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When Clutter Contains Us

Posted by Andrée Collier Zaleska at Feb 26, 2010 03:30 PM |

Common Security Club members are reevaluating their relationships with the excess stuff in their lives.

The Container Store promises us help with a cultural crisis in the most cheerful terms: “…innovative products to help customers save space and, ultimately, save them time.” Simplify! Get organized! We enjoy our possessions, it proclaims; ownership is wonderful and fulfilling—the only trick is to make it all fit.

Annie-Leonard-185px.jpgLife After Stuff
Annie Leonard reveals what gives her strength, even as she and her popular film, The Story of Stuff, are attacked as un-American.

But the very existence of such a store seems to indicate that people are feeling owned by their stuff, rather than the other way around. Many of us have now grown up under the ethic of endless consumption, of shopping for entertainment, of objects poorly made, so that they break and require replacing. We are driven to acquire, and to define ourselves by our acquisitions.

This is an issue that comes up with great frequency in Common Security Clubs. It is both an issue of money, and one of time and energy. Members may express anger at the pressure to consume at one meeting, and then talk about their shopping compulsion and clutter problem at another. We fight the tendency to consume, but it often gets the better of us.

One Club member, Catherine Baker, has recently created a personal organizing business. Catherine was surprised when she started “A Room of One’s Own." She had thought she would rely mainly on her organizing skills and personality to put her clients at ease. She discovered instead, as she was presented with her clients’ stories of their struggles with clutter, that she “often felt like a combination of a priest, a social worker, and a bartender."

“People sometimes tell me very personal, painful stories," she says. "They may have family and friends who have called them lazy, messy, or worse. It’s never that simple. I have yet to find a clutter situation that doesn’t have a more complicated reason behind it. I do not pry into people’s personal lives, but a big part of solving many clutter issues isn’t just bringing my organizing skills to the challenge, but really listening to the client and hearing what brought him or her to their particular situation in the first place.”

Catherine sees clients who are at the mercy of their own frugality, sometimes the result of a childhood of want. Some end up overwhelmed by the hundreds of toiletry articles they’ve saved, or the trash bags of their children's old clothes they couldn't bear to part with. “My clients and I gently talk about the irony in this. How it’s strange how sometimes, in honoring everything, you can end up honoring nothing.”

Catherine also watches people struggle with mounds of paper on dining room tables where no one has eaten in years. “The overflowing dining room table problem is so common. It can range from folks just not having time to put things way to something more problematic: If the dining room table is cleared, there is no reason for the family not to sit down together.  But if they sit down together, there will be conflict.”

Catherine has noted that “people with clutter problems are often incredibly creative, resourceful and thrifty. They can see the possibilities in objects that you or I might be very limited in envisioning.” But they are plagued by an inability to let go of stuff when it overwhelms them.  Why?

A lot of the problem can be explained by what we lack, rather than what we have: Time. It’s hard in our society to give the gift of a meaningful experience to self, family, and friends (an extended, truly restful vacation, for example, or even just a lovingly home cooked meal). It’s impossible for many Americans to do this when there is not enough time away from work, and when one’s family and friends have competing, busy schedules.

A Common Security Club—which is just one way of being in community—could seem like a drain of more time. But in fact, the experience of being heard and not judged in a safe community is deeply satisfying. With that experience to fall back on, many people find themselves able to face the intractable problems of their lives, and see how they intersect with those of the larger society.


Andree Zaleska

Andrée Collier Zaleska works as an organizer for the Institute for Policy Studies, where she co-directs the Common Security Club network. She is also a climate activist and the co-founder of the JP Green House, a zero-carbon demonstration home and garden in Boston.

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