Monday, August 17, 2015

Minimalism on the Offensive

When we feel stuck, emotionally, we hope that making tangible adjustments in our lives will cause internal shifts. We get new jobs, we end relationships, we move to other cities or even countries - often, we make the biggest quantifiable changes when we feel we need massive qualitative change.

So I get the concept that emptying our homes will open up more space in our lives for ideas, experiences, and creativity. I do. But I don’t agree with the premise that this is the essential way to live.

That’s why the cult of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up frustrates me. I don’t reject the theory of the KonMarie method - that everything in your home should bring you joy - but I think that it’s way too easy for a strict reading of the book to go irreparably overboard in trying to create room for happiness.

As the recent New York Times article Let's Celebrate The Art of Clutter points out, "The stuff we accumulate works the same way our body weight does. Each of us has a set point to which we invariably return. Each of us has been allotted a certain tolerance, if not a need, for stuff; each of us is gaited to carry a certain amount of weight in possessions." Many of the most vocal proponents of domestic minimalism that I follow online have also historically been the most visible proponents of consumerism, either curated or spontaneous, and I can't help but imagine that the hundreds of dollars' worth of things donated or trashed will be re-spent as soon as the magic of purging fades.

Of course, a central tenant of Marie Kondo's philosophy is that your entire way of life will be transformed once you've conquered your home with her method, but I just don't think that'll be the case for most of us who are active in blogging and social media - not when trends change so quickly, new belongings are so cheap, and, to be quite honest, our attention spans are so short.

I also wonder what negative effects this organization, taken to extremes, has on our relationships and our social lives. I've seen tweets boasting of bare cupboards, explaining that a childless couple needs no more than two of each dining item. Instagrams display more empty walls than books or photographs on shelves; memorabilia is photographed and stored on a hard drive for reference (and then disposed of) rather than kept within eyesight for unproductive enjoyment. But what if you want to entertain? What if you want to bond with someone over a text you read in college, a picture of a place you've visited, a collection you've spent years amassing? As Gesci and Lola have eloquently discussed on Twitter, the ephemera of these memories are irreplaceable.

Yes, Marie Kondo argues that anything that brings you joy should be kept but, from what I've seen shared online, we're having a hard time defining that. She writes, "If you can say without a doubt ‘I really like this!' no matter what anyone else says, and if you like yourself for having it, then ignore what other people think." However, I'm afraid that many of us have a hard time ignoring what other people think in favor of simply liking ourselves, which is why we're reading a self-help book, and a method that lends itself to black-and-white interpretations makes it easier not to have to choose between the two. Perhaps not accidentally, this has become yet another way of proving to the world how committed we are to finding our true selves according to others' standards.

And there is a reason this book is shelved in the Self-Help rather than the Home section of bookstores: it's not about changing our spaces so much as it is about changing ourselves. A Wall Street Journal piece exploring the trend of tidying up quotes a publisher specializing in self-help books: "There’s a dreamy quality to it,” she said. “It’s a book that promises something that is almost beyond imagination. It’s magic.” That result of that promise isn't tangible, but the means are, and all you have to do is live minimally. The next step, of course, is more difficult. Once you've emptied your home of objects, you should fill it with the abstract. "Go ahead," suggests the unabashed accumulator writing in the New York Times, "call me materialistic. I’ll just wonder what you think you are made of."

We want the magic that Marie Kondo promises so badly, and I understand why. I see the appeal of Kondoing your home as a way of tidying your soul, and I also realize that there are thousands of people (probably less active on social media and therefore less publicly visible) following her philosophy who don't take it to the absolute limit. (As a commenter on a post noted, "I didn’t find it painful to decide to part with stuff as long as I had plenty of leeway to keep things, too.") But I'm afraid that we'll spend so much energy being proud of ourselves for not having much that we'll come to define ourselves by what we don't possess rather than by what we do.

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