When We’re Too Poor to Tidy Up with Joy

When We’re Too Poor to Tidy Up with Joy January 12, 2019
Credit: Pixabay

I’ve seen several discussions about Marie Kondo’s new Netflix show. I’ve been aware of the idea of letting go of items that don’t bring you joy for a while, but I could never see how something like that would apply to a person like me.

I hate clutter and all, but I can’t afford to get rid of anything I have. I might have two sauce pans, but that’s because I know darn well if the handle breaks off my main pan, I can’t afford to buy a new one. Sometimes “clutter” in a home is a function of poverty, not consumerism.

To be clear, I realize I’m not in the target audience for Marie Kondo’s methods. I generally have a “to each his own” attitude when something clearly isn’t for me, and I’m all for teaching the middle-class to slow their roll.

My concern is when these ideas are universalized. I’m all for being grateful and finding joy. I’ve done a lot of both in my life, but at a certain point, emphasizing joy and gratitude can drive a class wedge between us.

A few years ago, I saw people on Facebook posting one thing they were thankful for each day leading up to Thanksgiving. And, you know what? It really irritated me. Most of the posts came across as humble-bragging, and I was about as poor as I’d ever been at the time. I became more and more frustrated as the month went on and I saw all of these middle-class (mostly) women express over-the-top gratitude for things like expensive vacations people like me could never experience.

I mean, that’s great you have a new house with four bathrooms that bring you a bunch of joy, Janice, but I think you’re missing the point.

I started posting sarcastic thankfulness posts, expressing my gratitude for the most basic things we all take for granted like indoor plumbing, eyeglasses, and the fact we don’t live on a gas giant because that would make it really hard to walk to the bus stop.

My point was it’s ridiculous to go around, publicly gushing gratitude for things we don’t actually need, especially when those things are out of reach for so many equally deserving people.

Gratitude doesn’t work without some level of self-awareness. It seems to me like most people don’t understand we have to acknowledge we don’t deserve this thing we have any more than someone else might deserve it in order to truly be grateful.

Can you show true gratitude if you believe you deserve the good things in your life? That you somehow earned them? I’ve never thanked my employer for paying me. I earned that money, so why would I thank my boss?

If we believe we’re owed these precious items in our lives, are we actually grateful for them?

Being grateful for a thing you own isn’t the same as being grateful for the circumstances that allowed you to have that thing. That’s where I find the problem.

When someone feels grateful for their brand new car, they’re actually expressing gratitude for the circumstances that allowed them to purchase that car.

What allowed them to purchase that car? Money. And where does money come from? It doesn’t just come from hard work. It comes from the opportunity to do that work, and we don’t all have equal opportunities to do the work we’re capable of doing.

If I were to express gratitude for the duct-taped car I drove around for a couple of years, what would I actually be expressing gratitude for?

I’d be expressing gratitude for my parents, who found this cheap car for me. I’d be thankful for my father, who drove me over to look at it since I don’t know enough about cars to tell if one is worth the price. I’d be thankful to the man who sold it to me for $200 less than he wanted, even after I explained I wasn’t a college student getting my very first car, like he’d thought (because what woman in her mid-30s buys a duct tape car?)

While acknowledging the good circumstances that led me to this car, I’d also have to acknowledge the negative circumstances that led me to that car. I was too poor to afford a better car because I had to quit my job and move back to Michigan because of a disability, even though I loved living on the west coast and Michigan makes me depressed every winter.

I’d also have to think about how I had no money in my savings account to buy a more reliable car because medical bills from my daughter’s heart surgery and my years of physical therapy had wiped out any chance of building a decent savings account. If I hadn’t had a stalker my freshman year of college, I wouldn’t have lost my academic scholarship and never would have gotten stuck with all this student loan debt. I would have graduated on time and started earning decent money earlier in life, which would have given me more time to save up for the unexpected.

I didn’t expect to have to quit working in my 30s. I didn’t expect to have to eat through my savings and cash out my 401k just to keep the electricity on. I didn’t expect to have to accept toilet paper and tampon charity from family members because SNAP benefits don’t cover toilet paper or feminine products.

Just how grateful should I be for that car when that car is a direct result of my poverty and lack of better opportunities? Should I be equally as grateful as the person with the new car and plenty of toilet paper, even though I’ve worked harder than they have and have faced more challenges than they have, while they just happened to have lucked into better circumstances?

