Marie Kondo and 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.

Arielle Bernstein wrote a piece for us recently about the KonMari method of decluttering and organizing—which, in part, instructs people to only keep the things that “spark joy.” Bernstein questioned that method from the perspective of the daughter and granddaughter of refugees:

[I]n order to feel comfortable throwing out all your old socks and handbags, you have to feel pretty confident that you can easily get new ones. Embracing a minimalist lifestyle is an act of trust. For a refugee, that trust has not yet been earned. The idea that going through items cheerfully evaluating whether or not objects inspire happiness is fraught for a family like mine, for whom cherished items have historically been taken away. For my grandparents, the question wasn’t whether an item sparked joy, but whether it was necessary for their survival.

Her piece got a lot of great response from readers. This one points out that “many of Marie Kondo’s Japanese compatriots remember, through their parents and grandparents, how difficult things were in post-WWII Japan”:

Japanese people of a certain age know a lot about poverty and hard times, which is partly why clutter and hoarding are problems there.

They were never refugees, per se, but you could surely feel like a refugee in your own war-torn country when the only way to get food to feed your family is from the black market. The idea of donating things you don’t use anymore is a very new idea in Japan, as are second-hand shops. People just kept whatever they had for years and years and always bought things brand new, never used. Living spaces are very small in the big cities and it’s very easy to accumulate things to the point of being pushed out of your home by your belongings.

Kondo’s theories about clutter and cleaning are resonating with people around the world, but they’re rooted in a very specific culture and arise from specific living conditions in a country with severe space limitations. The spiritual aspect of her theories comes from Shintoism, a religion most people haven’t the faintest clue about (including, most likely, the author of this article).

It’s interesting to examine why people keep what they keep and the value people’s belongings have for them. In that sense, I like this article. But something about contrasting that with Kondo’s theories about clutter doesn’t really work for me, without the author addressing, to a certain degree, the background of Kondo’s theories and how rooted they are in Japanese culture.

Another reader remarks, “It’s weird how different people react to hardships”:

My friend’s grandfather was a concentration camp survivor whose eternal complaint was that his daughter had too much crap. Her daughters were all really high achievers; her house was plastered with pictures of them and superlative praise from teachers. He told her that he hoped her house caught fire so she’d finally have to decide what’s important.

Here’s another hardship from a reader:

I lost everything from my childhood on up to my 3rd year in college after a tornado came through. It was stunning the grief I felt at basically not being able to prove that I existed in my younger years.

Later, when my grandfather died, I realized that he was the receptacle of stories of my early years—the good stories, the ones that made me happy to be alive, and that was a tough loss on a different level.

These two losses shaped me, and now I am very, very careful what I let into my house, even down to tubes of toothpaste or socks. But I want things to have intrinsic meaning—that if I lost them, I would be truly moved to some form of grief; otherwise, why am I bringing them into my life? My things don’t always bring me joy, but they might show that I survived something.

And another hardship:

When I was homeless on my own as a teenager, I learned to relish that all my material possessions (necessary and sentimental) had to be whittled down to fit within the confines of my backpack. Marie Kondo has reminded me of this light joy, now that I am wealthy and can afford a home to fill with things. I find strength in believing that I can embody who I am without being defined by my possessions (while holding onto the most discerning possessions).

I keep some superfluous things that “spark joy,” but I consciously work not to hoard things that I save because I might need to use it to fix something in the unforeseen future. I don’t think this should be construed as a privilege of now being wealthy, but rather as a way of reminding myself that I am not my possessions. My possessions serve me; I am not a slave to my possessions.