Getting the urge to Tidy

Yesterday, I acquired a copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo.

Today, I’m chucking stuff out.

The revolutionary Marie Kondo (or Konmari, is she is known) method boils down to, as far as I can tell, chuck out all the stuff you don’t need in your life, then put the rest away neatly. Plus optional Japanese metaphysical stuff.

This appeals to me, because (despite being lazy when it comes to tidying up) I really do prefer a clean, uncluttered space. Physical clutter around me seems to stop me thinking properly, and makes it even harder to get anything done.

I can see why Konmari’s method is hailed as revolutionary, even though it’s mostly common sense. After all, how can you be messy if you’ve just got rid of most of the possessions with which you could create mess? However, in today’s possession-focused society, it’s very easy to hang onto things ‘just because’. A mountain of possessions is a mark of success – a trail of things that mark where you have been, what you have achieved. It’s also, in some ways, a mark of insecurity: “I’m keeping it just in case.” In case of what, zombie apocalypse?

Most of the time when we’re trying to decide what to get rid of (when cupboards are overflowing, and it’s either clear out or move to a bigger house), we ask ourselves “Why should I throw this away?” so our default is to keep it – whatever it is.

Konmari’s method is the other way around: only keep the things you have a reason to keep (for her, “does it spark joy?”). But having to find a reason to keep swaps the default around – the default is to get rid of absolutely everything you own unless you have a specific reason not to. The result: you end up getting rid of more clutter – the stuff that’s in the middle ground between “Yuck, why do I still have that?” and “I will defend this with my life”.

Do I really need to keep my ever-increasing collection of used jiffy bags? Surely, if I want to send something by post I could… I don’t know… do something really revolutionary and actually, you know… go out and buy one? Is the amount of money (or planet) I save on reusing jiffy bags justified by having to find storage space for thirty of them? Am I ever going to use thirty jiffy bags in varying states of preservation? And what on earth do I think I’m planning to do with nine empty coffee jars?

My old make-up bag got discarded today: I’ve had it nearly twenty years, but my mother made it, so it’s hung on even though it’s looking decidedly grey and sad. But, as Konmari says, the purpose of a gift is to be given, and to give pleasure at that time. Would the giver really be made happy to know that you either hide their gift in the back of a cupboard (cluttering up your house) because you can’t stand to look at it every day yet you feel too guilty to get rid of it, or that you use it out of a sense of grim duty?

I bet we’ve all got things like that. I don’t feel guilty (much) about getting rid of my make-up bag, because nearly twenty years is a good innings for a make-up bag, and did my mother really expect me to keep using it until I died of old age? I don’t think so.

At the other end of the scale are the things we buy and never use, like the pair of shoes with four-inch heels that I bought over the internet. I can hardly walk in them, and they don’t really go with any outfit I own. Konmari would say that the shoes have served their purpose for me: they have taught me something (that I shouldn’t buy shoes over the internet, and I definitely shouldn’t buy shoes with four-inch heels), and, that done, they can be discarded (after thanking them for a job well done – that’s the Japanese metaphysical part).

My interpretation is a bit different: to me, it’s also about giving yourself permission to screw up. I made a mistake buying those shoes, and I also wasted money. If I give myself permission to make mistakes, it means I don’t have to keep those shoes until I’ve got some wear out of them; I just accept that I made a mistake, and I get rid of the shoes – avoiding the additional mistake of cluttering up my house with things I don’t want.

In a way, too, the book is about the ephemeral nature of things, including money. You should keep only the things that make you happy (or, obviously, the things you really need). “It was really expensive” is not a reason for keeping something if that thing does not give you joy. You’ve already spent the money – it’s gone, and it’s not coming back. If you are not using the thing, then it’s cluttering up your life, gathering dust and making you miserable. Keeping it won’t make it better value, so just let it go.

I suppose, at bottom, the message of the book is that money and things do not make you happy through possession alone, and by getting rid of the excess stuff, you can uncover what really does make you happy, like cleaning away dirt to reveal a beautiful painting.


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