Poverty makes a difference. It’s nice to say we should all the thankful for what we have, but that’s easier to say when you have more than you need. It’s harder to say when you don’t even have what you need.

Instead of being grateful for, or finding joy, in items, I think it’s better to acknowledge our unearned privilege in having the sort of opportunities that brought those items to us.

We live in an incredibly entitled society, and I understand that expressing gratitude is meant to combat that, but it only combats it in middle-class and upper-class homes. For people who live in poverty, pressuring us to express gratitude can come across as an attempt to dismiss our struggles.

The thing is, we are all entitled to certain things. As a child of God, I’m entitled to a life of dignity.

I don’t expect my children to express gratitude to me each day for feeding them. That’s the bare minimum I’m supposed to do as their mother, and it would be ridiculous if I acted like I was doing them some huge favor by handing them a PB&J for lunch.

No person deserves food more than any other person. We don’t earn our right to eat. We automatically have the right to not starve because of our God-given dignity as humans.

Every night, when I pray, I thank God for everything I have, but that’s not so much about physical possessions. I’m thankful for the people in my life who would never let me or my children go hungry. The people in my life who would always make sure we’re out of the snow and rain.

And I’m thankful for all the undeserved opportunities that have come my way too. Sometimes I just happened to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right people and I won out over someone who was more talented than I am, through no fault of theirs.

Other times, someone who wasn’t as talented or hardworking as I was won out. I acknowledge that as well, not because I’m ungrateful, but because it’s the truth.

So, no, I’m not all that “grateful” for the clothes in my closet or the food on my table because those are also deep sources of stress for me. Will there be enough? I can’t untangle that.

I won’t give into the idea that, “It could always be worse” either. Where does that line of thinking end?

You don’t have an income, but at least you haven’t lost your house.

OK, you lost your house, but at least you have your health.

OK, you’ve got a chronic illness now, but at least you’ve got food.

OK, you’re out of food now, but at least you’ve got that fancy pressure cooker your aunt gave you, even if you have no food to put into it. What are you complaining about? Are you ungrateful or something? Plenty of people would love a pressure cooker like that.

I believe there’s a way of being grateful for all the undeserved good opportunities in my life, while also acknowledging all the undeserved negatives in my life as well.

Poverty is a deep injustice in our society, and no amount of finding joy in my broke-down possessions will change that. Things are a means to an end. They serve a function. I don’t find joy in things, and I’m not grateful I’ve had to work 10x as hard as other people to own half as much.

If I got rid of the items that don’t bring me joy, I’d have an empty house. None of my possessions spark joy in me, but these threadbare jeans do spark a fire within me to fight injustice.

If you have more than you need, I absolutely think you should be grateful and acknowledge you aren’t any more deserving of that item than someone else is.

If you don’t even have what you need to live a life of basic dignity, I don’t see any point in being pressured by people with more than they need into expressing an equal amount of gratitude. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the truth.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • How have I not found this blog before? You are so right and express my own thoughts very eloquently.

  • Thanks, Sheila!

  • VegRunner66

    Well, life is not a smooth trajectory of wishes, hopes, and accomplishments…but maybe start out with being grateful for the intellect to pen this article. Grateful for either your own computer and internet access to share your thoughts…or grateful for a local library or other source. Many people in your situation are too ignorant or unintelligent to ever find a way out

  • Some people’s lives are smoother than others, but nobody has a totally easy life. Like I said in the post, I find joy and express gratitude in my life all the time and thank God every day for what I have. It’s possible to be grateful for what I have while also recognizing that our societal injustices have caused me to have less than I need in some ways, even though I’ve technically done everything we’re supposed to do to live a reasonably financially stable life.

  • cynthia flanigan

    I have heard about this Netflix TV series, and am now curious to watch it. I agree that gratitude should be focused on friends and family members who extend their kindness and love- I am grateful for them, and I am grateful for the roof over my head, the food on my table, and most of all, my health. I am currently between jobs (5 long months now), and scared as hell at 53 years old about what new career opportunities I will have in the very near future- Being financially insecure changes my perspective, just like the author of this really well written blog.

    I currently volunteer with a social enterprise here in Sweden, helping immigrant women in job training (computer skills).. They have it much tougher than I do in their journey to actual work, and I have learned a lot from them- humility, patience and persistence.

    I say a prayer of gratitude every day and ask for strength to get thru this challenging period. There are so many people who suffer, its up to all of us to help one another, build bridges, and give of your spirit and generosity when you can.

