By James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 27, 2014
One of the most emailed stories at The New York Times this week was “Kissing Your Socks Goodbye” about a woman in Japan, Marie Kondo, who is famous for extreme tidying up. With shows like Hoarders reaching season 6, it’s obvious that throwing things out is in, and it’s chic to live with less. But why is less more? What’s the virtue of turning all your rooms, closets and drawers into Zen gardens of simplicity? Is it just a fashion, or does it reflect a mental desire for personal change?
You’d think simplifying one’s life would be as natural as drinking water to quench a thirst. Just give up everything you don’t use regularly, and then keep everything else orderly and tidy. Man, I’ve been trying to do that for most of my life and have always failed. Clutter and kipple are relentless! Is that because my personality is disordered, and my outside reflects my inside? The trouble is, my head is far more cluttered than my closets and drawers. I just got too many things to think about, and I don’t want to throw any of those ideas away. If I wasn’t too lazy to photograph the rooms in my house, I could show you I’m reasonably clean and orderly, and far from being a hoarder, but being moderate is bland. If I could photograph the inside of my brain, it would look like this:
By the way, I hope you didn’t find this essay looking for how-to instructions on organizing your life. I’ve got no tips for you. This is a philosophical analysis of why we want to simplify our lives for people who can’t – people like me. Have you ever wondered why an uncluttered life is so prized? Even Henry David Thoreau only lived at Walden Pond for two years, two months and two days, and didn’t spend all his time there even when he implied he was. If we had a completely decluttered home it would be empty. The urge to be Buddha is deceptive, because asceticism is only hiding from the real issues.
We all want to have full lives, not empty ones. We are limited by space and time, but the goal isn’t empty rooms and blank calendars when we seek to simplify. And we don’t want sparse lives. We want maximum use of our time and space. Can you imagine living in the Zen living room above? It conveys serenity, but no action. I am anal enough to keep my books orderly. Here’s a fairly recent photo of my shelves. I can’t photograph my Kindle and Audible books though, but Amazon keeps them reasonably tidy.
My problem is not really clutter, but lack of focus. I want to do too many things, and I have the possessions for lifetimes of activities if I ever made use of all my stuff. But isn’t that what hoarders say about pieces of tinfoil – that they might find a use for it, so why throw it out? I have well over a thousand unread books, and I buy twice as many books each year than I read. I have more hobbies waiting to be started than I have likely years left in my life. My clutter is mental, rather than physical. It’s a time management conundrum, rather than a space management failure.
Last night I watched Print the Legend, a film about the 3D printer movement, especially about Makerbot founder Bre Pettis. Like Steve Jobs, Pettis is driven to build a tech empire. I have no desire to be like that, but I admire the hell out of the people who can focus on one goal and make something happen. I don’t want to clean out all my drawers and closets, I want to clean out my head. Marie Kondo’s advice is to throw away everything that doesn’t thrill you. My problem is I’m thrilled by a very long queue of ideas in my head. To be a person that makes things requires picking one idea and ignoring the rest. I use to think that was writing a novel, and I even still do, but I just can’t throw out all the other stuff piled up in my brain.
I probably could clean up my house so it looked very Zen, but it wouldn’t make me serene. Organizing the words in this essay does. Maybe what cleans up my mind is sweeping out all the thoughts about a particular subject into a nice tidy pile of words.
If I could be the person I dream of being, I’d need to pick one project and work on it till it’s accomplished. I can throw stuff away all day long from my house, I just can’t throw out the piles of junk in my head. But that’s what I need to do. I used to think if I threw out all my physical possessions I’d have a Zen mind. I don’t think that’s true anymore. I do wonder if I could achieve a Zen mind, would my house end up empty?