Reclaiming Life at Home: Declaring War on Clutter to Save the American Soul

Imagine for a moment a team of anthropologists walking through your door, taking a look around, and settling in for a close observation of your possessions, how you interact with them, and what this means about American life.

That’s pretty much what happened to 32 middle-class families between 2001-2005. I recently came across the results of this anthropological study, published in 2012: Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors, by Jeanne E. Arnold, Anthony P. Graesch, Enzo Ragazzini, and Elinor Ochs. Together with a large research team, the authors analyzed and cataloged the visible possessions in each and every room of the 32 households—counting, documenting, examining, and coding artifacts in situ, in their place.

Devoting thousands of hours to data collection, they hoped to glean insights on the acquisition and organization of material artifacts, and on how families interacted with their possessions, and with one another. The results of the study are at once illuminating and devastating.

Their most striking findings concern the sheer magnitude of our material possessions.

A few examples:AB cluttered garage

Seventy-five percent of garages contain no cars. They’ve been repurposed to contain surplus stuff—unused furniture, bins containing countless forgotten-but-not-gone possessions. (The typical garage contains between 300-650 boxes; nearly 90 percent of garage square footage is being used for storage, rather than for cars).

Kids’ toys have taken over entire homes, spilling out of bedrooms and into every habitable space. The quantities documented are staggering: one display shelf in one girl’s bedroom contained 165 beanie babies, 36 human/animal figurines, 22 Barbie dolls, 20 other dolls, 3 porcelain dolls, one troll, and one castle miniature. Barbie dolls deserve special mention—apparently Mattel sells over 1.5 million dolls each week, or 2.5 dolls every second. If all the Barbies sold since 1959 were placABBarbiebin 600316ed head-to toe, they would circle the planet more than seven times (32). This may seem shocking, but any parent of a young girl is likely to confirm that this sounds about right.

In one interesting finding, researchers discovered that a cluttered refrigerator corresponds to densities of possessions in the rest of the house.

A more sobering finding concerns the burden possessions place upon families. In interview after interview, parents speak of clutter-induced stress. They experience their belongings as overwhelming, “exhausting to contemplate, organize, and clean” (25).

What’s more, the proliferation of things limits families’ enjoyment of their homes. What little leisure time parents enjoy takes place within the cluttered home—at least 92 percent of the time. Much of that leisure is spent watching TV and movies. (If the study were done today, I imagine online leisure would consume a significantly larger chunk than it did in the early 2000s). Children, too, spend much of their leisure time indoors. Although extracurricular activities and homework ensure that kids’ weeks are nearly as harried as their parents, when they do engage in leisure they mainly do so in sedentary and solitary activities such as TV and video games.

Researchers discovered that backyards, although often equipped with play structures and patio furniture and even pools, went unused. Some families acknowledged that they rarely used their outdoor spaces. Other families vastly overestimated the amount of time they spent outdoors, suggesting they used the areas far less than they would like, or perhaps aspire to. Over half of the families in this study spent no leisure time—either parents or children—in their backyards at all.

The picture that emerges here is one of stressed-out families working to consume, and suffering the effects of that consumption: “While material affluence signals personal pleasure and economic success, it also entails hidden costs, including the comfort lost if possessions overly crowd a home” (161). In this vein, the authors of the study identify several major trends: “waning outdoor leisure time, unprecedented and often burdensome clutter, reduced social interaction at mealtimes, clashing schedules, the invasion of kids’ material culture into all corners of the house, stockpiling, and more—that require close examination in the broader U.S.” (161).

Ever since coming across Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century, I’ve been pondering how to make sense of this all.

To begin with, the narrative and the accompanying photographs strike a little too close to home—my home. As a family we’ve made intentional efforts to reduce clutter, spend time outdoors, and cultivate screen-free leisure practices. We’ve followed Marie Kondo’s decluttering methods (except for the kids’ toys), dramatically reduced our children’s viewing and gaming habits through our own “cold turkey” method, and we’re trying (and often failing) to stop buying…all the things. To our credit, however, we do have a clutter-free refrigerator.

And yet, we’re still often overwhelmed by stuff. Clothes must be organized, toys crammed back into bins, papers sorted ad infinitum.

As a scholar of American religion and culture—and as a Christian—I’ve also been mulling over what this addiction to consumerism means on a religious level.

Has American Christianity’s rejection of asceticism and embrace of consumer capitalism facilitated, or at least accelerated this trend?

Has over-consumption fostered social isolation, even within our own families? Could the greatest threat to “family values” lurk within our own homes, in our excessive spending on things that impede family bonds.

Have Christian bookstores and bloggers helped “sanctify” consumption by pitching products that promise to enhance spiritual and family life, when in fact they accomplish the opposite?

Has our lack of contact with the outdoors impoverished our own interior lives? In the end, does this obsession with material objects squeeze out any space for an authentic spiritual life?

How has our emphasis on acquisition blinded us to our inability to pursue “the good life,” and even keep us from wondering what such a life might look like?

And finally, does our preoccupation with our own consumption close us off from those around us, and impede us from seeking a larger social good? I’m thinking here of Gandhi’s philosophy of non-possession. While the concept is far richer than I can do justice here, what comes to mind is both his notion that rightful possession is based on need, not ownership, and his understanding that by divesting himself of virtually all possessions, he was able to live in the world without fear. He had, literally, nothing to lose.

In a political climate in which many American Christians seem to be motivated by fear—fear of what they might lose, have lost, or perceive to have lost—I wonder how much our consumption patterns have unwittingly shaped this orientation.

If the gospel calls Christians to be countercultural, one might begin by rejecting the culture of consumption that American Christians—along with other Americans—have wholeheartedly embraced, but with devastating social—and perhaps spiritual—consequences. By divesting ourselves of excessive possessions, decluttering our homes and our lives to allow for a different way of being, we may engage in a different sort of “culture war,” situating ourselves to better live out our faith and witness by deed, as much as by word, to the prevailing culture.

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