  • Elephile

    No truly wealthy person would write, “where does money come from? It doesn’t just come from hard work. It comes from the opportunity to do that work…”, because their overabundance of money does not come from work (especially hard or useful work), it comes from inheriting a fortune, or rigging the stock market, or the laws, or stealing the wages of the people who work from them by paying them far less than their work is worth, and very often this also involves the devastation of nature, too.

    And because there are people who get their fortunes in those way, other people have to contend with what you’re describing.

    I certainly don’t agree with everything Marie Kondo says – for example, the rather infuriating suggestion of getting rid of a gadget or tool you don’t use much because the paint is chipped “because when you need one, it’s more fun to buy a new one”, or words to that effect. Having said that, she doesn’t really advocate getting rid of utilitarian things that you actually need. I have found parts of her approach very useful in deciding what I really want/need to keep and storing it much more effectively than I previously would have known how, and that is useful when your home is on the small side.

  • CroneEver

    Amen. Gratitude as bragging is fairly common; so is “encouragement to be grateful” that basically means, “Why don’t you smile more?” or “You make me uncomfortable because you’re poor and not happy like the poor people on TV.” I had a dear friend who had polio as a toddler, and never walked, and she HATED being told how she should be grateful for having a wheelchair and assistance and disability, and she should be more cheerful. It wasn’t that she was ungrateful, it was just she was so sick of the “be the plucky poor! be a courageous cripple!” rap, because it was so obvious it was meant to make life easier for the people saying it, not for her.

  • ILR

    Ive heard about the show, not seen it – my initial reaction was ‘what a load of crap’ – this article reinforces that perspective

  • I often get the impression that it’s more about making other people comfortable (and lessen their feelings of guilt for having more than others) than it really is about promoting actual gratitude. I get really tired of being pressured into being some less challenged person’s inspirational story.

  • CroneEver

    “I get really tired of being pressured into being some less challenged person’s inspirational story.”
    That’s EXACTLY how my friend felt.

  • Elephile

    I so agree with what both of you are saying!!

    I’ve always been irritated when they call someone a “hero”, or “brave”, because they involuntarily suffered some dreadful sickness, or managed to get something good into their life despite their horrible circumstances.

    Your comments make me think that probably they are saying that to feel better about it. In their emotions, perhaps it makes it not so bad. It’s a way of shielding themselves from the stark reality of sickness, disability, poverty, a ghastly home background, or whatever.

  • I really think that’s exactly what’s going on. When people try that “brave” stuff on me, I come back with, “I didn’t have a choice. How brave is it to do the bare minimum you have to do to survive under these circumstances?” They want to pretend some people are capable of being braver than other people because then they’re off the hook for actually doing anything. They can pretend they just aren’t as brave or heroic.

  • Michele Lovell Kerby

    I’m a little better off than you are financially, but not by much. I agree with everything said here. I just wanted to add my thanks for your wonderful blog.

  • Kimble Cookson

    You reminded me of an old movie quote….”People kept telling me to cheer-up, things could get worse…..so I cheered-up and sure enough, things got worse.” Just sayin.

  • Jennifer A. Nolan

    What a great piece on the harsh circumstances many individuals face and the need for less pressure for “gratitude”! However, I would add that people in situations like yours (and mine) might respond with real action for our causes, as well as these personal testimonials.

    For stamping out family violence and sexual abuse:https://thegrio.com/2019/01/08/what-are-you-going-to-do-about-the-r-kelly-in-your-family/

    And as for poverty and social injustice:https://thegrio.com/2018/11/06/5-reasons-why-not-voting-in-the-2018-midterms-may-get-you-canceled/ and:

    These posts are by Blue Telusma at the Grio; they’re meant especially for POC’s. But I find that her points are equally true about people of all backgrounds and colors: We have one job! And we all have to learn to spot signs of gaslighting, manipulation, and blame-shifting from perp to vic. We will have to stand up and be counted against abuse, exploitation, and dysfunction at home and in the larger community, if we are to either enjoy or deserve a better standard of loving, or living.

  • JoAnne Breault

    I loved your spin on worldly possessions. My father left my family when I was in fifth grade and I grew up in public housing. I hate to throw anything away. I would say I could be labeled as a hoarder. I actually have to watch an episode of Hoarders in order to feel motivated to clean. Don’t get me started on collecting clothes. I could dress a small village in Appalachia. But women do need to keep their skinny clothes and their fat clothes. The stark reality is that I will eventually fit in the fat clothes once again.

