Like most Americans, I have too much stuff. I live amidst a certain amount of clutter. I have worked to become more thoughtfully conscious of how I acquire, use, and dispose of stuff. But like most of us, my relationship with stuff is actually pretty complicated.
So when I heard about the blockbuster best-selling The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I was both ruefully scornful and intrigued. For those who may not have heard of it, Japanese organization expert Marie Kondo’s little book takes a novel approach to decluttering. “KonMari” as she is called exhorts us to pick up and handle each item that we own, then ask ourselves if it “sparks joy.” If not, we are to thank it for its service before discarding or donating it. What we do decide to keep, we are to treat with loving kindness. She scolds us for balling our socks. “Treat your socks and stockings with respect,” she commands. “Have you ever had the experience where you thought what you were doing was a good thing but later learned that it had hurt someone? At the time, you were totally unconcerned, oblivious to the other person’s feelings. This is somewhat similar to the way many of us treat our socks.” She warns that socks in a drawer are on a well-earned holiday. They need to be able to relax and recharge when not being worn.
KonMari’s kooky tendency to anthropomorphize the objects in our home – not to mention her obsessive perkiness – have made her book eminently spoofable. (The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck has also been a huge success.) But I have to admit, I found her guidance to talk to our things oddly appealing. I remember being a child, living in a world ensouled. The inanimate objects around me had feelings. Articles of clothing, toys, even the brown paper lunch bag I brought from home –everything was potentially alive.
Marie Kondo is onto something. She realizes that our problem with stuff is not that we over-value it. It is that we don’t value it enough. We as a society are materialistic because we have stripped matter of its grounding in mater. Mater is Latin for mother, and provides the root for material, matter, and matrix. Our planet Mother Earth is the matrix from which all our material possessions come, of course. But we don’t value her. Matter doesn’t matter to us. We have repudiated the great mother goddess who is alive in all things, and a repudiated archetypal energy is very dangerous indeed.
What we do not consciously acknowledge wields great unconscious power, and we have willfully denied the sacred origin of material things.
So we keep buying stuff, compulsively consuming more. Because we do not recognize the sacred roots of our clothing, furniture, lamps, rugs, toys, books magazines, dishes, etc., they do not nourish us. Like an obese person stuffed with empty calories from junk food and soda but starving for real nutrition, we keep consuming, unconsciously looking for real sustenance. In this way, we are caught in an unconscious, compulsive enslavement to the very goddess we have denied.
The psychology of the hoarder is interesting in this regard. A hoarder’s life has been taken over by his stuff. He becomes buried beneath it, often unable to work or have relationships. His unacknowledged debt to the goddess weighs him down, blocking out the light. Family members become angry or distant. Each item, each scrap of paper is paradoxically overvalued because of being so undervalued. The hoarder explains that he cannot throw away the pile of magazines from the 1970’s because he might want to read them some day. A part of him intuits the tragedy of the ravaged trees that were felled to make the paper, the extractive process that made the ink. He recognizes at some level the truth that these old magazines are precious. By hoarding this stuff of the earth, he avoids grieving. Hoarding is perhaps above all else a refusal to mourn. If he could give each possession back its soul, if he could acknowledge consciously the sacred origin of all of his stuff by thanking it for its service, he might not be so very, tragically stuck.
KonMari addresses this need to ensoul things in order to let them go. “Get rid of those things that no longer spark joy. Make parting a ceremony to launch them on a new journey. Celebrate this occasion with them. I truly believe that our possessions are even happier and more vibrant when we let them go than when we first get them.” (p. 193, bold in the original.)
We have concretized our relationship with the goddess of matter. Our literal relationship with stuff leaves no room for an imaginative relationship with it. We let ourselves have an appreciation only for a thing’s functional aspect or its ability to convey status. We do not have an adequate vocabulary for the magic of stuff, but unconsciously, we sense it. We know how an object can hold so much feeling. We come upon a pair of pants our child wore when he was two, and a powerful wave of feelings, sense impressions, and forgotten memories washes over us. Their doll-like size. The holes in the knees. The particularity of the color and fabric. For a moment, this dear toddling child who has been lost to us for over a decade is conjured back by the magic of this old article of clothing. Without a way to honor this magic and mystery, it is nearly impossible to put those pants in the garbage or otherwise release them from the emotional weight they carry for us.
Our relationship with materials stuff is often colored by shame. We feel embarrassed by our stuff. Either it is not the right stuff, not good enough, new enough or expensive enough. Or we have too much of it. We feel self-conscious when people come into our homes lest they see the stuff spilling out of the closet. We refer to shopping as “retail therapy,” using humor to disguise our shame at needing to address our distress by consumption.
