When decluttering is not all it’s cracked up to be

piles of folded children's clothes
CC BY 2.0 Holly Broadland

For refugees, immigrants, and others who have lived through tight times, Marie Kondo's celebrated method of decluttering reflects privilege and is a surprising act of trust.

Marie Kondo’s method of decluttering and minimizing one’s possessions has become hugely popular in North America. Her book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” has been a New York Times bestseller and sold more than three million copies. It’s not all that surprising, when you consider the sheer quantity of stuff that most people own these days. The KonMari method, as it’s called, gives us permission to let go, and sometime that’s all we need to hear.

But there are problems with KonMari, as Arielle Bernstein points out in an article called “Marie Kondo and the Privilege of Clutter,” published in The Atlantic. Being able to declutter is, in fact, a privilege and is grounded in the knowledge that we can acquire other things if needed. She writes:

“It’s easy to see the items we own as oppressive when we can so easily buy new ones.”

Bernstein explains how decluttering is a very different experience for refugees and immigrants, who have been forced to leave everything behind and start over again elsewhere. For them the thought of discarding perfectly good items that simply do not spark sufficient joy (which is Kondo’s famous phrase) is horrifying and incomprehensible. It also puts one in a precarious and ill-prepared situation in times of potential difficulty or scarcity.

“In order to feel comfortable throwing out all your old socks and handbags, you have to feel pretty confident that you can easily get new ones. Embracing a minimalist lifestyle is an act of trust. For a refugee, that trust has not yet been earned.”

I have experienced this firsthand, as I continue to assist with the resettlement of a huge Syrian refugee family (two parents and 12 kids, including an infant) in my small Canadian town. They arrived earlier this winter, and when I picked them up at the airport they had only three suitcases for the entire family. They had less stuff than I do when traveling with my three small children. Since then, I’ve witnessed how important material belongings are for them. They can’t get enough of the donated clothes, shoes, furniture, bikes, etc. They seem incapable of saying ‘no’ to anything that is offered because they know how precious those objects are and how luxurious it is to have them.

It brings to mind the 20/20 rule used by The Minimalists – the idea that you should never pack any “just in case” items for a trip if you can buy it for under $20 in less than 20 minutes from your current location. While it’s an intriguing idea, it also reeks of privilege – of having $20 on hand, of having access to transportation, of having time to buy whatever you need at the last minute. For a refugee or immigrant – and my grandmother, who lived through the Great Depression – the 20/20 rule would seem absurd, as they understand the value of conserving what one has and being ready for anything.

Bernstein also takes issue with the moralizing aspect of KonMari: “Emotions throughout both of her books are presented as being as simple as her drawings. You either feel pure love for an object or you let it go.”

It’s much more complicated than that, especially if someone has been forced to go without for extended periods of time. Material objects become a way by which a person defines him/herself, or at least the items are treasured in a way that the current consumerist, disposable shopping culture does not encourage. Purging one’s life of those same objects can potentially affect one’s sense of self.

“If our life is made from the objects we collect over time, then surely our very sense of who we are is dependent upon the things we carry.”

Those words ring true with my refugee family, who have been forcibly ‘decluttered’ to the point of having 14 people’s worldly belongings crammed into only three suitcases. They could never do KonMari because they don’t have enough. Meanwhile, there is an ongoing ‘discard box’ waiting for drop-off at the thrift store, where I toss anything that no longer fits, feels good, or appeals. It hardly seems fair.

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