• "Weight is also a word for significance and that a clutter-free existence is sometimes its own kind of loss." (AAP)Source: AAP
Our mania for de-cluttering turns minimalism into a moral virtue and overlooks the emotional dimensions of the things we own, writes Neha Kale.
Neha Kale

28 Jun 2016 - 12:17 PM  UPDATED 28 Jun 2016 - 12:17 PM

Nothing proves that the things we own can, quite literally, weigh us down like the process of moving house.

Each time I’ve relocated, I’ve waited to morph into the kind of person who hosts a garage sale only to find myself stuffing T-chests with clothes and the books I’ve carted around with me since I was a teenager and deflecting venomous glares from the movers once the truck arrives.

I always imagine that my airy new abode isn’t just the symbol of a new life stage but the ideal canvas for some mess-free future self.

And without fail, I’ve found myself facing a mountain of stuff, threatening to topple over and take my minimalist dreams with it.

More is more

This wouldn’t be an issue if minimalism wasn’t among the defining mindsets of our time. The fact that our online lives are being shaped by the around-the-clock noise of social media (Twitter! Vine! Snapchat!), has seen us devote our offline lives to fantasising about an existence devoid of clutter.

Whether that means worshipping Marie Kondo, the Japanese lifestyle guru who urges us to bin any possession that fails to “spark joy”, subscribing to the Tiny House Movement, a global campaign that asks us to swap suburban bungalows for a matchbox-sized residence or, better still, a treehouse or caravan (the Facebook page for Tiny Houses Australia has 34,000 followers) or elevating Kyoto or Stockholm, cities that understand the magic of a spartan interior and solitary houseplant, over unruly outposts such as Sydney or Adelaide.

And although this back-to-basics ethos rightly rails against consumerism and mindless consumption, it also suggests that an unwillingness to part with your belongings or aspire towards a sunlit white bedroom kitted out in pricey raw linen rather than, say, a crimson den accessorised with chintz curtains and empty wine bottles is a moral failure rather than a matter of taste.

We reserve so much pity for the figure of the hoarder, not just because he’s trapped by the useless items he accumulates but because his inability to discern what to keep and what to discard appears reflective of something deficient and deeply ungenerous.

The long-running reality TV show Hoarders acknowledges that the condition is a mental illness (affecting up to two per cent of the Australian population, according to an ABC report) but its voyeurism also reminds us that minimalism’s ugly doppelgänger could cost us our lives.

Disposable society

But in The Atlantic, Arielle Bernstein argues that there’s a certain set of privileges intrinsic to embracing minimalism and purging the things we own. Bernstein, whose grandparents fled the Holocaust and whose family immigrated from Cuba to the US in the 1960s, writes that “for families who have experienced giving their dearest possessions up unwillingly, ‘putting things in order’ is never going to be as simple as throwing things away.”

A powerful VICE photo essay that captures Syrian refugees’ prized possessions (watches, wallets, battered iPhones) shows how our belongings are often imprinted with hard-won sacrifice, the things we’ve kept also a bittersweet reminder of the things we’ve left behind.

"Weight is also a word for significance."

Growing up, getting rid of clothes that still fit or food that was cooked with love was a cardinal sin; about as unfathomable as choosing to live in a Tiny House when material comfort and sufficient space to house the things you own will never be taken for granted.

As I type this, I’m looking around my apartment and accepting that my minimalist fantasies won’t ever accommodate the truth that, maybe, I own too many things.

There’s a dusty thesaurus, gifted to me by my aunt as a 15-year-old, its inscription more useful to me than its actual function; a couch purchased by my parents, its impractical shape impossible to squeeze into a doorway and its lime-green surface too firm to ever relax on; and the too-expensive lamp I bought myself when I moved to Sydney that, despite its dull glow, made me feel - just for a moment - like I’d arrived.

Deep down, I know that this stuff is probably weighing me down. But I also know that weight is also a word for significance and that a clutter-free existence is sometimes its own kind of loss.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @Neha_KaleFacebook, Instagram @nehakale.

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