Japanese superstar cleaning consultant Marie Kondo has written a book on—of all things—tidying, which has become a New York Times bestseller and sold over two million copies. Her book, The life-changing magic of tidying up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing, has created quite an international buzz. Why are we so obsessed with our stuff? Why do we spend so much of our time, money and energy trying to either acquire, organize or get rid of stuff?

Let it go, let it go

One of Kondo’s main suggestions is to pick up and handle each and every possession, every shoe, book or trinket, and ask, “Does this spark joy in my life?” If the answer is yes, keep it; if not, get rid of it. She also has a clever way of dealing with the hard-to-part-with items like the shirt you loved in the store but never wear. Kondo suggests sincerely thanking the shirt for bringing you joy at the time of purchase and then letting it go on its way, as it already dutifully completed its mission. Her goal is for you to surround yourself with only the things you love and that bring you joy.

As I read Kondo’s concrete suggestions for letting go of our material clutter, I can’t help but wonder if she’s talking on a deeper philosophical level at the same time. In a Forest Gump sort of way, I’m not sure if her ideas are simpleminded, or profound.

Maybe the battle we have in managing our material stuff parallels the battle we have in managing the emotional, psychological and existential parts of our lives as well. Whenever we dispose of something, there is a loss. If we dispose of a bag of trash, it is a loss which is welcomed and un-conflicted. However, getting rid of the box of grandma’s handwritten letters, or books we haven’t read, is a different story.

To let go is to grieve

Saying goodbye to the letters is probably hard because they are associated with the past—feelings and memories of grandma. Letting go of the books may be difficult because they are connected to the future—dreams and fantasies about reading them that will never be realized.

Where there is loss, there is mourning and grief. If the thing that we are losing (an object, person or fantasy) has served its purpose and we are ready to say goodbye, the grief still may be sad, but not necessarily tormenting and debilitating. But if we’re not ready to say goodbye, we haven’t gotten our fill of the thing, then the process of letting go can be more difficult.

Without the clutter, we can see ourselves more clearly

We see that letting go can be hard because it forces us to mourn and grieve the loss. But it also can be difficult because it forces us to face ourselves more directly, and this existential challenge can be scary. If we’re surrounded by physical clutter, unhealthy relationships, resentments of the past and unrealistic expectations about the future, it’s easier to not look at ourselves and try to understand who we are, what our purpose is and whether we are fulfilling our purpose or avoiding it. But if we dare to let go of these distractions, we invite the opportunity, daunting as it may be, to reflect on fundamental questions, such as, “Who am I, really?” and “What am I trying to do with this life?”

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

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