Is Less Really More?
For reasons that have little to do with a global pandemic, January has seen me house-bound, relying on books and Netflix to keep me company and in good cheer. I've ended up making the acquaintance of two very different and accomplished women over the past few weeks.
The first is Mari Kondo, global decluttering phenomenon and de-facto secular high priestess. The second? Ingrid Fetell Lee, the less famous but no less noteworthy champion of a persuasively democratic idea of joy as found and encountered in the everyday - by way of colour, nature, textures, circular forms; even glitter, confetti and well-organized desks.
On the face of it, these ladies and their worldviews are completely contradictory, if not polar opposites.
Less is more
The spectacle of overawed and hapless consumers being rescued from their 'stuff' has been a sub-genre of home-improvement programming that has always enjoyed a loyal following. Watching other people clean to survive, and then thrive, is pleasingly cathartic - less voyeuristic than most reality television but offering enough purging, tears and drama to make for satisfactory viewing.
In her Netflix show, Ms. Kondo side-steps this high-decibel shame/guilt cycle. In fact, she eschews the term 'decluttering' almost entirely, preferring to focus on 'tidying' as a quasi-spiritual practice, one in which homes and objects are thanked, folding is an act of presence, and respect is paid to one's past life and its signifiers even as one begins to design for the more pressing (and promising) present and future. Objects are heaped in piles and their sheer excess contemplated.'Does it spark joy?' is both a litmus test and cultural catchphrase.
Mari Kondo brings to mind a pared down, minimalist aesthetic - pastel hues, breathing space in closets, drawers and rooms; unruly household objects coiled in restful rolls; life organized into manageable essentials, grouped by size and category.
But more is better
Ingrid Fetell Lee' s work, on the other hand, builds a case for muchness. She believes that joy is to be found in our immediate environments, if only we know what to look for. More interestingly, Fetell Lee claims that joy can be dialled up through the simple act(s) of building in more colour, more patterns, more plants, more textures, more harmony, more delight into our physical contexts.
Fetell Lee's book about joy has an entire chapter dedicated to abundance. If this sounds like a recipe for unthinking accumulation, it isn’t. But her mix of anecdote and cutting-edge research does convincingly reject the idea that 'less is more.’
Two experts, two opposing ideas?
Both Kondo and Fetell Lee talking about joy as being embedded in our objects, and in our relationships with the things we own, buy and want.
Letting go in order to grow
The idea of having a real relationship with our stuff makes many people uncomfortable - design intellectuals, spiritual gurus, minimalists, anti-consumerism activists, even people who are really committed to their New Year's resolutions about spending less money in their favourite stores.
There’s no debating that our things are often the unmaking of us. So many of us are in such poor relationships with our belongings - we are weighed down, indebted, uncomprehending, covetous, ashamed, perversely possessive and attached.
The spirit, the soul, even the imagination, are always spoken of in terms of transcendence. That human beings and human life are embodied is an encumbrance, an embarrassment, a reality to somehow be overcome through relentless striving. Pick your religious tradition, and you will find doctrine that is deeply suspicious of material objects. We're supposed to grow by letting go. Relinquishing our possessions and objects - and our delight in them - is how we begin this essential journey.
Letting our stuff help us grow
But here’s the thing about things that both Mari Kondo and Ingrid Fetell Lee understand. Our things can also be the making of us - they can delight, disarm, stimulate, serve, expand. Things are not unnecessary details. They are the building blocks for better, deeper, richer lives. We cannot always transcend them. But we can ask better questions of our objects, and ourselves, and flourish as a result. We can understand what we need, and equip ourselves accordingly and beautifully.
Our things can bring us joy, and these ladies demonstrate that there are at least two routes to that destination. It's not exactly enlightenment, but it is a good life, embodied - life as so many of us would want it.