I had expected moving house to leave me feeling disoriented. What I hadn’t counted on was the self-loathing. Why have I kept a broken fly-swatter, a metal bird with one leg and shelves of books I’ve never read? Why do I have four boxes full of clothes when I wear the same thing nearly every day?
Moving puts us in a confrontational relationship with our possessions. All of the things we hide in cupboards and cram in drawers must suddenly be addressed and reckoned with. The job of unpacking usually involves shoving these objects as quickly as possible into the built-in closets typical of most American homes. But owing to its age, the house I have just moved into has none. This hardly seemed like a deal-breaker when we first saw the place, given its spacious rooms, hard-wood floors and big windows. And there’s always IKEA. But in the short term I am forced to see my things for what they are: unmade decisions, unfulfilled promises and unlikely ambitions.
It has never been easier to accumulate things, which means we have never felt more burdened by them. Sales of home-organisation products in America reached $16bn in 2016, and are expected to rise to $19.5bn in 2021. A recent survey of American women aged 18 to 55 found that the average respondent had over 100 items in her closet, at least a fifth of which she never wore. Many see their closets as sources of stress.
Ernest Dichter, an acolyte of Sigmund Freud and a marketing legend, understood that our relationship with our things is hardly rational. In his book “The Strategy of Desire” (1960), he describes closets as “the time capsules of the family life”. They let us hang onto our past, and insure against the uncertainty of the future. I may wear black jeans every day, but my tastes were once more catholic and they may soon be so again, so I keep my unworn trousers to ward off feelings of regret. When we expect our closets to contain our past and future selves, it is only natural that we never seem to have enough storage space. A full closet represents our hope that we will live long enough to read every book and wear every dress. In a house without closets, I find I need to be a little more realistic about my needs, and a little more honest about my time.
I trace my own affinity for collecting unused objects and unworn clothing to my mother. She raised me to recognise that everything old becomes new again. A coin belt from the 1960s makes for a stylish accessory in the 1990s; a black floral dress from the 1970s is a perfect summery shift in the 2000s. “You never know,” she would say. I learned from her that our belongings deserve our loyalty. If they were good to us, then we must be good to them, even when they seem useless. If they never fulfilled their promise – if they hang there, sulking, with the price-tags still on – then we must keep them until they can exonerate themselves, or save them as cautionary reminders of our misguided judgment and base impulses. Our things tell us stories about ourselves.
The fact that these stories can become cacophonous – that our many things sometimes spin unflattering yarns about who we are and what we prioritise – has inspired a boomlet of books and businesses that aim to help us declutter our homes and our lives. Marie Kondo, the Japanese author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”, now enjoys a cult following for promising that we can change our lives by getting rid of possessions that don’t “spark joy”. My instinctive response to this phenomenon – which has spawned an app (KonMari), a verb (“to Kondo”) and a publishing franchise selling over 7m books worldwide – was condescension. Isn’t “joy” a rather high bar for a cowl-neck sweater or a lemon squeezer? But now, surrounded by things that spark something like the opposite of joy, I understand her logic.
Where Kondo offers the promise of a more orderly, less encumbered life, Fumio Sasaki, the latest decluttering guru (also from Japan), promotes something more ambitious. “There’s happiness in having less,” he declares in his new book on minimalism, “Goodbye, Things”. For Sasaki, tidiness is not enough. Indeed, surrounding ourselves with things – even those which spark joy – is a recipe for torment. “I was always comparing myself with other people who had more or better things, which often made me miserable,” he writes. So, like countless minimalists before him, he threw almost everything away, and felt better immediately.
Sasaki writes with the zealotry of the newly converted. His observations are simple and unsophisticated – “Our worth is not the sum of our belongings”; “Possessions can make us happy only for brief periods” – in keeping with the “I was lost, now I’m found” self-help template. I’m not sure it would have been translated if publishers weren’t so eager to find another preacher spouting the decluttering gospel. This is not to say that Sasaki’s views are without merit. Most of us are indeed happier when we spend our time and money enjoying new experiences and cultivating deeper relationships rather than buying shinier things. But few need Sasaki to spell this out. His self-righteous asceticism – which included selling all his books, getting rid of all his music and tossing away everything from his antiques collection to his camera equipment – is a little too joyless for me.
For all my anxiety about my possessions, I can’t say I’m hankering for a big purge. Perhaps I am bristling against the idea that there is something inherently virtuous in decluttering, as if we become purer, deeper people when we don’t have stacks of magazines collecting dust beneath our coffee tables. But I think a larger part of me takes delight in the way our objects say something about our time. A thoroughly decluttered life requires us to inhabit an extended present tense, where objects either serve the moment or serve no purpose at all. As I embark on a new life in a new home, I naturally remain a little greedy for mementos of the person I once was. The stuff of life can offer some soothing continuity, even if it all feels distressingly disordered right now.