  • E Brown

    Life-changing tidying doesn’t involve throwing away things you need. It means whatever you keep should have a purpose and a place. A friend of mine had a collection of Dalmatian knick-knacks. I asked her about it and was told that because she had Dalmatian dogs people assumed she liked Dalmatian tshotshkes. She actually disliked the little figures. Marie Kondo would say thank them for their service and let them go. Keeping a box of receipts will probably not be a source of joy until you sit down to do your taxes. The process lets you become aware of what is necessary for you, what you like, and, yes, what brings you joy.

  • mambocat

    Whatever anyone else says, I’m on your side. I’ve been poor, broke, underemployed, well-employed, underemployed again, broke again, successful, struggling, and on an even but modest financial keel, in that order. People who have never had any struggles below the level of “consistent employment above bare subsistence” have no idea what life is like when your health, your spouse or a child’s health, a bankrupted employer, or an obsolete career track puts you out of work, or into a struggle to make ends meet. .

  • The show is nothing but poor-shaming.

    The very idea that “too much stuff” is making someone unhappy is positively disgusting.

  • Thank you for this article. I couldn’t articulate why all the gratitude stuff bugged me but you have put my feelings into words.

  • Dhammarato

    Poverty is a state of mind. Here it is seen as taking the victim’s position. Joy can be found in every level of physical poverty/wealthy continue, but the author is playing a game of “poor me”, and will remain in a state of mental suffering until she gets tired of doing this to herself, I invite her to wake up to what she is doing. .

  • Dhammarato

    I wish for you to learn how to live an easy life. Don’t thank god, be strong in your own mind and go find your own easy life. Stop thanking god because he failed at giving you and easy life free of charge.

  • gimpi1

    Wow, do I hear that. My mother was also an early childhood polio survivor who was wheelchair bound for much of her life. She got totally frustrated with people essentially demanding that she “cheer up” or be what she termed a “super cripple” so that fully abled people around her felt better. While she managed very well with her disability — marrying, having two daughters, teaching sewing and developing a business making custom wedding gowns — there were some things she couldn’t do, and some assistance she needed to manage. The people pressuring her to “be grateful and cheerful” generally wanted absolution for not offering or favoring that assistance. That wasn’t lost on her…

  • gimpi1

    Poverty is not a state of mind if you can’t access the medical care you need. People rationing their insulin or asthma medicine aren’t playing “poor me.” People who are homeless aren’t in a state of mental suffering. That whole smug, “you’re doing this to yourself,” stuff is truly annoying when someone is sick or desperate.

  • Maybe if I smile a lot my medication will suddenly be free.

  • cary_w

    Poverty is a lot more than a state of mind. When you are poor, everything costs more and everything is stacked against you ever building up any savings and becoming not poor. A simple thing like a flat tire can lead to missed time at work, so less pay, then not being able to pay the whole power bill so you get charged a late fee the next month, which eventually snowballs into losing your apartment through no fault of your own.

    That said, the author does have a serious case of “poor me” and I’d say outright jealousy. Sure, there’s a lot of bragging going on on Facebook, but it’s your choice whether to react to it by stewing in jealousy or being happy for your friend who got to go on a nice vacation.

    Kondo’s methods aren’t about getting rid of things, they’re really about being mindful of what you own and grateful for what those things do for you. “Spark joy” is probably too strong a phrase, or perhaps it doesn’t translate well from the Japanese, but if you watch her show, you get a better feel for what she really means. The way a poor person would KonMari their apartment wouldn’t be by getting rid of all their stuff, they’d look at their two saucepans and say something like, “thank you for warming my food, it brings me joy to be able to cook at home”, and “thank you for being my extra pot, it brings me comfort to know I won’t be without a pot if my other pan breaks”, and then find a place to put them, even if that place is a cardboard box on top of the fridge. Then the next time you walk into your kitchen you might feel happier looking at your pan and knowing you can warm a bowl of soup with it, and feel a little sense of security looking at the box of extra pots on the fridge. No, this is probably not really “life-changing”, and we should all continue to be outraged and angry that anyone is living in poverty, but at least your kitchen might feel a little more peaceful until you can afford some nicer pans, and feeling a little more at peace just might let you look at your friends vacation pictures and say, “how beautiful! I’m glad you got to go there!”, instead of “how dare you spend money on things I can’t afford!”