Forgive Us Our Debts
This report examines personal, corporate, and public debt in the UK within a moral framework. (2019)
Madeleine Ward reflects on how we can find simplicity in spirituality rather than in the objects around us. 18/01/2019
New year, new Netflix series. And this time, it’s Tidying Up with Marie Kondo that has inflamed the passions of the nation.
In case you don’t already know (read: if you don’t follow twitter) Kondo is a tidying guru and founder of the so–called ‘KonMari’ method, in which the tidier goes through everything they own, holds each item in turn, and considers whether it sparks joy in them or not. If it does, it is kept. If not, it’s out. The remaining possessions are then stored in a way that makes them attractive and easily accessible, so their joyful effects can be more easily appreciated.
KonMari is a love–it–or–hate–it phenomenon. Many people now swear by the approach, and Marie Kondo herself does seem to have a genuinely positive impact on the lives of the people she visits. All of these people have a particular reason for wanting her help – and whether it is to make space for a potential third baby or to come to terms with a personal loss, the crux of the matter is usually the desire to regain a sense of control and focus in an unmanageable situation. Yet despite all this, she has also endured a vicious backlash: either she is encouraging excessive waste and materialist consumption, or she is fetishizing obsessive behaviour, or she is coming for your home library. (Actually there are quite a lot of the last category, confirming anew that nobody likes a book burner.)
Surely her burgeoning tidying empire and the vehement criticism of it are both products of an over–stimulated, over–worked, and over–consuming culture that is crying out for a break.
To that end, it is telling that Kondo’s success has coincided with the viral success of an article diagnosing widespread millennial burn–out. Millennials are the first generation since the 1880s to earn less than their parents, and as those traditional ingredients of success seem increasingly elusive (the ability to settle in one place, the perfect work–life balance, a mortgage) it is clear that many feel overwhelmed by modern life. But the problem reaches far beyond a single generation. A UN envoy recently bemoaned the ‘misery’ caused by high levels of poverty in the UK, and this week saw some pensions cut by thousands of pounds a year. Social media scrolls ablaze with an endless stream of information and covert advertising. The news cycles offer an unrelenting message of catastrophe. Brexit. Trump. It is an anxious time to be alive.
Is it any wonder that a woman offering a joyful and non–judgemental solution to a loss of confidence and control has become so popular? Of course, people want happiness. Of course, they want things to be simpler.
I certainly don’t hate Marie Kondo. That seems a bit like hating the Bake Off: she is utterly charming, and her life mission is literally to spread joy. But I agree with those who are wary of her approach – because if it bolsters the notion that material possessions can bring lasting happiness, it will only make the problem worse. And how can it not, if we really focus our attention on each empty thing we own in pursuit of a more fulfilling life? For me, the most decisive moment of the series was Kondo’s reassurance to a grieving widow: ‘You are not alone. The house itself and all its belongings are there to support you.’ In this way, possessions are invested with meaning, and even personality, through the tidying process. This is spirituality for consumers – an insubstantial plaster stuck over a vast crisis of direction.
Of course, it is good to consider what we really need (and I do love a tidy house) but if we think what we need is ultimately still ‘possessions’ then we’ve surely gone wrong. Mess isn’t in itself a bad thing. And while the world struggles to come up with its own authentic answers, faith communities offer the possibility of an alternative vision. I am a Quaker – a faith in which simplicity is a core principle, and whose central advice on the matter encourages us that ‘a simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength.’ Like KonMari, this is a vision of joy: as Quakers in North Carolina declared in 1983, ‘Simplicity does not mean drabness or narrowness but is essentially positive, being the capacity for selectivity in one who holds attention on the goal.’ However, the notion that we must own (or throw out) something to be worthy of this joy is utterly rejected. Neither is the ‘goal’ a personal achievement, so much as undistracted attention on Joy itself: ‘Simplicity is an appreciation of all that is helpful towards living as children of the Living God.’ Of course, we are encouraged to consider the material effects of our lifestyle on the environment and the economy, but a truly well–ordered life will also never be determined by our possessions or our worldly success. Simplicity is a spiritual state, not an aesthetic one.
Image by Peter Johnston available under a Pexel/Creative Commons license
Madeleine is Head of Research at Theos. She holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Oxford, and previously worked as a research scholar at a retreat and education centre in Philadelphia. She is the author of ‘The Christian Quaker: George Keith and the Keithian Controversy’ (Brill: 2019), ‘Quakers, Christ and the Enlightenment’ (OUP, 2021), ‘The Church and Social Cohesion: Connecting Communities and Serving People’ (Theos, 2020), and ‘Cohesive Societies: Faith and Belief’ (British Academy, 2020). Outside of Theos, she sits on the Quaker Committee for Christian and Interfaith Relations.
Posted 18 January 2019
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