Why Getting Rid of Clutter Doesn't Make You Zen

If a person's belongings are a reflection of her mind, then I am a person of many "multitudes," to quote Walt Whitman. I collect Fiesta ware, Eva Zeisel pottery and glassware, Bauer Pottery, red cocktail shakers, cool cocktail shakers, Ianthe silver plate, globes, books on forensics, whisks, wooden Christmas ornaments, collectibles from the years the Kentucky Derby falls on my birthday, old cookbooks, dream catchers, owls, pint glasses, Hess trucks (for my son), Dallas Cowboys collectibles, snow globes and anything with Marilyn Monroe looking sad. Oh, sure, I would lose track of the occasional set of keys, but I had my stuff under control. That is, until my husband moved it. We had so many fights, I began hiding my stuff and he began throwing it away. It's allegedly in storage; but I'll believe that on the day my cat Mowgli comes home from the farm.

I never even considered changing my ways until The BlackBerry Incident. The phone was lost in my laundry pile for three hours despite nonstop looking. If acceptance is the first step toward recovery, then let me say here: I buy too much stuff. So it was with great excitement that I read "Throw Out Fifty Things: Clear the Clutter, Find Your Life" by Gail Blanke, a professional motivator and contributor to Real Simple magazine. Her premise, namely that stuff is just "life plaque" holding us back from achieving our true potential, was thrilling. My collections were hindering my progress! Forget about 50 things, I could throw out 500 things (in an hour). My Pulitzer Prize awaited.

And though my husband dubiously reminded me of the Great Purges of 2008 and 2005, I paid him no mind. I had a trash bag half full of mystery keys, one burgundy glove, three pairs of flip-flops that hurt my feet and about a million dollars' worth of old makeup before I began to think better of it.

Blanke seems to promise that tossing stuff into a garbage bag will be the ultimate catharsis. "If we can't decide what to throw out of our clothes closets, how in the world are we going to decide what to throw out of our mental closets—closets that are overflowing with the debris of indecisions?" she writes. If only this were true. The problem with books like Blanke's is that they perpetuate the idea that the connection between emotional and mental clutter is real and not merely symbolic. Mindfulness comes from the state of your psyche, not your closet. You cannot live your life through the condition of your stuff. And now is a good moment to stop trying to, since it turns out we couldn't afford most of that stuff anyway.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized … this is a racket. Cleaning and organizing and simplifying always ends up costing us lots of money and time. Oprah's Clean Up Your Messy House Tour is sponsored by the Container Store. I'm not saying you should let your house fall into disrepair or keep all your National Geographics forever, but couldn't that time and money be used to more directly help a person reach her true potential? Therapy, time with friends and family, a graduate degree—they all seem much more useful than cleaning your closets. If you want to get out of a bad relationship, get that big promotion or figure out how to improve your finances, you're going to have to analyze what brought you to where you are now, and I promise you it will not be your collection of hotel condiments.

Blanke also stresses in her book that it is crucial to throw away those parts of your emotional past that are holding you back. "Don't spend a lot of time analyzing what worked and didn't work in the past. Let it go so you can live and work in the present. Be here now." Blanke may be a motivator, but I must respectfully disagree. Step over that pile of books, shove the laundry off the bed and analyze your past to your heart's content. Thinking about why you once overspent or collected compulsively can stop you from doing it again. I hate to drag out an old chestnut, but Faulkner said it best: "The past is never dead. In fact, it's not even past."

That's from "Requiem for a Nun"—a book from my collection of 20th-century novels I've never read. (See, I'm glad I keep all this stuff around.) Still, I've been cutting down on the collecting. Not because I want to unclutter my mind, but because I don't have time. I'm too busy fulfilling my potential.             

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