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The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Popularity 2Viewed 5071 times 2016-8-22 16:49 |Personal category:Books|System category:Life

I used to be a hoarder. Well, I still am, but I‘m a reformed hoarder now.

I liked to hoard stuff like the tissues, notebooks, books, all kinds of small gadgets, and e-books. I guess I got this trait from my parents. They lived through famines and huge scarcities of goods, so they never throw anything away, but keep using them until they are completely broken, then put them away into the depths of the house. They always taught me to return stuff back to where they were after using them, but never taught me to throw away things. After all, being frugal was considered a great virtue at that time. Luckily, we didn't have much money back then and could not afford a lot of things, so the house was kept very tidy. 

As frugal parents, they never skimped on one thing though--books. Whatever the price, they would always buy me books that I want, so my frugal nerve is applied to everything but books. And after a few years in university, my desk in the dorm looked like this.

I didn't realize I had a problem until the day I graduated from university, when I discovered that 4 out of 11 bags of all my belongings accumulated over four years were books. It was a lot of hassle for me to transport all that stuff back to my hometown, and I was relieved that I could just dump most of my stuff back at home. When I came to Shanghai for a master's degree, I packed lightly, just some essentials and a few textbooks. And my bed and desk in the new dorm looked fantastic, at the beginning. After two years, somehow my desk was completely overwhelmed. I can't remember clearly what happened in between, but the stuff just seemed to grow and grow, and I could literally disappear into the mess.  

Renting my own apartment after graduation only made me crazier in my obsession. Somehow, being surrounded by digital stuff and electronic things makes me feel safe. I enjoy the feeling of having everything I might need within my arm's reach, so that I can do everything in a convenient fashion. Admittedly, I have been aware of my problems for a long time, and I know that much of the stuff I possess have no other use than sitting in the box and waiting to be moved to the next apartment. I know clearly that their only value is that "I might need it one day", though that "one day" has not come for several years. I have tried many times to part ways with some of these things that I know are not doing anything but taking up space in my precious little apartment, but all I ever did was taking them out from the dark forgotten corners, looking at them, and putting them back where they were. 

Real change started when I had to move to a new apartment for the nth time. I was taken back by the sheer volume of stuff I had when I put them all into boxes and bags. Apart from the things lying on the surface, there were endless things I pulled from all the nooks and crannies of the house. Even the movers commented that it was very rare for a single girl to have the amount of stuff that a family normally has. So I decided to give some stuff away and throw away some others. It was a never-ending battle. I threw away things, then bought new things. Somehow the amount of stuff started to weigh on me, making me feel oppressed. I felt like I was trapped in a small cage, unable to move, my imagination being squashed. 

Then I took to hiking and climbing mountains. Being close to nature and forced to bring as little essentials as possible made me realize that people can survive on just a handful of essentials. Human genius has invented countless types of tools and things to make our lives better. There is perhaps a dedicated tool for doing almost everything. But we can use our imagination to find substitutes in the nature, or make do with other stuff on hand. I remembered that I used to love reading Robinson Crusoe, and Thoreau's Walden. I was amazed at their resourcefulness, and at the fact that we can live happily and well without most of the stuff in our lives. I admired their ways but was unable to follow suit.

I started to reflect on my relationship with my stuff, the things that I call mine. They were invented by others, and created by others, transported to me by others, and yet I call them mine because I paid for them. The feeling of possession makes us feel good. Some of the things we buy to make our lives easier, while some of the things we buy to impress others. We judge others by the things they use and have, and in turn be judged by others in the same way. Since when are we defined by the things around us? Since when do we work our asses off for things we were not born with and cannot take away with us when we leave this world? I started to see things in a new light. We talk about the breaking free of the soul from the limitations of the body, but we should be more aware of the danger of the dominance by material things and the prevalence of consumerism. Things are created to serve us, not the other way around.

As luck has it, I stumbled upon the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up written by Japanese author Marie Kondo. I was trembling with excitement as I read through the book, because she touched on truths that I have suspected but was unable to formulate: tidying up means that you keep things for the reason that they spark joy in your life, and for no other reason; the use of space is not for your past self, but for your future self; picture yourself in your ideal home before you start, think of what kind of life you want to lead; the things you possess represent your attitude towards life. It dawned on me that my hoarding problem originates from the obsession with my past and the fear of uncertainty and scarcity in the future. The boxes of useless sentimental keepsakes, the large stock of tissues, paper, notebooks are quite telling. And these truths are far more valuable than the tips of actual tidying up. The essence is to understand who I really am, what the most important things in my life are, what kind of life I want to lead, and what gives me joy. Once we are clear about these, it will be quite easy to decide what stuff we want to keep and what to discard. The overflowing mess we used to have, not only held us down by emanating an atmosphere of depression and negativity, but also stopped us from seeing what really matters to us in life. And it does not mean that you have to throw away almost everything you have right now, but to examine the stuff carefully, and only keep the things that spark joy. I know that feeling. Every time I use my best set of tableware, take a photo with my favorite camera, or read my favorite book, I feel like singing inside. That's the kind of life I want, being surrounded by stuff I love, people I love, and doing things I love. It is a liberating feeling, free from the shackles imposed on us by our own desires and fears.

It pains me to think that many people are also struggling with the mess around them, not knowing what to do with it and feeling pessimistic about their own capability of tidying up. I recommend every one to read this book, gain perspective about your relationship with yourself and your belongings, and lead a happy life knowing clearly what you want in life.

(Original work by the author Helen; first published on China Daily blog at 17:00, Aug 22, 2016)

About Author: Helen, a freelance translator in Shanghai. Loves reading and writing and everything related to languages. If you would like to forward or share this blog, please contact the author at

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




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Comment Comment (3 comments)

Reply Report voice_cd 2016-8-25 10:59
thanks for sharing such a good topic, old friend, we have highlighted it.
Reply Report helenriver 2016-8-25 20:56
voice_cd: thanks for sharing such a good topic, old friend, we have highlighted it.
Thank you
Reply Report Dracarys 2016-8-29 16:30
Collecting in some ways , as a good method to keep memory of those old times and it's very good and sometimes make you feel proud..

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