If you need any evidence that we as a nation are drowning in stuff, consider the growth of the self-storage industry. The first modern self-storage unit opened in 1958, but the industry did not take off until the 1970’s. Nearly 11 million Americans currently rent a self-storage unit. Americans store 2.3 billion square feet of stuff. The stored stuff covers more than 78 square miles, which is three times the size of Manhattan. There is an average of 7.3 square feet of self-storage space for every American.
The unforgettable 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi featured a series of powerful images that portrayed our compulsive consumption and denigration of mater. Serene images of the natural world give way to scenes of frenetic urban activity and heartbreaking shots of destruction of the natural environment on a massive scale, all set to a pulsing score by Philip Glass. “Koyaanisqatsi” is a Hopi word meaning “life out of balance.”
The fairy tale “The Fisherman and His Wife” powerfully illustrates our out-of-balance relationship with the material world. A poor fisherman lives with his wife in a filthy shack. One day while fishing in the clear sea, he catches a flounder that speaks with a human voice and begs for its life. “Please release me,” says the flounder. “I am not ordinary fish, but an enchanted prince.” The fisherman is happy to let the talking flounder go.
When he gets home that evening, his wife asks him why he hasn’t caught anything.
“Oh,” he says. “I caught a flounder, but he told me he was an enchanted prince, so I let him swim away.”
The wife berates the fisherman for not having the good sense to have asked for something first. She exhorts him to return to the water to find the fish and ask for a little cottage. The man returns to the shore, where he sees that the water is no longer clear, but yellow and green. He calls for the fish, who soon appears and grants his wish.
At first, the wife is very pleased with her cottage, but she soon begins to yearn for grander things. She sends her husband back to the fish five more times to make increasingly outrageous requests – first she wants a palace; then she asks to be made king; then she demands to become emperor; then pope; and finally god. Each time the fisherman returns to the water, it is darker and more stormy. Each request is immediately if reluctantly granted until the last one. After asking that his wife be made like god, the fisherman returns home to find has wife living again in squalor in their filthy shack.
The fisherman’s wife represents the feminine part of the fisherman’s psyche. It has been left to languish in squalor, and because it has been denied in this way, it has developed an out-sized sense of entitlement. The repressed, undervalued feminine in our culture can become a harsh mistress with a monstrous appetite, always demanding more from us.
Jungian analyst Marion Woodman names this fisherman’s wife part of the psyche the “unconscious devouring mother.” As Woodman points out, it is important to realize that it is this energy that drives the patriarchy, just as in the fairy tale, it is the wife who commands her husband, and demands to be king, emperor, pope, and god.
The so-called patriarchy serves the dark side of the Magna Mater…This dark side is embodied in a materialism so pervasive that matter itself, in all is infinite variety, is the divinity we serve. Mater or matter (“the stuff of which a thing is made” [Oxford English Dictionary]) has become Western society’s dark goddess. (p. 203)
Importantly, the fisherman’s wife is never able to appreciate her home improvements for long. When the fisherman sees the pretty little cottage, he remarks to his wife that they will be able to live there quite comfortably. “We will see about that,” is the wife’s response.
The fisherman’s wife then, is a lot like us. Our new things don’t keep us happy for long. No sooner have we purchased our iphone than we begin ogling the newer model.
Woodman points out that “the question is not how can we get out of matter, out of the womb of the Great Mother, but how can we redeem her – that is, how can we contact and release the light that is at the heart of her darkness?” (p. 204). Making an effort to re-ensoul our world by appreciating with intention the objects we buy and use can help redeem matter. If we take the time to love our things, we will be consciously honoring the goddess. We will consume less because we won’t feel empty all the time.
The author Thomas Moore notes something similar in his book The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life. “Things can enchant,” he writes. (p. 133) Surely, all of us have had the experience of possessing an object that enchanted us. An article of clothing that fits perfectly; a lamp that delight each time we see it; the flatware we selected fifteen years ago that still feels just right in our hand. Like Marie Kondo, Moore recognizes the soul in inanimate objects.
Interesting, isn’t it, that these two books, so very different in nature and intent both reference magic? It is as if both authors recognize how stripped of enchantment our material world has become. A world enlivened by an awareness of the mystery of the material objects around us is indeed a world whose magic has been restored.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo, 2014.
The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, Thomas Moore, 1997.
“From Concrete to Consciousness: The Emergence of the Feminine,” by Marion Woodman in Betwixt and Between: Patterns of Masculine and Feminine Initiation, Louise Carus Madhi, editor. 1987.