Marie Kondo finally has her own Netflix show. She puts her tidying strategies into practice with “real life” people who could use a house-size purge of material possessions. My wife has been watching it recently, and any time I walk pass the living room I’m inevitably drawn to the latest depiction of American consumption gone awry. Some of the participants have floor-to-ceiling boxes of baseball cards, shoes, or nutcracker dolls. Clothes spill out of closet doors. Kitchen appliances litter counters, cupboards, and tables.
For each of the show’s participants, Kondo employs a simple technique to help them tidy their home: pick up each possession individually and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?” If the answer is “Yes,” then keep it. If “No,” then donate it or throw it away (and don’t forget to tell it “Thank you” for having served its purpose). Easy enough.
Like everything in the ever trendy anti-consumerism movement, Kondo argues that the purpose of tidying up is to help you “establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order.” But what could this magical self-fulfillment be? It’s hard to say because it’s different for everyone.
Kondo is not the only anti-consumerist lifestyle coach teaching a doctrine of self-fulfillment. She’s in line with most writers of the minimalist movement. Joshua Becker, in The More of Less, argues that by embracing minimalism, “we are immediately freed to pursue our greatest passions.” In New Minimalism, Cary Fortin and Kyle Quilici encourage their readers to find “your own wonderful, decidedly unique middle path” in the journey toward living a meaningful life with fewer possessions. Joshua Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus also define minimalism as “a lifestyle that helps people add value to their lives” by focusing on “the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.”
On a practical and visceral level, minimalist practices and Kondo’s tidying up method directly counter-balance general mindless consumption–a phenomenon related to the enormous amount of capital produced within the past century. At best, most people are low-key hoarders. The slow accretion of possessions, however, has contributed to a growing awareness of a psychological burden. People feel they’ve lost control over their lives. They’ve buried themselves in debt and storage units, and find it increasingly difficult to resist the temptation to keep everything.
I get it. Extreme consumerism erodes most people’s emotional and mental well-being. Who wouldn’t want a tangible solution like getting rid of stuff to ease the inner turmoil?
But “self-fulfillment” as the primary motivator for reducing possessions and tidying up just doesn’t cut it.
First, introspection rarely produces the clarity and long-lasting results it claims. I can only speak for myself here (though I know others who would agree with me): most attempts of turning inward usually result in high levels of anxiety. Nothing will set me on edge faster than when I ask myself questions like, “Are you happy?” “Are you living your dreams?” “Have you achieved, or are you achieving everything you want?” The honest answer to all these types of questions is “I don’t know!” and “Oh no, I’m going to die some day!”
I’m not wholly against introspection. I think it can be good for identifying bad habits and patterns of thought. The trouble arises when we confuse means with ends. Introspection is a means, not a solution. Truth, goodness, and beauty–the ultimate objects of all our desires–lie outside the self, not buried under our insecurities and boxes of scratched CDs stashed away in a closet.
Second, minimalism plays into a cultural obsession with individualism and autonomy. Here’s an underlying assumption in the doctrine of self-fulfillment: if we clear away the non-essentials in our life, we’ll inevitably find a glorious, coherent self underneath it all. And this self is free from all forms of social and cultural limitations.
Nothing in my experience suggests that such a self exists. There is only the me born into a particular family, in a particular place, at a particular time, and in a particular culture. The particulars necessarily limit the person I am and become. They give me my identity. I cannot transcend these circumstances, nor should I want to–any attempt would be pure hubris. One of the redemptive aspects of stuff is that it reminds me of who I am, of where I’ve come from and where I’m going. Kondo always wants you to ask, “Does it spark joy?” But what if an old t-shirt reminds me of a family camping trip in the sierra mountains, which then signals a whole network of other memories that makes me aware of the relationships and experiences that led me to the present moment? Nothing can substitute that kind of tangible interaction with my own history. Not to mention the memories that would have disappeared if not for the physical presence of a particular object.
No man is an island. We all come from somewhere, and all our achievements stem from the help and love we’ve received along the way. As a new father, I’m constantly amazed that the human race has survived. It’s a bloody miracle. My three month old child is completely helpless. Without his mom and me, he’d never make it past infancy. Yet, this is the starting point for every human being. Somebody fed us, clothed us, and ensured our physical well-being so that we could become relatively successful and responsible individuals. To throw away every tangible reminder of our dependency creates a fictional ego-centered reality that only leads to self-deception.
So by all means, let’s reduce our consumption and recycle our stuff. But let’s not kid ourselves.