We are drowning in our own stuff. We have so many possessions that they bog us down. They get in our way, they distract us, and they create stress in our lives.
This problem affects not just Americans; it’s a worldwide issue. A 2014 book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo became a #1 best-seller. She even had a television program. Margareta Magnussen made a big splash with The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning at the end of 2017. If you haven’t read those books or seen the TV show, I recommend them.
I’ve been working on the front lines of this issue for several years now. I’ve worked with hoarders and people who just needed someone to help sort it all out. Most of them agree that the stuff is a problem, but they can’t deal with it alone. Along the way I’ve gained a few insights into the sources of the problem and I have some suggestions about ways to get the upper hand on all that stuff.
Both Marie and Margareta have valuable perspectives, but my own perspective is American. I believe that as Americans, we share a common outlook that is important to consider. By and large, we value self-sufficiency, individualism, and independence. We want to “paddle our own canoes” to the very end of our lives, and we don’t want to be dependent upon anyone else. That matters.
Marie’s book promotes an almost mystical relationship between a person and his or her stuff. She starts each job by talking to the house. Every day she thanks her own belongings for giving her joy. Americans might appreciate this perspective and find it interesting, but I have trouble imagining that very many of us have taken her advice that far. She does have practical suggestions, however, such as the way she folds and stores clothes in drawers, that are useful and easy to implement.
Margareta’s approach is more about leaving your family a beautiful bequest by preparing for death in a thoughtful way. When I was younger, I held onto many, many things with the thought that my heirs would one day find them wonderful. Now, after having been through one inheritance after another in which the heirs have had to resort to hiring junk haulers, my own perspective is more in line with Margareta’s. Those heirs almost universally want far less than they actually inherit.
But, while death cleaning might motivate Swedes, Americans might prefer to focus on the present. I don’t see us spending a lot of time worrying about whether our grown children will really want that seven-foot-tall statue of Neptune. (My sister really did inherit such a thing from our mother’s cousin. Fortunately, that cousin had a neighbor who had always admired that statue. It was a classic win-win solution. I prefer not to think about the neighbor’s heirs.)
For several years I had a window office in a high-rise on Market Street in the Financial District of San Francisco. Many of my coworkers were Chinese Americans, so the Facilities Department had a staff member trained in Feng Shui (pronounced “fung shwee”), a way of harmonizing individuals with their environments, a practice that is more than six thousand years old. The structural pole in the middle of that office was a challenge, but she did the best she could. My favorite of her recommendations was that I should always keep pink flowers on my desk.
Even if one doesn’t subscribe to the metaphysical aspects of Feng Shui, the quest for balance and harmony in one’s environment is universal. Keeping that environment free of unnecessary items is a common thread.
Just about every culture has dealt with this issue, both now and in the past. For Americans, freedom and independence resonate, and we achieve both as we lighten our loads and eliminate items that weigh us down in our homes and in our lives. This book is an exploration of ways to go about that: by an American, for Americans.