Why is it so hard to keep a place or a room free of clutter? Why do empty surfaces fill up with clutter, instantly? Why do items start to gather at the very places we've just cleaned a moment ago, as if moved by a ghost's hand?
It's about more than just clearing and cleaning.
When we clean places up, we want to believe we're creating free space. However, we're just creating a vacuum. What's the difference?
A vacuum is free space minus meaning. This makes a vacuum suck in, instantly, the meanings and the hodgepodge of others - we simply can't stand any vacuum for a prolonged time, because the horror vacui would seize our minds, refusing to let go. Wikipedia defines it like this:
In philosophy the horror vacui stands for a theory initially proposed by Aristotle stating that nature «fears» empty space. Therefore empty space would always be trying to suck in gas or liquids to avoid being empty.
Well, how do you give meaning to a vacuum, then? How can we turn it into free space? Alternatively: how do we discover the meaning that we couldn't spot so far?
The smaller a free space is, the less likely we mistake it for a vacuum. Unfortunately, our Lilliputian view of the world is colliding here with John Maeda's Sixth Law of Simplicity:
«What lies in the periphery of simplicity is deﬁnitely not peripheral.»
Consider this law, for a moment. The free space around the buttons of an iPod actually belongs to those buttons. Only Paris Hilton would demand that some Swarovski crystals be glued to it.
That window sill under the vase holding a single flower actually belongs to that flower, and most of the time, we leave it empty. That wall holding a simple painting belongs to that painting - however, we can rarely stand to attribute this meaning to it and to leave it completely free. The bigger a free space is, the more peripheral and unused it looks, to us.
It's easier to preserve several small free spaces than a single, big one.
Live in Abundance 2.0
The shorter free space stays free, the less likely it is mistaken for a vacuum. For human beings, the longest piece of free space is their lives, which makes us vulnerable to the biggest of all vacuums, the existential one:
there is more and more evidence that our feeling of meaninglessness is spreading further and further. (...) When I get asked to explain the origin of this existential vacuum, I'm always offering the following abstract: Opposed to animals, man can't count on instincts to tell him what he must do. And opposed to his ancestors, he lacks the traditions to tell him what he should do. Knowing neither what he must do nor what he should do, he seems to become insecure about what he really wants.
Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), Man's Search for Meaning
We're trying to fill this existential vacuum with sense and meaning. Objects lend themselves readily here because when they're big and expensive they seem to be, quite literally, larger than life:
I'm on my way I'm making it, huh!
I've got to make it show yeah, hey!
So much larger than life
I'm gonna watch it growing
Hey hey hey hey
The place where I come from is a small town
They think so small, they use small words
But not me, I'm smarter than that,
I worked it out
I'll be stretching my mouth to let those big words come right out
I've had enough, I'm getting out
to the city, the big big city
I'll be a big noise with all the big boys, so much stuff I will own
And I will pray to a big god, as I kneel in the big church
Peter Gabriel, Big Time
Of course, we don't have that much space at home, so our expensive errands end up being not even status symbols - they lack the free space around them that could turn them into something special.
Focus on your dreams of doing something and being (learning) something, not on having something. Learn to cherish the free space in your home as a means to help you do more and be more of what you want, because there is less ballast that could stop you. Specialize on Abundance 2.0, as Clay Collins over at The Growing Life called it:
Abundance 2.0 means that you live a radically authentic life, be radically true to yourself, get paid for being you, quit the things you need to quit, and still have enough materials possessions to be happy and make your family happy. Abundance 2.0 is what happens when your life is so great that the private jet just isn’t necessary.
Look closer. From farer away.
Aniu, qanikcaq, qanisqineq, nutaryuk, qetrar, muruaneq.
The more intense our mind investigates a vacuum, the more often it finally recognizes a free space it couldn't see before. By observing more closely, we learn to spot patterns, to create meaning by applying them and to find words for them so we can talk to others about them.
A plain is not just a plain is not just a plain. Not every square inch is just an available square inch, an evidence of poor use of available space. Free space can have a meaning that only your intuition may be able to discover.
Consider, for example, dead courtyard surrounded by walls on all sides, with no porch or halfway space between the indoors and the outdoors, and with no more than one path leading into it.
In this place, the forces are in conflict. People want to go out, but their timidity, which makes them seek a place halfway to the outdoors, prevents them.
They want to stay out, but the claustrophobic quality, and the enclosure, sends them back inside again. They hope to be there, but the lack of paths across the courtyard make it a dead and rarely visited place, which does not beckon them, and which instead tends to be filled with dead leaves, and forgotten plants. This does not help them come to life - instead it only causes tension, and frustrates them, and perpetuates their conflicts.
Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building
Make it come alive
What's the difference between a bottom covering and a carpet? A bottom covering is a futile attempt to hide a vacuum. Because it is just a covering, it does not provide meaning. It is the continuation of vacuum by other means, a plastic tarp covering a dead body, not actually hiding anything but rather screaming Crime Scene! Crime Scene! out of every fold.
The more alive free space looks like, the less likely it is mistaken for a vacuum.
A carpet is a flushing meadow amidst the desert sands. It does not form a real barrier, but still creates a garden. It is strange: the closer the carpet extends to all walls, the less lively this garden feels like, no matter what imagery the carpet contains.
Don't hide something, but change it. Turn a vacuum into a flushing meadow. Replace a bottom covering by a carpet. Turn your sanitary facility into a bathroom. Instead of just preparing food in a kitchenette learn to say, practice and live cuisine.
My home is not a place, it is people.
Lois McMaster Bujold
More reasons why people clutter?
Do you know more reasons why people clutter? Add a comment, below!