You probably know Marie Kondo as the "spark joy" lady who helps people clean their houses, and may also be wondering why this necessitates an entire Netflix series when Hoarders exists. That's what I thought before I read her book, The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up. What struck me most about the Kondo method is not what's famous for -- that is, instructing people to discard items that don't "spark joy" when they hold them. It was how she casually regards household items as living things, and bases her entire philosophy around it. This is both weird and, at least in my case, life-changing.
Your Dirty Clothes Are Sad
Oddly enough, this idea is only briefly touched on in her Netflix series, mostly when she's shown greeting her clients' homes upon arrival and when she's telling them to thank the objects they discard. Kondo's book, on the other hand, shoves you headfirst into the surreal world of a seemingly crazy woman who thinks she lives in the Beauty And The Beast castle. She tells readers that their house already knows where things belong, and to fold clothes that would be happiest folded and hang up those that would be happiest hung.
It's naturally woven through her lessons like it's the most obvious thing in the world, but the message is clear: The objects you don't use are sad as they linger forgotten in a cupboard somewhere. Your clothes are sad being left in a crumpled heap on a chair. That one bathroom drawer you shove all your s**t in is an orgy of sadness. Everything you own is sad, and it's all your fault.
And thinking this way works.
I am probably the most disgusting person I know. There are parts of my floor that haven't been seen in years, and I think nothing of leaving dishes in the sink for lengths of time I'm nevertheless uncomfortable revealing. My first thought upon finishing the book was "Oh my god. My dishes are sad." That night, I used my dishwasher for the first time ... ever? And I've been using it every day since.
Of course, I don't really believe my plates and glasses are capable of feeling anything; it just lends an immediacy to the problem that the prospect of unexpected guests or a loudly disapproving boyfriend don't. Those people are adults, and they can deal with me however they see fit, but my dishes can't wash themselves. They're like helpless little dirty babies, and I've just been heartlessly neglecting them all this time. This sounds so dumb, and I want to make fun of it so badly, yet I now can't shake the feeling, despite every instinct yelling that this is some corny, superstitious bullshit.
I think this is due to something that's hardwired into the human brain.
We Have A Long History Of Treating Things Like People
Kondo didn't invent this idea; she's just tapping into it. So is Pixar, with their "Your toys are sad you abandoned them after puberty!" plots that can make even the most stoic of adults start ugly-crying in front of strangers. Musicians and sailors name their guitars and boats, referring to them as "her" and "she." Some soldiers name their guns and hold funerals for robots. Among those of you who own a Roomba, there is a certain percentage who feel bad if you accidentally kick it. Some of us curse at our cars if they don't start. ("You choose the day of MY JOB INTERVIEW to PULL THIS s**t?!")
It's a behavior that's been observed in humans since at least ancient Greece, and as long as it doesn't turn into an unhealthy compulsion (like, say, hoarding), it's fine. For example, the teddy bear you treated as a treasured companion was your way of transferring your dependence on your parents onto something else until you could be fully independent. In psychology, they're called transitional objects, and they're adopted more frequently by children who are in daycare full-time, i.e. children who are more likely to have separation anxiety. However, those children didn't exhibit any more behavioral disturbances than their peers.
Likewise, adults who are anxious and isolated have a greater tendency toward anthropomorphism, but it doesn't hinder their ability to connect with people when the opportunity arises. It's just a coping mechanism, and one that you'd have to think is healthier than, say, drinking yourself to death.
This Is A Powerful Psychological Tool That's Already Being Used Against You
Studies have shown that we evaluate gadgets more positively when companies anthropomorphize them, hence smiling Volkswagens and hip, freethinking Macs played by Justin Long. By anthropomorphizing objects, we start to consider them worthy of "moral care and consideration," explaining why some people treat their cars better than their spouses, and why I'm suddenly willing to do the dishes when all logical incentives have failed. It's also something we can't help doing, to some extent. The same regions of the brain are involved in evaluating the behavior of both humans and objects.
I don't think Marie Kondo is intentionally exploiting this psychological cheat code. She's a beautiful angel, and also, the belief that objects have spirits actually stems from her religion, which is probably why she doesn't bring it up explicitly. It's just part of life for her. And now it's part of life for me. Like all weird beliefs, we cling to them because they work for us.
Therefore, I now wholeheartedly maintain that my cheap mascara is suddenly clump-free because it's happy in its little box in the bathroom drawer, and my boots are warmer when I put them on now because they're happier on their closet shelf than being left somewhere on the floor near the couch. My boyfriend told me, "It's like you've joined a very wholesome cult," but he doesn't question it too much, because it's the only thing that's compelled me to get my s**t together.
If It Works, It Works
Environmentalists used to frame their message around being kind to "Mother Earth," boiling down the million reasons humans shouldn't trash their only planet to "Don't s**t on the generous being that is providing you with a home." It's just an easier concept for an overwhelmed brain to grasp than "The seemingly harmless, invisible exhaust from your car is causing damage that will be felt at some point in the future, for incredibly complex reasons that only a supercomputer can calculate."
It's distilling the vague concept of responsibility ("Does it REALLY matter if I choose to store my clothes on the floor?") into a form maximized for emotional and moral clarity. Things aren't people, but if treating things as people means you get your life together in a way that benefits the actual people, then fine. Things are people. In life, sometimes tricking yourself into doing the right thing is the best you can do.
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