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Tidying Up with Marie Kondo

January 24, 2019 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

The Japanese cleaning whiz helped me stop feeling like a slave to my possessions.

Japanese cleaning-up whiz Marie Kondo is becoming a household name thanks to her popular series on Netflix. For me, Ms. Kondo was a lifesaver several years ago, when I first bought a copy of her internationally bestselling book, The Magic Art of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (2014).

Tidying up, Ms. Kondo boldly promised on the very first page, is life-changing. After eliminating clutter from their homes, Ms. Kondo asserted, her clients often made major decisions, getting married, finding new careers or moving house.

It sounded too good to be true but I wanted to try. My kids were little and our home was crammed full with toys, baby books, and enough crafts and projects to fill a museum. Boxes of outgrown clothes lined our closets and well-meaning friends often dropped off ever more bags of outfits for our kids to grow into. My husband and I sometimes marveled that we couldn’t believe how many things we’d managed to collect through the years. “It’s like we’re drowning in stuff!” we sometimes said to one another.

The average American home contains 300,000 objects. American kids own a whopping 47% of all children’s toys and books.

We weren’t the only ones. Over the past 50 years, the amount of possessions typical families own has ballooned. According to professional organizer Regina Lark, the average American home contains 300,000 objects, and while American kids are only 3.7% of the world’s children, they own a whopping 47% of all children’s toys and books.

Paring down can seem next to impossible. We were spending hours every week trying to keep everything organized; in desperation, I bought Ms. Kondo’s book and hoped it would help. After all, the great Jewish sage Hillel said, “The more possessions, the more worry” (Pirkei Avot 2:8).

Many of her ideas were quirky but I followed them all. Kondo suggests cleaning up by category. Gather all your possessions by type, dump them on the floor, then pick them up one by one, asking yourself if they “spark joy”. If owning them makes you happy, they can stay; if they do nothing for you or make you miserable, it’s in the donation pile they go.

Seeing our belongings in huge, messy piles on the floor shocked me into realizing just how much excess we all owned – and how few items really brought us joy.

Some have pointed out that some of Ms. Kondo’s quirkier ideas, particularly talking to our possessions, might have roots in the Shinto religion that she practices. She makes no such references in her book, however, and I found her strange-sounding advice to say thank you to items we no longer want odd but liberating, helping me not feel bad about giving items away. “Thanks for your service!” I cheerfully said to a jacket I no longer wanted. “You made me glad when I found you on sale!” I said while looking at a skirt I’d never worn. Thinking about each item this way made it easier to acknowledge that for some things, it was time to go.

Kondo describes her clients giving away scores or hundreds of bags of possessions, and soon I too had more plastic garbage bags full of unwanted items than I’d ever thought possible. For the first time in years I could see the inside of our closets, and there were spaces on bookshelves where toys and books and other papers and detritus used to be crammed. We didn’t miss any of the many items we’d given away. Instead, I felt lighter, less weighed down by possessions filling every available space.

I called a charity pickup and on the appointed day brought everything outside, waiting for the truck. “Are you moving?” a neighbor asked as she walked by, eyeing the dozens and dozens of bags I’d put out. No, I explained, but something stirred in me. My husband and I had long talked about moving to a different neighborhood where there was more Jewish life, our kids had more friends and we felt there were more opportunities to live the kind of religious life we wanted. Many things held us back: it’s wrenching to move, and we couldn’t imagine loading all our possessions into a moving truck. Plus, many of the homes in the neighborhood we were thinking of moving to were smaller.

Now, gazing at all the items we were giving away, I wondered – maybe the process of moving wouldn’t be so difficult after all.

Tidying up can help give us the mental and physical space to start thinking about what’s much more important in life.

After a few months of using The Magic Art of Tidying Up we moved. Our new home is smaller than our old one, but that’s okay. We no longer have items crammed into every closet and stuffed onto each bookshelf.

Judaism has long recognized that happiness comes from actions and human connections, not possessions. After we’ve satisfied our basic needs of food and shelter, additional possessions have a way of controlling us, not vice versa. Many of the greatest rabbis of contemporary times were known not only for their brilliant scholarship and kindly acts, but also for their extremely frugal ways of living. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (1838-1933), known as the Chafetz Chaim, lived in the town of Radin in Poland. One day a businessman finding himself in Radin decided to pay a visit to the great rabbi.

He knocked on Rabbi Kagan’s door and was surprised to find upon entering that Rabbi Kagan owned almost no furniture or decorations. “Where is your furniture?” the shocked businessman blurted out.

Rabbi Kagan merely looked at the businessman and asked, “Where is your furniture?”

“I’m travelling,” said the businessman, “I’m only passing through.”

“I’m just passing through too,” Rabbi Kagan replied.

We can’t all live on the same exalted level as Rabbi Kagan, eschewing all extraneous possessions but his example is one we can all strive for. We’re only here for a short time. Do we really need all this stuff?

Tidying up can help give us the mental and physical space to start thinking about what’s much more important in life. I can’t say it will work for everyone, but it certainly changed our family’s life.

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