By Effie Caldarola
A member of my faith-sharing community devoted one year to buying nothing. Nothing, at least, that wasn’t a necessity. She bought food, of course, and if her printer ran out of ink, she would deem that a necessary purchase. She paid her utility bills and her mortgage, but she added no “stuff” to her life.
She resisted clothes, jewelry, household furnishings and decor, even gift items. Her children were alerted that Christmas gifts would be family mementos or keepsakes passed on. She found the year meaningful, energizing, spiritual, liberating. Simplicity is good for the soul.
I thought about her recently when I was researching the current mania about decluttering.
The latest self-help craze is all about getting rid of the stuff that overwhelms us. Probably most recent hit in this genre is Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying-Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.”
In it, Kondo suggests going through possessions by category, saving nostalgic things such as old pictures for last. We are to ask, as we examine each object or item of clothing, “Does this bring me joy?” No? Out with it. Kondo is a disciple of paring down.
If you research this trend, you’ll find that Kondo’s enormously popular book is a mere tip of an iceberg of decluttering literature and theory. Although this research has triggered my cleaning instincts, I’m more interested in the why of this current trend.
Why this obsession with simplifying? And does the movement hold larger significance for our spiritual lives? In an October blog for the National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters mentions, in an article about the Synod of Bishops, that the consumer culture is a “principal agent of secularization.”
How does our relentless consumerism take us away from God? Basically, does clutter, and the money spent on it, bog down my spiritual life as well as well as my house? One hardly needs to be a certified hoarder to know that stuff can overwhelm our spirits.
Maybe we’re obsessed by clutter right now because we’re engulfed in so darn much of it. Clothes are a good example. Remember when your grandmother would invest in a good, solid, expensive winter coat, and it would be her winter coat for years? Today, cheap imports mean that the after-Christmas sales yield winter coats for a few dollars. Cheap Chinese imports, as well as cheap imports from other countries, flood our markets.
This glut of stuff – kitschy holiday decorations, clothes so cheap and easy to discard – is so enticing and inexpensive that we fill our houses to the brim. We rent millions of storage units. We take bags of stuff to secondhand stores, only to learn that those old T-shirts eventually get shipped to places such as Africa where their abundance is ruining the native garment industries.
The decluttering trend is screaming “enough!” Even our secular society realizes that something is out of sync in our lives. Clutter speaks to waste, to environmental degradation, to exploitation of resources.
From a Christian standpoint, do we ask God to fill us, or do we mindlessly fill our emptiness with stuff? When it’s time to send money to the school fund drive, the refugee crisis, the homeless shelter, do we give first? Or do we buy our toys first and assess what’s left over?
Few of us will be brave enough to embark on a year of non-spending. But all of us should approach the upcoming holiday season with an attitude of simplicity. For parents especially, the Christmas season presents the ideal opportunity to discuss what fills us spiritually and what clutters our life needlessly.
Effie Caldarola writes a syndicated column for Catholic News Service.