The case for accepting some clutter in your life this Christmas season

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It was the worst sound in the world. The worst. My husband saw me flinch and asked what was wrong.

“They’re wasting tape,” I groaned. “I know we can get more tape. It costs a dollar. I need to let them use tape. It doesn’t matter. But they are wasting it.

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He understood. Life with other people is a constant battle of reasonable, understandable, mutually exclusive demands, such as letting the kids use tape, because it’s just tape, versus letting myself have control over one single thing in my own house, even if it is only tape.

I am happy to report that my better angels won, and I toughed out the wanton squandering of tape without strangling anyone.

We fall afoul of justice and charity when we drag other people into our system of choice and call that, and that alone, virtue.

Why the struggle? I grew up somewhat poor; my husband grew up somewhat rich. When we got married, we were extremely poor. We had to carefully monitor everything we used: tape and also writing paper, toilet paper, electricity, food. I felt more human and less panicked if I knew where every penny went. But my husband felt more human and less panicked if he could occasionally forget about poverty and blow 65 cents on a candy bar.

In other words, we had two very different ways of dealing with the unpleasant reality of poverty. Neither was perfect; both were legitimate. The reasonable response was to compromise. The unreasonable response: to insist that your way was the way of virtue. We both had to learn not to respond that way.

It is a good thing to find a method or system of approaching life that makes sense for you. We all need clarity and structure. Where we fall afoul of justice and charity, though, is when we drag other people into our system of choice and to call that, and that alone, virtue.

The unknown quantity that is “other people” never seems to make it into equations that claim to solve the problem of how to live a life.

The topic came up as some friends were thrashing their way through the annual pre-Christmas decluttering, hoping to clear away a year’s worth of accumulated junk before adding twinkling lights, garlands and a fresh avalanche of presents to their homes. On cue, Mari Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up reared its immaculately groomed head.

One friend, who works from home and homeschools her several odd and creative kids, said that she tried to apply the book’s “Does it spark joy?” criterion as she sorted her house but soon realized that the same items that brought her frustration and despair sparked joy in her odd and creative kids. Mountains of cardboard, for instance: They want it. They need it. They love it. And she loves them, so the cardboard stays, sans joy spark.

The unknown quantity that is “other people” never seems to make it into equations that claim to solve the problem of how to live a life. Too many self-help books assume we can simply decide how our lives ought to be and then go do that.

A mixture of melancholy, sweetness and guilt: That is my personal shelf. My life is not only mine.

But most people lead lives that are entangled and intertwined with other people, for better or worse. Even if I claim a little corner or shelf set aside just for me, what fills it? Little clay cats the kids made for my birthday. Earrings whose mate I have lost but that make me think of my husband, who gave the set to me. Broken bead necklaces in baggies, waiting for me to fulfill my promise to restring them. A mixture of melancholy, sweetness and guilt: That is my personal shelf. My life is not only mine.

When someone gives me a bag of clothing for the kids, I calmly anticipate at least one pair of ratty, pilled pajamas that no one can wear. I don’t get mad. It is hard to see old clothes as rags when they once kept our babies warm. It is complicated. I understand. (I throw them out, but I understand.)

Even time itself is hard to sort. How do I spend a precious free hour? Cleaning? Reading books to the kids? Reading books to improve them or books just for fun? Do I just hang out on the bed while they jump on me? Or get ahead on work so they can jump on me tomorrow? Take time for myself so I can rest? Rest now so I can take better care of them later?

It is always a losing game to chase a simply stated lifestyle. Life is not simple. Life cannot be organized.

It is not even crystal clear whether things that seem virtuous are true virtues. Some people cannot function, physically, mentally or emotionally, in chaotic surroundings. I can. I do. That is a true strength. But I tend to go overboard and justify my slovenly ways and laziness by calling it “flexibility” or even “generosity” or “humility.” I don’t want to clean up so I find questionable virtues amid living in a mess. But those virtues are not made up, either. Grace builds on nature. It is a good thing to know yourself and cultivate your natural strengths, rather than starting from scratch.

Even our virtues are not entirely our own, you see? My life is not only mine. I am the way I am and I can be who I was meant to be only because of the pressures, demands, sacrifices and ministrations of other people, mixed in with the mysterious workings of grace and the all too predictable action of sin—my own and others’ sin, too. My life is not my own.

Without irony or bitterness, I thank God that we will all die someday and have the sorting done for us.

It is always a losing game to chase a simply stated lifestyle. Life is not simple. Life cannot be organized. You can never perfectly tease out which things are beloved and meaningful and which are extraneous; you can never perfectly tease out where my generosity or selfishness stops and your generosity or selfishness begins; you can never tease out the one right way to live a life.

Says a voice that gets louder and more compelling as I get older:It doesn’t matter. Recall the devastating vision at the end of Flannery O’Connor's “Revelation.” As the long, variegated, unwieldy procession of saints makes its way to the Lord, Mrs. Turpin “could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

Frazzled moms sometimes joke about cutting down their workload with a lovely, cleansing fire. I cannot recommend this. But I can recommend acknowledging that we cannot solve the complications of this life on our own. We will never get to the bottom of it. One virtue most modern people could stand to cultivate: looking in the mirror, seeing our vices, our virtues and our sweet, melancholy, guilty entanglements—and simply shrugging. Let God sort it out.

Without irony or bitterness, I thank God that we will all die someday and have the sorting done for us. I can get more tape. Let them squander it. I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life-changing magic of the Second Coming. Amen.

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Robert Doud
7 months 3 weeks ago

Darn good tweets!

Carol Cox
7 months 3 weeks ago

I was so moved by your article about virtue! I could relate to all that you wrote. I imagined you, in your home, fretting about priorities etal. But, the stunner was when I discovered at the conclusion of your article that you have 10 children! You are DEFINITELY getting into Heaven, my Friend! I had only 1 child (he was the only one God sent my way) and some days I never even got out of my pajamas and into the shower! God bless you!

John Walton
7 months 3 weeks ago

Clutter --have you seen photos of Edison's desk at the Edison Museum? Some believe that clutter is positively related to genius with an R^2 of 0.99.

Lisa Trahan
7 months 3 weeks ago

"The unknown quantity that is “other people” never seems to make it into equations that claim to solve the problem of how to live a life. Too many self-help books assume we can simply decide how our lives ought to be and then go do that." YES! That is exactly the thing none of these self-help books "get". I would lead a really different lifestyle if I were alone and only pleasing myself...but that's not the life I chose and I'm sure I would not be a better person for it (married 27 years, 6 kids). This was one of of your best essays ever. Profound.

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