Closet spirituality: tidying up with Marie Kondo

15 March 2019

Eve Poole considers the popularity of a guru of tidying-up

AS A child, I coveted a plate in the window of the newsagents on my way home. On it was written: “A present for the person who said they’d do it when they got a Round Tuit.” In those days, I thought that it was the funniest thing in the world.

Watching the Japanese tidying guru Marie Kondo in action, I concluded that she is one in human form: the excuse you have always needed for finally getting on top of that mountain of stuff. And what freedom — you can get rid of everything that doesn’t spark joy!

Her process is simple and effective. She has been honing it since she first developed an obsession with tidying when she was five years old. The trademarked “KonMari” method involves, first, piling up all of your possessions on the floor, one category at a time (clothes, books, etc.), so that you can appreciate just how much you have; second, throwing away any item that no longer sparks joy; and, third, using folding or sizing to reorganise what you have left. Importantly, you must physically handle each item, to discern whether or not you feel joy, and, if you discard it, thank it for its service.

She has already become a global phenomenon: she has sold more than five million books in 41 countries. In 2016, she was listed as one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, and her reach has since extended with the launch, on 1 January, of her show on Netflix.

Launched with the tagline “New Year New Joy”, her show, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, caused her Instagram following to soar from 710,000 to 2.4 million — and counting. In the days after it was released, charity shops and secondhand booksellers reported an unexpected windfall, as everyone started throwing things out: one bookshop took in a month’s worth of books in two days. Instagram is now full of pictures of beautifully folded clothes, and John Lewis reports a “Marie Kondo effect” on its storage and organisation products: sales are up 47 per cent.

 

IT IS easy to understand the heady appeal. Her process gives permission, once and for all, to regain control of your life by subduing your home environment. She promises that, if you do so, the other problems in your life will be resolved, and you will feel free and happy. She has an army of followers who will bear witness to this, and her process seems to be competing with Relate in restoring strained marriages.

Purists are twitchy, though, because she deploys a casual spirituality. She imbues inanimate objects with thoughts and feelings, she is careful to bless them and to thank them, and she firmly believes that it is only when you have a tidy house that you can find “the mission that speaks to your heart”.

Her Shinto-inspired spirituality is consistent with many other religions, most of which are more ancient than monotheism, and her thinking would find a bedfellow in modern psychology.

There is much wisdom in her approach. Her argument is that we amass material things for the same reason that we eat: to satisfy a craving, which means that many of our things can be let go, now, because they have already fulfilled that original purpose. She also reckons that, through confronting our possessions, we learn how to face ourselves. It is striking how often the clients who feature in her Netflix show weep cathartic tears when asked to consider “what sparks joy”.

Joy, however, is at once a charming and dangerous concept. In philosophy, those who sought only their own pleasure were called hedonists. The classic critique of their world-view was that prioritising joy left them untutored in sorrow. Airbrushing out life’s difficulties does not make them go away, and may stop us from dealing with them, until they become both unavoidable and destructive.

I don’t read the KonMari approach as a delusional act of avoidance, but there is a danger that a narrow concept of joy may lead to a rejection of many things that might otherwise be virtuous resources in life.

My photograph of my father, for instance, gives me pain, because he died too young; but it is true that there is a strange joy in seeing him and remembering him alive, because my real memories of his face are starting to fade. My Ph.D. books have served their purpose, and gave me little joy in the first place. Jettisoning them would create joyous shelf-space, but then I would struggle to check references when there were queries about my research, and finding the answers does give me joy.

 

NUANCES apart, I wholeheartedly concur with the general KonMari drive to reduce the scale of our possessions. Her insistence that we lay it all out so that we can see it all before we start is salutary, as few of us could truly remember every item we own. Confronting the mountain is sobering. She is spot-on about the idea of cravings, too. The genius of consumerism is to foment these, because capitalism would grind to a halt if we were ever satisfied.

Advances in neuroscience allow us to understand more about this process. Researchers suspect that dopamine is the culprit. Because it is known that the expectation of reward increases the level of dopamine in the brain, many drugs use it to simulate reward and make us “happy”.

More recently, however, scientists have argued that, instead of sending a “well done” message, dopamine actually sends out a “Do it again” message: hedonism in chemical form. This, of course, drives addiction and the cravings that Kondo describes. It is why social media are so fatally effective, acting as a 24-7 dopamine-delivery system through relentless views and “likes”. So I am suspicious about “joy” when it feels like dopamine.

I am also rather worried about all those workhorses in my house: my toothbrush, my scrubbing brush, my loo brush — none of them give me joy; nor would I consign them to bin bags. Even they are humble things of service, and deserve respect even if they do not render joy. William Morris said that you should have nothing in your house that you did not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful. So, while he might recognise Kondo’s enthusiasm for joy, he would also argue for the clean beauty of utility. And perhaps we enjoy these prosaic tools through use?

In the Netflix series, many have welcomed the sense of the spiritual which centres their home when Kondo kneels down to thank their house. Her tidying process involves ritual and requires mindfulness; so many experience it spiritually, and some have gone as far as accusing her of encouraging us to “worship” the material. Should we be worried about this? I don’t think so. Any Christian who has participated in a Japanese tea ceremony will have been instantly reminded of the ritual of the eucharist.

Because, in that ritual, we believe that inanimate objects become real, every movement is taken with great care, and every vessel is treated as precious. More generally, in the house of God, items hallowed by the liturgy take on special significance, and are treated with due reverence even when a church is no longer in use. Because of this, we use words such as “sacrilege” if religious items are not properly respected.

This is not so very different from the graceful way in which Kondo invites us to notice our belongings and their function in our life, and to treat them respectfully. And, in our exhausted world, where waste is endemic, of course we should take more care of our material possessions. Having a good clear-out and cherishing the items that are left is good and healthy.

But KonMari is regrettably silent about what should happen to the discard pile. I hope that she doesn’t really mean that we should “throw it all away”. I am delighted that the charity shop windfall suggests that no one else does, either, because there is no such place as “away”.

So, to Kondo’s criterion of joy, and William Morris’s of utility, I would add a third criterion: am I the best owner of this item? For example, if you have spare office wear, charities such as Dress for Success, or Suited and Booted, will take the items to dress vulnerable and low-income job-seekers for that all-important job interview. Or maybe your local school could do with some of those worthy books you never read; and your nearest old people’s home would welcome your spare jigsaws. Perhaps a children’s home could use those toys you still have in a box in the attic — now, that would indeed spark joy.

 

Dr Eve Poole is the author of Buying God: Consumerism and theology (SCM Press) and is the Third Church Estates Commissioner.

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