Tidying Up as Spiritual Practice Part 3: Additional Critiques

I’m officially back on the tidying wagon, and it feels great. Part of my resistance came from the fact that I’ve gotten through clothes (easy), books (easier than I thought), and papers (very easy and very fulfilling), and now I’m in the biggest category: komono, translated as miscellaneous items.

Komono includes media such as CDs and DVDs, toiletries and makeup, valuables, electronics, office supplies, cleaning supplies, kitchen goods, hobby items, and whatever else is in your house. I have a lot of komono, and after stopping the tidying process to travel, getting back into the thick of komono was overwhelming I finally got motivated out of sheer need: I thought I had lost an important document for the nonprofit I volunteer with, and it was only through the act of tidying my office supplies that I managed to find it.

As I delve back in, I am reminded of what I appreciate about the process of tidying: really tuning into the relationship between myself and the things I own, and remembering that this process is changing my behavior toward compulsive spending. Yes, I’ve bought a few books since tidying my shelves. But I haven’t spontaneously purchased every single vaguely interesting book I came across. I’m using my library card regularly. I find myself being excited to wear the clothes I have on hand, and when I’ve needed to replace something, I’m making choices based on what makes me feel good… not what might make me feel good if I lost a few pounds. I’m also doing a lot better at remembering to deal with bills and other documents that come in the mail, because I have an organizational system that keeps papers consolidated but still in my field of vision, so I don’t forget about them. I was so distressed at the amount of really and truly expired food in my pantry (like, condiments I had purchased back when I was still married) that my grocery shopping habits changed immediately, and I’ve improved at just buying what I need, and when I overbuy (hey, you can’t just buy half an onion), making sure I use up the leftovers.

Consider yourself lucky that I forgot to take a before picture of the fridge.

Consider yourself lucky that I forgot to take a before picture of the fridge.

Resuming the process, I’ve also been thinking about an excellent essay that was published this week at Popular Culture and Theology: Marie Kondo: Tidying Up and Spirituality” by Kim Anderson. Although I am not Christian, I appreciate the way that Anderson uses Christian Environmentalist values to give a thorough critique of the KonMari method.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, the KonMari method is not perfect. Most of my analysis has looked at the issues of class and privilege inherent in Kondo’s system. In her article, Anderson points to some other concerns that I had not addressed before. For example, she points to the hidden costs in what we own, using the example of finding a shirt for her daughter that only cost $0.98. She explains: 

When you stop to think about it, just the cotton to make the shirt should have cost 98 cents. Or the labor to make it. Or the fuel to ship it from where it was produced. Or the wages and benefits of the people who produced it OR who sold it to me. But lo and behold, here it was, marked down to 98 cents. Even at the original price of $10, many people/resources had been exploited in the process of selling it to me for a good price. This is something we don’t take into consideration when we find a shirt for $1 or $10, and then discard it a year or two or even five years later when it no longer brings us joy, serves a purpose in our lives, or is in fashion.

It’s easy to forget that our clothes demand the resources of the Earth and of other people, and bother are regularly exploited under capitalism. This is both a class issue and an environmental issue, and reminds us that we can’t separate the way we treat consumption from the way we treat the planet, and the way we treat each other. I try to shop primarily at consignment and thrift stores to offset this problem in my own life; it’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a step. Not everyone can do this, though. For example, until recently, many thrift stores did not have great options for plus-size people. While that’s changed some in recent years, I know many plus-size friends who would like to purchase more from secondhand and consignment stores, but don’t always have many options.  

Anderson also points out that Marie Kondo doesn’t encourage us to think about why we accumulated so many things in the first place. That hadn’t occurred to me, largely because in my own tidying process, I’ve frequently asked myself, “Why the heck did I buy this?” and “Why the heck did I keep this?” Often, I have an answer: I thought I might have use for it; I was at an event and felt pressured to buy something; I was dealing with a bad mood by shopping. While I don’t always know how to answer that question, more often than not, I at least have a sense of why. If you’re doing the KonMari method, I recommend that, as you work through each phase of the process, take some time to reflect on why and how your habits developed. 

One of my favorite parts of Anderson’s essay is when she asks, “Is this a real lifestyle change? Or will we just repeat this behavior?” Let’s face it: Kondo boasts of a 0% recidivism rate, but we have no way to assess whether or not that’s true. (I’m going to say it’s dubious. I don’t know of any medical, psychological, or spiritual method for any problem that has a 100% success rate in the long term.) I have two friends who have talked about repeating the process. I do think that, in my own case, this is resulting in a real change. I already mentioned some examples above. There have been points in the process where I thought, No wonder she can claim a high success rate. Who would want to do all this work over again? On some level, the thought of doing the KonMari method twice in a lifetime is overwhelming. Once is enough. I’d rather change my spending habits so I avoid constant accumulation, and having to go through this again.

At the end of her article, Kim Anderson asks us to consider the following questions:

  • Does this bring me joy?

  • Do I value the cost of production?

  • Am I paying a fair price?

  • Will I keep it for a long time?

  • How will I dispose of it when I am done with it?

  • Do I recognize that it has come from God?

 Even if the final questions doesn’t resonate with your spiritual belief system, I believe these are valuable points to ponder. You could even, if it made more sense to you, substitute a phrase such as “the Universe” or “the Earth.” (Yes, even your child’s plastic toy came from the Earth. Where do you think we got those petrochemicals to make the plastic in the first place?)

Maybe these six questions seem like a lot to think about when you’re shopping. On the other hand, what if we did all of our shopping with that kind of intentionality? What if we approached our grocery, clothing, furniture, tool, gift, and media purchases all with the same kind of reverence and care? I honestly would wager that if I put all six of these questions into every shopping trip, I would resolve my compulsive spending issues in a year.

Okay, maybe I wouldn’t resolve them 100%. Who would? Nobody is perfect. Sometimes, you completely forget that you are out of dog food, and you just have to run to the store and get a can of wet food from 7/11 because the dog wants his dinner now and the pet store is closed. Sometimes you get caught off-guard by your period and have to rush to buy tampons and some new underwear from a chain store you wouldn’t normally frequent, because you need to deal with biology now. Sometimes you are going to have a truly bad day, and because you both got a flat tire and fought with your best friend and found out you need $500 worth of dental work done, you will forget to be mindful and you will just buy something frivolous. That’s part of being human. We make mistakes and we try to do better next time.

Just because we are human, though, does not mean we shouldn’t try. As soon as I post this essay, I’m going to write Kim Anderson’s six questions into my planner, which goes with me on every shopping trip. I’ll be able to see and review them regularly. I’ll put them into regular use. And hopefully a year from now, I’ll remember that I wrote this post, and I’ll let you know how it worked out.