Oh, for the approval of the comforting mess, of the psychology of feeling cradled by familiar, much-loved objects, of being at ease with a measure of disorganization. At last, an appreciation for being surrounded by “stuff.” An article on the art of clutter!
When I saw that happy headline, I had to catch my breath. Now here’s a subject (and angle) I can appreciate — seeing our eccentric, abundant, chaotic collections of odd objects as something we need not war against, apologize for, nor blame for emotional distress.
Instead, we can embrace our cheery, messy spaces as part of who we are.
Feel Guilty About Your Stuff? Don’t.
Gone, in an entertaining essay, is the stigma of a pile here, a stack there, a notable absence of visible table tops… everywhere.
In Dominique Browning’s “Let’s Celebrate the Art of Clutter,” we are given permission to express our anxiety not over our accumulations we are advised to shed (for the sake of our mental health), but rather to admit to greater distress over the pressure to do so.
A minimalist approach to design aesthetics is one thing; living one’s life according to that approach, quite another.
In fact, I wholeheartedly agree as Ms. Browning writes:
… in living, we accumulate. We admire. We desire. We love. We collect. We display… And over the course of a lifetime, we forage, root and rummage around in our stuff, because that is part of what it means to be human. We treasure.
Why on earth would we get rid of our wonderful things?
However — you knew there would be a caveat — also noted is the inevitable, potentially wrenching process of throwing things out when we downsize. We may “streamline” involuntarily, as the result of changing circumstances. We may do so by some measure of choice, because we’re relocating to an area where the dollar buys less square footage. We may do so with intention, seeking the lightness that comes from simplifying, which means “editing” those treasures we’ve collected in our lifetimes.
Our lifetimes so far, that is.
And here, again, I agree with Ms. Browning. There is something hopeful, youthful, vibrant even — in the act of acquiring. Within reason, that is, and excepting those whose acquisitional tendencies run more along the lines of an addiction than a pleasure.
While I certainly don’t acquire as I did 15 years ago, nor do I wish to. I don’t accumulate as I did then either, when my children were little and constantly crafting much cherished “stuff.” But I do acquire occasionally, and I enjoy it immensely. Sure. I like a clean workspace (especially) as much as anyone else. But surrounded by assorted objets, I find I’m not only at ease, I’m possibly more productive.
Might there be, for some of us, a psychological bonus to what others deem clutter?
The Psychology of Mess
According to this Puckermob article on the psychology of mess, the way we respond to clutter is highly personal. No surprise there, right? On the other hand, the way we respond to our own (seemingly) messy space is different from the way we respond to the clutter of others.
The article notes that a disorderly environment may encourage “breaking with tradition and convention.” In addition:
… Some of us are perfectly happy in our clutter. It’s where we work and create to the best of our abilities. It’s a comfort zone for deep thought and sincere reflection.
It seems that studies prove this out:
… Psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs, from the University of Minnesota, and two of her colleagues predicted that being around messiness would lead people away from convention, in favor of new directions… their experiment concluded that messy rooms provoke more creative thinking, and working in chaos has certain advantages.
Objects, My Objects
Are we born to be messy or neat? If we have messy tendencies, can we curb them and find a middle ground? Can the neatnik manage to survive life with one who needs to be surrounded by stuff?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I know this: My possessions, generally speaking, are sentimental or creative in nature. Glancing at my fireplace mantel for example, I see photographs of my boys in colorful picture frames, a coiled glazed vase (handiwork of one son), a round iron weight (found in a European street by the other), and a tiny replica of an Eames chair, which is part of a larger collection. Also on this same surface are business cards, yard sale stickers, and a diminutive lamp.
Elsewhere in the same room — books, books, and more books along with, yes, files, newspapers, magazines, and other “stuff” that would qualify as mess. But I’m fine with it. Better than fine. I feel good, productive, and at ease when I’m surrounded by stacks of books.
Help! (And Moderation)
My kitchen, on the other hand, could do with some professional organization. My closet? It’s a nightmare, and I won’t pretend otherwise. I wouldn’t say no to a little visit from Jeff Lewis and Jenny Poulos, or anyone else with the skill and stamina to take on the task.
Yet what Ms. Browning’s article should clarify for us is this. There is a difference between feeling buried (or paralyzed) by clutter and feeling pleasured by its presence. There is a difference between clutter and disorganization. There are also differences in perception — my Felix to your Oscar, or vice versa.
So I think I’ll stop feeling guilty about my struggle to get rid of “stuff.” I will toss or give away what has no emotional heft, and likewise what no longer has a use. I will persist in ny efforts to achieve a greater level of organization. My recent weekend endeavors having included sorting and shedding — Goodbye, paperwork from 2002; Hello, my childhood copy of The Wizard of Oz — I will continue with a steady-as-she-goes process. And I will accept that I will never live in a clutter-free, mess-free environment. For me, I suspect, this is just right.
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