The Privilege of Clutter, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of emotional responses I’ve received for my recent essay,“The Privilege of Clutter.” While I originally wrote it with the intention of looking at the refugee experience in particular, what I’ve learned from reading reader responses is that this tension between collecting or casting off seems to be universal. One of the most touching and beautiful responses I received was from a reader reflecting on an elderly couple who saved objects because one spouse was struggling with dementia. For this couple, objects are also about survival of the self, though in a very different way than my family.

A number of other responses I received had to do with the decision to get rid of or keep objects after death or ended relationships, all of which seem like intensely personal decisions, but are also equally shaped by culture and what manner of grief or “holding on to things” is considered healthy and acceptable.

I was surprised that some readers assumed that my essay was prescriptive. I don’t think there is anything wrong with wanting to be a minimalist, or that holding onto objects is superior to letting them go.

In my essay, I end with a moment of sentimentality in my childhood bedroom, but, in the end, I’m still the same person who easily gave away my prom dress, pots and pans, and old letters. I do think my ability to do so easily is a kind of privilege, but I also really identified with readers who said that they’ve responded to poverty or loss, by working hard not to become beholden to their possessions. For me, resisting clutter is also about establishing a sense of freedom from a sad past, but the tension for me as I’ve gotten older is knowing that in order to gain this kind of freedom, I also have to let go of something as well.

Here’s one reader who wrote in:

In response to the idea that people whose families were refugees are likely to hang on to stuff: I think this is similar to the idea that people who were poor during the Great Depression become hoarders—and I think both ideas are wrong.  I think it’s much more about individual personalities. My parents were refugees and lost almost everything they had. My dad loved a few pieces of art that his parents were able to escape with; other than that he was never much interested in stuff. My mom (who actually lost everything she had except for a bicycle and the clothes on her back) was a major declutterer. We joke that when she died, there wasn’t as much as a chipped tea cup among her possessions. If it wasn’t used or was broken or outgrown, it went out without any angst.  

They had a nice house and nice possessions, but they were not obsessed with them. Ditto for my mother-in-law who lived a very different life. Although the Depression wasn’t easy for her family, they maintained a middle-class life in New York. Her behavior with possessions was pretty much identical to that of my parents.

I have friends who are close to being hoarders and friends who are like my parents, and most grew up middle class in the U.S. None of them were refugees, and none of them grew up desperately poor, but their behavior toward their possessions varies tremendously. As we get older, some of us find decluttering easy; some of us find it very hard.  Some of us are shoppers always looking for the bargain; some of us don’t buy a new pair of pants until the old ones have holes.

What I believe is that we have always varied in our attachment to stuff, but until recently, it was much more expensive to indulge our desires for that stuff. Beyond Walmart, Target, thrift stores, outlet malls, dollar stores, flea markets, etc. we are all, even the poor, inundated with the possibilities for more stuff.  

Think about it: every time there is a major disaster in the U.S.: the quantity of donations is so extreme that agencies have to ask people to limit the stuff they donate. I live in an area that has suffered several major natural disasters in the last few years, when people I know lost everything to fire or flood. It’s been astonishing to watch how quickly the ones who previously bordered on hoarding managed to recreate clutter again, while the ones who were the minimalists remained minimalist.  There’s something hard wired there, as far as I’m concerned.

Of course, people respond to loss in all sorts of ways and I agree with the reader when she says that some of this is probably hard-wired. My mom and my aunt both relate to personal items in very different ways, for example, and, as I explained in my essay, I do too. I still hate clutter, but I feel like a greater sense of empathy for why my mom is so concerned with saving things. I think the biggest thing I would like readers to take away from my article is that there is not one healthy way to process our relationship with our possessions, and that the Marie Kondo method might not be for everyone.