the rest. If you rewrote The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up into The Life-Changing Magic of Actually Thinking About Your Feelings, you could just control-find-replace throughout and presto-chango and also sell three million copies I bet. Either way, what is so satisfying about the book is that it presents a framework for tackling literally anything: All at once, bit by bit. That is a way to go through life, friend. And the result of this understanding is objectively better than whatever else you’re doing.
Kondo writes: “Although not large, the space I live in is graced only with those things that speak to my heart. My lifestyle brings me joy. Wouldn’t you like to live this way, too?”
Are you dead? Did you die when you read this? Because I did. Or maybe you didn’t. But you really should have.
Back in the real world, I met a de-cluttering expert recently at a party. Much like Kondo, she goes into homes and helps the helpless sort through closets and drawers until they figure out what matters to them and why they don’t need 36 vintage scarves they never ever wear. I asked her about the success of Kondo’s method. She told me she was thrilled with the awareness it brings to the issue of de-cluttering, though she “didn’t care in the slightest about whether your things bring you personal joy.” But as we talked, she confirmed that what really mattered to her was precisely what mattered to Kondo: helping people see that they are clinging to things they have absolutely no use for, that they chose for no good reason, that they need to let go of, that they will be better off for having gotten out.
You may not feel like getting rid of anything, but deep down inside, buried far underneath your 60 pallets of soup, or 36 vintage scarves, you know that is a true thing.
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Illustration by Tara Jacoby.