There is a tidying up fad that is seeping through our culture these days. Sparked by Marie Kondo’s best selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the anti-clutter movement holds out hope that as we declutter our homes what we are really doing is changing our lives. Kondo often talks about the tidying up process being connected to personal transformation. The premise is that as you sort through your old clothes, as you tidy up your closets and drawers, as you separate the wheat from the chaff, you somehow become a calmer, more capable, more mindful person.
One of Kondo’s fundamental principles is that the decluttering process should be based on whether an object ‘sparks joy’ or not. That is to say, as you declutter you evaluate each item on a joy scale. Something that gives you a feeling of joy should be kept, something that does not should be thrown away. This idea seems to me flawed at best. Like so many of the currently popular self help structures it creates a beautiful mirage, a kind of hologram, that dissolves upon closer inspection. I wonder how much ‘there’ is actually there. Life is not always about joy. Often life is about pragmatism. What needs to be done is not always what is fun to do, or easy to do.
The truth is life is messy, unpredictable, often out of our control, and yes, dare I say it, cluttered. Parents age and become infirm (as do we all!). Divorce happens. Responsibility encroaches. Children and grandchildren are flawed and not always exactly what we hope they will be, let alone perfect. Illness confronts us. Life can change on a dime, and when it does having a clean closet won’t help you one bit.
Besides, clutter adds texture. Clutter is interesting. All those piles, those awkwardly stacked books, those drawers filled with old mementos, those photographs stashed away in boxes, the magazines tucked away on a shelf. That is the stuff of life, not clean, but certainly colorful, and also real. What would we be without our clutter? Calmer? Perhaps a bit. But I would argue also much more boring, cookie cutter copies of one another with identical closets and drawers and shelves. Isn’t that weird? Impersonal? A bit robotic, even?
The old saying is ‘a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind.’ The famous riposte to that phrase still stands: ‘if a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is the sign of an empty desk?’