When Clutter Contains Us

Posted February 19, 2010 in Blog, Featured

by Andree Zaleska

“The Container Store” promises us help with a cultural crisis in the most cheerful terms: “…innovative products to help customers save space and, ultimately, save them time.”  Simplify!  Get organized! We enjoy our possessions, it proclaims; ownership is wonderful and fulfilling—the only trick is to make it all fit.

But the very existence of such a store seem to indicate that people are feeling owned by their stuff, rather than the other way around.  Most of us have now grown up under the ethic of endless consumption, of shopping for entertainment, of objects poorly made, so that they break and require replacing. We are driven to acquire, and to define ourselves by our acquisitions.

This is an issue that comes up with great frequency in Resilience Circles. It is both an issue of money, and one of time and energy. Members may express anger at the pressure to consume at one meeting, and then talk about their shopping compulsion and clutter problem at another. We fight the tendency to consume, but it often gets the better of us.

One Club member, Catherine Baker, has recently created a personal organizing business. Catherine was surprised when she started “A Room of One’s Own”.  She had thought she would rely mainly on her organizing skills and an easygoing personality to put her clients at ease. She discovered instead, as she was presented with her clients’ stories of their struggles with clutter, that she “often felt like a combination priest/social worker/bartender, though I am none of the three.

“People sometimes tell me very personal, painful stories.  They may have family and friends who have called them lazy, messy, or worse.  It’s never that simple.  I have yet to find a clutter situation that doesn’t have a more complicated reason behind it.  I do not pry into people’s personal lives, but a big part of solving many clutter issues isn’t just bringing my organizing skills to the challenge, but really listening to the client and hearing what brought him or her to their particular situation in the first place.”

Catherine sees clients who are at the mercy of their own frugality, sometimes coming out of a childhood of want, where they are overwhelmed by the hundreds of toiletry articles they’ve saved.  She has worked with people who could not bear to part with their children’s old clothes, but there were so many of them, they ended up being stored in trash bags.  “My clients and I gently talk about the irony in this.  How it’s strange how sometimes, in honoring everything, you can end up honoring nothing.”

Catherine watches good people struggle with mounds of paper on dining room tables where no one has eaten in years.  “The overflowing dining room table problem is so common.  It can range from folks just not having time to put things way to something more problematic: “If the dining room table is cleared, there is no reason for the family not to sit down together.  But if they sit down together, there will be conflict.”

Catherine has noted that “People with clutter problems are often incredibly creative, resourceful and thrifty.  They can see the possibilities in objects that you or I might be very limited in envisioning.”  But they are plagued by an inability to let go of stuff when it overwhelms them.  Why?

A lot of the problem can be explained by what we lack, rather than what we have: Time. It’s hard in our society to give the gift of a meaningful experience to self, family and friends (an extended, truly restful vacation, for example, or even just a lovingly home cooked meal).  It’s impossible for many Americans to do this when there is not enough time away from work, and when one’s family and friends have competing, busy schedules.

A Resilience Circle—which is just one way of being in community—could seem like a drain of more time. But the irony is that the experience of being heard and not judged in a safe community is deeply satisfying. With that experience to fall back on, many people find themselves able to face the intractable problems of their lives, and see how they intersect with those of the larger society.