I must be turning into some kind of birthday Grinch, because when my daughter celebrated a recent birthday, I almost grimaced at the sight of her many presents from friends.
Lovely that she has gifts, as well as friends to give her gifts. But, honestly, she has more than enough toys. Any more and she won’t know what to play with. Which child, though, would agree with such an assertion?
The incessant deluge of stuff – not just toys but all manner of consumer goods – can feel overwhelming, particularly when we keep far more than we discard. We seem to be almost drowning in a sea of shameless material excess. Drawers that won’t open because they are too full, storerooms stacked top to bottom with stuff, unused goods still in their boxes. So much stuff. It was inevitable something – or someone – would come along in response.
You might remember Marie Kondo, the Japanese guru of decluttering and organising, from Star2’s decluttering challenge in September last year. Listed by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in 2015, Kondo has taken the world by storm with her spartan “Konmari” method of decluttering, detailed in her books such as the bestselling The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up.
Who would have thought that we would want a book on tidying up? And yet going by its popularity, and hers, we do. Kondo insists that you should only keep things that “bring you joy”. (A few other items, such as screwdrivers, are acceptable, she says). Her “Konmari” method – which also details how to fold clothes – has turned into a verb.
“I am trying to Konmari my life,” my friend and former colleague Shashi Kala declared recently on Facebook. The goal was to get rid of clutter such as unused electrical items and unread books.
The inspiration for the clear out came from a meaningful source. In recent months, Shashi has met with homeless people in Kuala Lumpur, the “Kolumpo Below”, through Project Tikar. Led by Joycelyn Lee, the project aims to provide people on the streets with mats (tikar in Malay), blankets, toiletries, shoes and a bun for breakfast.
“Meeting – and talking – to the homeless has made me acutely aware of how little we actually really need, and how much we waste. We all have way too many material possessions, and are under the illusion that they bring us joy,” Shashi says.
“Few things really bring true joy into our lives like helping a person in need. It opened my eyes to the many people around us who are struggling to get by on so little.”
Shashi believes we hang onto our possessions for “inane, and sometimes purely emotional” reasons.
True. Sometimes we hardly like the stuff, but hold onto it for sentimentality’s sake, or because we think we might need it one day, or simply because we spent good money on it.
Yet clutter is no good for us, not just because it collects dust. Physical clutter is akin to digital clutter. Consider the relentless beeps of continuous notifications from Facebook and Twitter. In this age of overload, we need to set limits. Clutter clouds our thinking and drains us.
I have been battling clutter for a while now. I have long tried to follow the ethos of William Morris, the Victorian artist, writer and socialist, who a century earlier than Kondo advocated that we should only keep things which are beautiful or useful in our homes. Incidentally, he also said that, “No work which cannot be done with pleasure in the doing is worth doing”.
Kondo’s austerity programme can feel extreme sometimes. She believes in barely keeping any photos, letters or mementos. But then, she’s 30, she might have a change of heart later.
She also has just 30 books. I still have hundreds of books, and I can’t pare that down to double digits. In my ideal life, I am reading a book a week, like Facebook owner Mark Zuckerburg, and I catch up on all those classics. Never mind that in my real life I have little time to read. But I’m attached to the knowledge and lyrical inspiration that lies between the pages of my books.
Ultimately, though, Kondo’s message is unerringly relevant. We need to take stock of what is truly important and liberate ourselves from rampant consumerism.
Consider one young homeless man who Project Tikar helped. He was earning RM280 every two weeks at a car wash centre, of which RM200 was sent home to Termeloh, Pahang, to support his baby daughter. To save money, he slept on the streets. Surely the stark disparity of how some of us live in such excess while others have so little should serve as an incentive for change.
Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health.