Some value to be found in looking beyond the item

Marie Kondo. Photo: Getty Images
Marie Kondo. Photo: Getty Images
Let's talk about joy, writes Lynne Taylor. 

There is a lot of talk around at the moment about joy. Specifically, there is a lot of talk about "sparking joy".

If you haven't already discovered Marie Kondo, you will probably start noticing her now. She can be found on Netflix ("Tidying Up with Marie Kondo"), in the bookshop (Spark Joy and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up) and you'll see the fruits of her inspiration in, or possibly overflowing, an opportunity shop near you.

Kondo is the decluttering queen. Her tidying method includes the simple question: "Does this item spark joy?" Employing that question, Kondo recommends a ritual for deciding what to keep and what to let go of.

Hold each item. If it sparks joy (which, Kondo asserts, you will feel as a kind of uplift), then store the item carefully and enjoy it. No joy-spark? Thank the item for its service and dispose of it.

To rationality-emphasising Westerners, this may seem a little strange. The idea that inanimate objects might somehow spark an embodied emotional response is, perhaps, challenging. To thank a pair of holey socks before throwing them away seems unusual. Yet, Kondo has more than 2.2million Instagram followers and, while Netflix does not release viewer statistics, one 10-minute YouTube clip on Kondo has been viewed by 1.5million people since it was published in mid-January.

Anthropologist (and sock-folder) Susan Wardell notes the gendered and classed aspects of the "KonMari" phenomenon. At the same time, she suggests that material clutter may represent a sort of existential crisis that Kondo is helping people to navigate their way through. The ritual of acknowledging each item helps one transition that "thing" from a possession to a donation, or to trash. Such rituals help deal with the emotions that are associated with the "stuff": whether those emotions are joy, guilt (at an unwanted gift, perhaps) or plain dislike. After acknowledging the emotion, the item can be thanked, and then sorted appropriately: kept and cared for or discarded.

For Kondo, "It's about choosing joy." Letting go the things that do not spark joy, and caring for the things that do. But beyond an uplifting emotion, what is joy? Can it be chosen?

For Christians, joy is more than an emotional state, and more than a symptom of our circumstances. It is a feature and a promise of a flourishing life. Joy is named as a fruit: an outcome of the Christian life (Galatians 5:22). Joy is promised to those who "remain" in God's love (John 15:11). Yet, at the same time, Christians recognise that joy is not constant.

While sorrow may be a current companion, "joy comes in the morning" (Psalm 30:6). Such understandings of joy are built on a hope that somehow, sometime, all will be well. Joy will have the last word.

What does such an understanding offer to those who seek, in their decluttering and tidying, to discern joy? Perhaps it is a reminder that there is something beyond the object itself. Something that invites a response. Something to be grateful to, as well as grateful for.

Perhaps it can be a comfort when items spark not joy, but pain. One can hope beyond the present moment. Acknowledging the reality of such pain, we can still hope in a future when all things will be well. Christianity offers resources and rituals for such times of grief and sorrow. Lament, confession, new beginnings.

Have I tried Kondo's method? A little. Naturally curious, and aware that dusting is an essential, if only occasional, activity, I took the advantage of the Waitangi Day holiday and spent a couple of hours tackling my dressing table.

All items, dust removed, placed in a pile. Each held, considered, and kept or discarded.

On the surface, the result was a dust-free dresser and an absence of clutter. At a deeper level, some things had been let go of, and some joy had been sparked.

Part of the joy was in finding two bonus items: a five-cent piece and a train ticket. Glasgow to Edinburgh. The latter definitely sparked joy for me.

A reminder of visiting good friends, a snowy walk up the Royal Mile, lunch in a warm pub, and the wonder of being in a place of such history and beauty. The coin (yes, the one with the tuatara on it) was joyfully received by a John Green fan.

The tidying process itself sparked some joy. It also sparked a lot of memories and attendant gratitude for people and for places. I'd call that worthwhile.

 - Lynne Taylor is Jack Somerville lecturer in pastoral theology at the University of Otago. While she rather likes clear surfaces, she does not fold her socks.


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