by Dr. Christine Hwang, ND, MS, LAc
I like stuff… a lot.
My closets are overflowing and barely shut. The drawers in my desk are packed. I can’t bring myself to get rid of books so I’ve got walls-full. I’ve brought bags of rocks, shells, sea glass home from vacations. And I have yet to meet a glass jar I don’t like - leading to a massive collection of mustard, pickle, and kimchi jars (I even brought glass yogurt jars back from a trip to France).
Add to this collection of stuff:
- one husband (and his very moderate amounts of stuff)
- dozens of houseplants
- a small NYC apartment
To make matters worse, to capitalize on what little space we have we used wall-to-wall bookshelves to give us more storage. The result was every spare inch of surface area covered with piles of loosely categorized stuff (mail, change, supplements) or little knickknacks that had nowhere else to live. Everything was visible and out in the open.
The visual noise created by objects everywhere I looked made for high levels of agitation that started as soon as I crossed the threshold. Instead of my home being a sanctuary it became a never ending list of things that needed to be sorted, put away, or thrown out, and there was no escaping this running list as every room was equally covered in stuff.
My husband felt it too. Opening the cupboard to find an army of empty jars and no proper glasses staring back at him made his blood pressure spike. Grabbing a fresh towel without toppling over a tower of towels (beach, yoga, camping, for us, for guests) would more often than not lead to a pile of towels to pick up, re-fold, and re-arrange into tower form. The stress of being unable to get what he needed without creating more work would lead to bickering or a full blown argument. He was overwhelmed as well.
We lived this way for three years.
There’s been a groundswell of books, articles, blogs, and movies featuring an anti-consumerist, minimalist philosophy that exposes a troubling feature of contemporary life — we’re so inundated with stuff that there’s no space for us.
We’re stuck in a cycle of needing, buying, tossing, and buying again.
The quality of the stuff we buy has also plummeted. Headphones, iPhone chargers… why do they last just three months before needing replacing?! This not only depletes our wallets but impacts our environment. Think of the fossil fuel required to ship these three replacement sets of headphones and chargers from China. Think of the chemicals and toxins they leach into our soil and groundwater while sitting for hundreds of years in landfills waiting to breakdown — if they do at all.
The unsustainability of this cycle goes even further when you realize we buy so much stuff we need stuff to contain our stuff. How much longer can we continue consuming at this pace?
As a naturopathic doctor and acupuncturist, I counsel patients all the time to take a look at all aspects of their life to see where stress builds up. We know how much stress is an underlying factor when looking at health. And yet I was unable to identify just how stressed my home environment was making my husband and me.
This past New Year’s day we decluttered our kitchen. The bookshelves were taken down. We purchased an island with enough storage space to fit most of the stuff that was on the bookshelves. We edited all of our kitchen appliances, cookware, books, and random piles of stuff. Empty glass jars were recycled (I kept a few… This naturopath has to brew kombucha somehow!).
We started out just wanting to streamline our kitchen, but what we got was something we’ve never really had in our marriage — a room in our home without chaos, noise, confusion, exhaustion from lists of things yet to be done everywhere you look.
The stress upon coming home has dropped considerably. We didn’t realize that the high frequency screech of visual static was turning on our fight-or-flight reflex as soon as we stepped foot into our apartment. Even before we said hello to each other we were both in our defensive crouch, ready to protect ourselves because our environment was so agitating.
There’s been less bickering. When we come home from work we see each other - not things. It’s as if someone finally let some fresh air into a stuffy room. The changes to us as a couple have been so profound that this de-cluttering has extended to beyond just objects. We’re now reevaluating the way we consume food, time, media and entertainment. Mindful consumption is the phrase we use now to approach our day-to-day life. Do we really need to buy a five pound sack of potatoes when we’ll only use a couple? Is that extra half-hour on Twitter really better than thirty more minutes of sleep?
Where there was once nothing but clutter there’s now space, a sense of peace, and time. By filtering out the noise we’ve found each other again. To quote The Minimalists (Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus):
“Love people, use things. The opposite never works.”