The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.–William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.–Thomas Merton
What we want and what we need Has been confused–REM, “Finest Worksong”
But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.–Ursula K. LeGuin, “The Ones Who Walk away from Omelas”
Enough. Enough now.–Love Actually
I’m not sure exactly what to do with these quotes, but they’re having a conversation in my head, and I want to jump in.
As a professional organizer, I’ve spent much of the past two years surrounded by other people’s stuff, and the experience has shaken me. It sounds so controlled, so precise and orderly, this organizing stuff. But the thing about making order out of chaos is that you have to actually confront the chaos.
The stuff itself is often mind-boggling. In the past two years, I have encountered such items as:
-a year-old ham set down for a moment and forgotten in a box of curtains (yes, that’s where the smell was coming from)
-a mouse nest made out of Slim Jims (please take a moment to let this sink in: mice do not recognize Slim Jims as food. You know, mice, those critters that will eat shoes and cardboard.)
-a glow-in-the-dark rosary from St. Joseph’s Indian School (just like the Indians used to use!)
These are just the highlights. The everyday reality of professional organizing is a litany of waste–clothes that have dryrotted, books and papers that have mildewed, food that has gone bad. It’s tempting to feel smug about all this, to reassure ourselves that we don’t cart out truckloads of plastic garbage bags crammed with wasted resources. After all, we’re not hoarders, right?
But wait! The Institute for Challenging Disorganization and the National Association of Social Workers have published a hoarding scale. The fascinatingly disturbing thing about this scale is that it includes everyone and goes from 1-5. We are all on the scale. According to the professionals who live their lives amid these issues, we are all at least a 1. Nobody is a zero. We all fall somewhere on the spectrum of hoarding. We’ve all wasted food, even if it wasn’t a whole ham, and acquired unnecessary plastic crap, even if it wasn’t a glow-in-the-dark rosary. I’m still trying to decide if the Slim Jims fall within the category of “wasted food” or “plastic crap.” Maybe both. If so, the implications are troubling, to say the least.
But all this junk and waste is just a symptom of something larger and more insidious–the excess that has become a hallmark of our brave new world.
Our stuff is excessive, sure. It’s so in-our-faces that it’s hard to miss, so omnipresent that professional organizers have a national organization, classes, and conferences. Hoarding has a task force. But it doesn’t stop there. The excess comes in many guises–excesses of position, reaction, language, activity, emotion.
Yesterday, I listened to an interviewee on a radio news show assert passionately that if a certain politician takes a certain stand on a certain issue, she doesn’t know who she’ll vote for in the next election. Despite the complexity of national and international politics, one action or belief can determine who we’ll support to help govern our entire nation. I imagine what would happen if I applied this practice to my own politics. I’d have to remove myself from the political process since all those guys have the unmitigated temerity to not hold exactly the same viewpoints as me. Losers. And what if I applied this to my life in general? What if I’d married someone who agreed with me about everything? What if I refused to be friends with people who didn’t like exactly the same stuff as me? What if I had the luxury of ignoring the people next door, who don’t think the way I do, and opening a magical box that would put me in instant communication with other people who love Jane Austen and hate earwigs and think Shark Week is, like, the best thing ever? And what if, as soon as somebody has the audacity to assert the supremacy of tiger sharks over makos, I could banish that person from my electronic presence forever? Oh, wait a minute…..
In all the flak Miley Cyrus caught for daring to make money by acting like a toddler on national television, a lot of issues went flying around–racism, rape culture, feminism, misogyny, general stupidity. The thing nobody seemed to want to grapple with was excess–the excess of a very young woman promoting a lifestyle that most people in the world can’t imagine, because they’re too busy trying to find food for their kids so that starvation is off the table at least for today. The excess of resources lavished on giant teddy bear costumes in a world in which increasingly severe natural disasters rip away families’ meager possessions. The excess of time spent watching and reacting to this cultural clutter in a world in which most people spend most of their time and energy trying to survive.
Nobody wants to talk about the excess because we’re all implicated in it. In our culture, nearly all of us have vastly more than we need, and not only in terms of physical stuff. We are excessive in our politics, insisting that the Evil Candidate must lose or civilization is doomed. Doomed!! We are excessive in our reactions, taking umbrage at the slightest perceived wrong and informing all boys (who are evil) that they’d better stay the hell away from our daughters (who are made of sugar and spice but not Sexy Spice) and informing all girls (who are sexy and evil) that they’d better not tempt our innocent sons (who are totally pure yet incapable of not thinking about sex). We are excessive in our language, broadcasting our opinions as if who won what or which movie sucked was somehow worthy of the words “love” and “hate.” We are excessive in our activity, too. Our kids need to take swim lessons and piano lessons and karate class and join the Scouts and play soccer and basketball and lacrosse, and we need to join committees and organizations and clubs, because heaven forbid we all sit down together for five quiet minutes during which we realize that our overstuffed houses and schedules do not make us happy. And in our emotions, we are perhaps most extreme of all. Anyone who challenges the status quo of extreme excess is an extremist, a raving fundamentalist or a crazy hippie, and we reserve the right to hate and fear them. Because we have rights, dammit. Rights to say whatever we want no matter who it hurts, rights to feel however we want without examining our knee-jerk reactions, rights to have all the plastic crap we want because we can afford it, rights to rush around constantly so that we can make money to pay for the therapy and the fast food and the antacids and the gas for the SUV and the contributions to the environmental organizations so they can offset the pollution from the fossil fuels.
We’ve come to view excess as a privilege. Why shouldn’t we take whatever we can get? Anybody else would do the same, right? It’s so easy to criticize Miley for being a racist anti-feminist promoting rape culture because we aren’t racist or anti-woman or pro-rape. We’re better than that. But the refrain of the Miley National Anthem is a little more difficult to critique: “It’s our party, we can do what we want.” In taking that one on, we have to take on ourselves.
(A couple of resources that have helped me process all this: 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess by Jen Hatmaker, and The Minimalists blog. Oh, and this scene from Love Actually. In case you, too, are ever faced with a glow-in-the-dark rosary or a mouse nest made of Slim Jims.)