The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

indexI don’t read many books that give me new perspectives on decluttering and minimalism anymore — the last one was Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, which was useful more for its focus on managing one’s expenditure of energy and time rather than on sorting through one’s physical possessions. However, the new U.S. edition of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up offers advice that’s just different enough from most Western decluttering hints to have given me fresh inspiration to do another re-evaluation of my Stuff.

This is a touchy-feely, emotional book, which ought to raise the eyebrows of anybody who knows me, because I’m definitely not a touchy-feely, emotional person. Nevertheless, the author’s advice — “take each item in one’s hand and ask: ‘Does this spark joy?’” (p. 41) — made a difference in how I viewed what I owned. I went through my bookshelves and wardrobe again, handling each item individually and deciding whether it made my heart lighter or carried with it any lingering sense of guilt, obligation, or sadness. I ended up hauling away to Goodwill a startling number of bags full of things I was holding on to more out of a sense of obligation or of slightly guilty nostalgia than because I actively wanted to own them now, as my life is in the present moment.

In its essence, Kondo’s rule of joy isn’t much different from William Morris’s oft-cited advice, “Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful,” which has been my guideline for years. But it turns out that there’s a subtle difference between touching/knowing and believing. Kondo’s book helped me understand that I can believe something is beautiful and appreciate its appearance in situ yet still feel no actual joy in its ownership. Once I began unlinking my intellectual/aesthetic appreciation of owning certain objects from any actual physical sense of joy or pleasure, I realized I owned a number of things that I considered beautiful or interesting but that made me feel subtly uncomfortable to be around — and that, for me, was a revelation.

I don’t subscribe to all of Kondo’s advice. I do fold over the tops of my socks and don’t see myself neatly coiling them as she recommends all any time soon — and I firmly believe in hanging my clothes rather than folding them. However, I agree with Kondo about the pointlessness of keeping paper, and I liked her advice on not keeping spare buttons (although I kept the spare buttons I could match to the blazers I wear on a weekly basis). I also appreciated her constant linking of person, possessions, and home in terms of relationships and respect; she gets more animistic than I’m comfortable with in a few places, but at a fundamental level I agree that we ought to take care of our possessions, whether it’s to please their spirits or simply to show ourselves and those around us the respect of a neat, clean, and open environment.

Some of the lines I highlighted:

“Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination. The true goal should be to establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order.” (p. 21). Later, toward the end of the book, she discusses the effects that decluttering can have on a person’s mindset and lifestyle. Nothing unusual here, except that it was another reminder to me that my desire to declutter my physical space usually indicates a deeper desire to declutter my life/mental space; and while physical decluttering is, I think, a necessary first step, it’s only a first step.

“It’s extremely stressful for parents to see what their children discard….” (p. 48). This rang very true to me! Kondo warns that parents (and I might add siblings, friends, roommates, etc.) get nervous when you start decluttering and can inadvertently undermine your efforts with their comments or might appropriate your discards for themselves, cluttering their own lives as a result. As Kondo says, save them the stress and be considerate of their feelings — keep your decluttering private. She’s not encouraging deception, but she’s reminding us that not everybody understands the concept of living with less.

“Not all clothes have come to you to be worn threadbare. It is the same with people. Not every person you meet in life will become a close friend or lover.” (p. 60).  This helped me give up some of the more expensive clothes I’d bought but ended up never wearing. A lot of things, and people, enter our lives. We can’t expect to keep them all. Treat them with kindness and respect and let them come and go freely and without guilt or regret.

“The true purpose of a present is to be received. Presents are not ‘things’ but a means for conveying someone’s feelings.” (p. 107-108). This is a useful reminder that it’s OK to give away a gift; it doesn’t mean you’re belittling the consideration behind it. Kondo adds, “surely the person who gave it to you doesn’t want you to use it out of a sense of obligation” (p. 108). I’m not sure that’s always true — I think some people are a little more selfish than that — so I’ve always told people that they’re welcome to discard of any gift I give them with no hard feelings.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up gave me some fresh insights into myself and my relationship with items, something I hadn’t thought was possible anymore. I’m sure a number of people will read it and be left cold by her quasi-magical approach, but others — especially those who resonate to emotional, relational advice, but even occasionally an over-intellectualizing reptiloid like myself — will find her advice (re)motivating.

 

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