Real Decluttering

Amongst the many calls for transformation in January, we hear the call to get more organized – to declutter.

Now, let me first say that this suggestion finds purchase with me. We are a family of stuff. I often joke that I live with three hoarders. And I am nowhere near monastic in my relationship with stuff, I am simply more willing to give some of it up when things get too crowded.

At any rate, the short version of the logic behind decluttering as organization is simply this: once you have too much stuff for your space, no amount of organizing will suffice. You will always be fighting the tide – and losing, which is what happens when we fight the tide, by the way.

I am sympathetic to the simple truth of that idea. Perhaps it appeals to me so much because I live with three hoarders.

book-collection-education-159751Once you have too much stuff for your space, no matter how much Tetris you play with it, no matter how many pretty containers you try to sort it into, it just won’t fit and it certainly won’t fit neatly or in a way that is pleasing to the eye or soothing to the soul.

So, the natural answer seems to be to begin a process of getting rid of some of the excess.

There are people who have made their entire careers out of helping people actually DO this work.

There is an industry – and a very full one I’d like to add – that helps people find ways to approach and re-organize their stuff.

As this desire takes hold as part of the New Years’ promise of better ways and better days, I see a criticism of the declutter movement that I had felt but not heard before.

This argument centers around the idea that this entire problem is on that only people of adequate privilege have. And further that the approach of getting rid of things that you’ve already paid for and could, at least in theory, use again, is but a further demonstration of that privilege.

I see the logic there.


I know that when I had less – when my economic privilege was decidedly less, I still had things that I didn’t want or need. I still had a hard time organizing those things as my spaces were also smaller, my containers nonexistent or of the cardboard box from the liquor store variety.

In short, I think it is possible to have a clutter problem without being rich or spoiled.

Why do I think that is possible?

I think it’s possible because our culture encourages the satisfaction of the soul by way of accumulation.

NOW, before I say more about that, let me be clear that I am not about to equate stuff or the wanting or getting of stuff with sin. I think that it is perfectly possible to have a lot (or even just slightly more than enough) of stuff and have it out of sheer pleasure or need or more likely a combination of both.

I do not think it is morally wrong to either want or get stuff.

What I do think is that for many of us, the getting of the stuff is a misguided attempt to fill much deeper needs AND that using stuff in this way means that we will never actually have enough AND that we will therefore face this decluttering task on an ongoing basis.

Singer-songwriter David Wilcox has a line I think I’ve quoted before: “When you lay your dreams to rest, you can get what’s second best, but it’s hard to get enough.”

We cannot get enough stuff to convince us we are enough as people.

We cannot get enough stuff for our children to prove our goodness as parents or ensure their success in the world.

We cannot get enough stuff to make up for jobs that make us miserable.

We cannot get enough stuff to stem the loneliness of untended or one-sided relationships.

We cannot get enough stuff to generate a feeling of connection, the magic antidote to addiction.

Stuff cannot fill the holes of the soul. The holes of the soul require deeper work than shopping and organizing.

The way to approach that deeper work in a lasting way isn’t just to surrender our excess stuff, but to declutter our minds, our hearts, our calendars.

The way to address the holes of the soul is to apply the same level of honesty about the stuff that all of the experts recommend (Is it serving me? Does it still fit? Is it just here because someone else gave it to me?) to our thoughts, to our habits, and to our choices so that we can choose better:

So that we can look at the thoughts of not-enoughness and recognize how they play out. So we can challenge them and attempt to move toward a peace of self-affection and assurance.

So that we can assess our situations at work and see the part we play in creating our own dissatisfaction and can either change our outlook and approach or get real about reconsidering what we do or where we are doing that work.

So that we can have the time to tend to our relationships and see the ways that we contribute to their meagerness.

So that we can find the courage to move into the world with enough vulnerability to actually truly connect and to offer that same connection without so much need attached to it.

So declutter your physical space as you like.

I get that urge too, and for the way I am wired, a less full visual plane is a good thing. But don’t stop with that clear out. Watch what happens in your world of stuff AFTER that process. Notice if more stuff is coming in. See yourself replacing that clutter.

beach-bracelet-daylight-723501Perhaps more importantly, notice what happens to your relationship with your stuff if you take the plunge on a deeper kind of decluttering. See how much easier it is to not need and want so much when you begin to see, to acknowledge, to comfort and to heal the holes that act as vacuum for all of that stuff in the first place.

See how much easier it is to release things that no longer serve.

See how much easier it is to create a life full of things, people, and experiences that spark TRUE joy.