shutterstock_146291708Consider this: If you have a cluttered refrigerator door, you probably have a cluttered house.

The proportional relationship between the number of magnets you own and your overall “stuff” is  just one of the revelations in this New York Times article from last year. Anthropologists have been studying middle-class American families for information about the impact that material culture has on their overall happiness. (FYI, “material culture” is basically a fancy academic way of saying “stuff.”)

The anthropologists’ nine-year UCLA project has morphed into the book Life at Home in the 21st Century:

It’s full of intriguing data points about the number of possessions the families owned (literally, thousands), much of it children’s toys. Women’s stress-hormone levels spiked when confronted with family clutter; the men’s, not so much. Finally, there was a direct relationship between the amount of magnets on refrigerators and the amount of stuff in a household.

Clutter, it seems, causes stress, especially in women. The book explores the toll that “stuff” can take on family relationships and individual happiness. What it does not discuss is a topic I am particularly interested in: how clutter corrodes our spirit.

I don’t have any anthropological studies whatsoever to back up my claim about the spiritual problem of clutter. All I know is that I feel both less in control of my own life and less likely to allow God to take control if I have too much stuff. That sounds like a paradox and it probably is; however, my experience has shown me that clutter takes up so much energy that I don’t have much left over for the spontaneity of life in the Holy Spirit.

I hear this from other people as well. Readers of Flunking Sainthood have told me that they liked the September practice of hospitality but they aren’t yet in a place in their own lives where they can just open their homes to strangers. I understand. Sometimes the obstacle is that we don’t have enough physical space for guests, but just as often it’s because our lives are already so cluttered with objects and tasks that there’s simply no room at the inn.

My husband likes to watch the show Hoarders, and while I don’t generally watch it with him (what was it the researchers found about clutter hurting women more than it seems to hurt men?), I’m thrilled that prolonged exposure to the show seems to regularly inspire in him a deep and immediate desire to clean our house.

Also, I’ve seen enough episodes to know, in a train-wrecky way, how these hoarders have allowed their various collections to destroy their relationships. Granted, the people on the show are extreme cases, but it’s exactly the radical nature of their excess that brings into relief the many ways I differ only by degree.

So over this last week, I’ve spent some time purging. I have to say it feels great to throw out old files I don’t need anymore or to donate clothes my daughter has outgrown. I have a couple more boxes of books to take to the library, and I’ve passed along other books to friends I know would enjoy them. And yeah, I took almost all the magnets off our fridge.

It’s spiritually freeing to shed these things. Our culture tries to tell us over and over again that having more things will give us more freedom, but the reverse is true. I’m reminded of something Kathleen Norris has written:

Things exercise a certain tyranny over us. Whenever I am checking bags at the airport, I recall St. Teresa of Avila’s wonderful prayer of praise, “Thank God for the things I do not own.” Things are truly baggage, our impedimenta, which must be maintained with work . . .

Impedimenta: the things that weigh us down. What will it take for us to slough some of it off?

 

6 Comments

  1. I’ve been a book hoarder for a long time. Recently, my husband and I both moved all of the necessary work-related books to our offices at work and downsized from about six bookshelves to two at home, while committing to use our e readers for most books. It was such a relief to take all of those (loved) books to the thrift store and know that I will never have to move them again. It was liberating.

  2. I hoard some things to some degree with the best of them, while perhaps not ready for cable television it is a struggle for me to let go of some things. In some ways I see the spiritual cost as, not being free with my substance. Holding on to things out of fear that someday I might be in want, or for sentimental reasons even when the sentimental attachment isn’t very strong, and that possession could bless others, is something that I am constantly negotiating in my mind and heart. Not to mention the things you mention about the crowded surroundings taking a toll. I also pay a cost in that my stewardship of and care for so many things would be better spent not stretched so thin. As my grandparents have gotten older they have pared down their belongings because they are just not able to care for so many things. There is a PBS special on the history of Jazz that they just love both being musicians, at some point it made sense to donate it (and many other high quality books and DVDs) to the local public library, they could still feel like they owned them, because as citizens we all own the library, but the library could take care of it and when they felt like watching or reading again they could check it out. I’ve tried to follow their example of shrinking my stewardship of things in different ways.

  3. Hmm, I went to bed thinking about and I’m not sure I agree (or maybe I do but don’t want to admit it because it might require me to change). It is true that the clutter in our house bothers me much more than it does my husband. (He only seems to be bothered when he steps on a toy car or something.) I also really enjoy the feeling of getting rid of things, either by donating them or simply putting them in the trash. But about that refrigerator and magnets… Our refrigerator is covered. Sometimes things fall off the door when we try to open them. But 75% of the stuff is art work done by the kids. They proudly display their work and now that the twins are in preschool, they are bringing home more sophisticated art and it is now taped to the cabinets. We do not keep all the artwork (though Allan would if he had his own way.) As new artwork appears, we throw old artwork away. So, I wondering if possibly the type of clutter on the refrigerator door could be analyzed and would give a better insight into the amount of clutter in our lives and the possible impact on our spiritually lives it has.

    I take great joy in looking at my refrigerator, it reminds me that kids live (and sometimes rule) in this house. But even as I type that, I wonder if I allow their stuff to clutter my spiritually life. (I want the answer to be ‘no’.)

  4. I couldn’t agree more Jana – physical clutter has always equated mental clutter in my life. Unfortunately I sometimes take it to the opposite extreme (something my husband and children have inspired me to temper): I regularly (as in weekly, is that healthy?) walk through my house with the express intent of finding things to get rid of. I’m sort of a purging-organizing-addict. Minimalism is just so darn enjoyable, less truly is more.

    IMO, another benefit of having less is that the things you do own are more meaningful (whether sentimentally or practically). The art on my walls is impactful and carefully selected, as are the books on my shelves, the amount of dishes in my kitchen, even the 3 magnets on my fridge.

    I hadn’t considered the impact this might have on my spirituality, however. Now I have much to ruminate over… :) Love your posts, as always.

  5. Very interesting read. As a child of a hoarder, and as a mother of 2, I can definitely say clutter is stressful to me. I’m not at all a “neatnik” but when I repeatedly pick up scores of toys time and time again, I wish for less stuff and more time to spend on what really matters.

    I do want to comment on your statement:
    “Also, I’ve seen enough episodes to know, in a train-wrecky way, how these hoarders have allowed their various collections to destroy their relationships. Granted, the people on the show are extreme cases, but it’s exactly the radical nature of their excess that brings into relief the many ways I differ only by degree.”

    Compulsive hoarding disorder is a mental illness. While not thoroughly understood yet, it’s believed there it’s caused by an impairment in the area of the brain that involves cognitive thinking and decision making. Hoarders aren’t simply “allowing” stuff to destroy relationships, although I can see why it seems that way. It’s truly more that their brain can’t cope with the decision making process needed to let go of anything with “potential”, whether anyone else sees that same “potential” or not. I choose to believe my mother does not prefer her hoarded collection over me, but doesn’t exactly know how to make changes to fix it.

    • Jana Riess

      “Compulsive hoarding disorder is a mental illness. While not thoroughly understood yet, it’s believed there it’s caused by an impairment in the area of the brain that involves cognitive thinking and decision making. Hoarders aren’t simply ‘allowing’ stuff to destroy relationships, although I can see why it seems that way. It’s truly more that their brain can’t cope with the decision making process needed to let go of anything with ‘potential,’ whether anyone else sees that same ‘potential’ or not.”

      This is a very good point. Thank you!

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