Work & Home

Rethinking Decluttering

If you spend any amount of time on social media, chances are you’ve seen an article about decluttering your home. I’ve written about streamlining your household on this very blog. But I have to confess that I didn’t really thinking about the implications of those terms until I read The Class Politics of Decluttering. Stephanie Land asks a really important question: “What if your life is streamlined out of necessity, and not choice?”

Land’s argument is that making the choice to have less stuff in your household is a privilege: if you can afford to get rid of anything, you already have more than you need. If you’re able to make choices about what you really need, you’re already in a better position than those who operate on a different system of choices. For them, the central question is not “Do I need this?” Rather, the question is “Even though I don’t need this right now, am I likely to need this at some point in the future, when I might not be able to afford it?” If the answer to that question is Yesthat’s where clutter begins.

As I’ve mentioned before, I come from a family of people who didn’t throw things away. Both of my parents grew up during the Depression era; they grew up in families where there wasn’t always much to eat, where hand-me-down clothes were the only option for most family members. Throughout his life, my father would stop in his tracks and pick up a stray bolt or screw he’d spotted in the middle of a parking lot. His garage was full of small jars of such treasures.

No one used to call that kind of behavior hoarding. It was frugality, or conservation, or something equally honorable. I grew up thinking it was a little excessive. But the renewed focus on decluttering seems to have developed in response to a culture where everything is disposable. Broken toaster? Throw it out! Don’t waste your time trying to figure out how to fix it.  TV shows like Hoarders contribute to our sense that holding on to stuff is a bad idea. Decluttering becomes yet another way to separate Us from Them.

Sometimes, though, people hold on to things because they can’t afford to get rid of them. If someone has a house filled with broken appliances, perhaps that’s because replacements are out of the question–but the hope of an affordable repair is worth holding on to. Meanwhile, those of us who can afford to declutter ignore the fact that disposing of excess doesn’t eliminate it; rather, it just passes the clutter along to a new location. Whether that’s a landfill or a resale shop, the point is that we no longer have to claim it as our own.

Think about it this way: how many people do you know who have a garage so full of stuff, they can’t park their cars indoors? (We’ll set aside the matter of being able to afford covered parking for the moment–that in itself is a huge luxury.) How many people do you know who rent a storage unit for the stuff that can’t fit into their homes? And what meaningful purpose does any of it serve?

I don’t want to sound as if I’m part of the movement claiming to value experiences over stuff. Like Elissa Strauss, I think that’s a really sexist way to look at our lives. Experiences have always been seen as the province of men, whether those men are traveling the seas on whaling ships or braving the frontiers of the wild west. Settling the domestic sphere–with curtains, rugs, all manner of domestic stuff–was, traditionally, the province of women. No surprise, then, that experiences are still viewed as more desirable. (And never mind that adventuring men need lots of stuff to have those experiences.)

My point is, most of us don’t even think about the wealth that our stuff represents. We just think of it as a burden that needs to be managed. So there’s good management–charitable donation, or storage somewhere out of public view–and bad management–clutter.  As Land points out, we also think of “bad” and “good” consumerism. The “bad” consumer is the person who joins the hoard for Black Friday sales, looking for a deal. The “good” consumer is the one who laughs at Black Friday video on TV and says “I don’t need a new TV badly enough to deal with that.

I’m guilty of being that “good” consumer. And although I have, on occasion, commented on the fact that those Black Friday sales probably make Christmas possible for some families who are struggling just to make ends meet, that didn’t stop me from scoffing at those videos and saying “You couldn’t pay me to go near Target on Black Friday.” I’m ashamed to admit that, but it’s true.

“That those major sales bring the unattainable items to a level of affordability is what drives all of those people to line up and storm through doors on Black Friday,” Land writes. “Those aren’t wealthy people who have a house full of expensive items they don’t need. Those are people teetering on or even below the poverty level, desperate for comfort in their homes. To point to them as a reason to start an anti-consumerism movement is just another form of social shaming.”

I’m going to be thinking very differently about the stuff in my house as I work toward decluttering. And I’m definitely going to be thinking twice before I bring more stuff in. It’s time for me to start thinking about clutter as a marker of abundance–and it’s time to start thinking about how to manage that abundance in better ways. If my clutter isn’t serving me, then it certainly isn’t doing anyone else any good.

1 Comment

  • Reply Robin January 12, 2017 at 5:38 pm

    Some of my “clutter” is a hedge against future want. I keep stuff because I might need it in the future and might not have enough money to buy another (fill in the blank). Some of it, like documents I invested a lot of resources to collect for research projects I wanted to, or felt that I must, do, represents resources already spent. I know in my heart that I will never finish the research. I don’t even want to finish the research. The piles of paper, however, represent precious resources that were invested when I didn’t have many resources. I gave books that a bought in Russia to friends who are still specialists; some of the books ended up in Duke’s library. Photocopies of modern documents got recycled. I think I kept some photocopies of 18th-century documents, just for the memories. It hurt so much to throw these things away, but I felt lighter once I no longer saw them daily. It was a good decision to stop reminding myself that investments don’t always pan out.

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