Photo: A second-hand table and chairs that were refinished by Emily Ralph Servant and her family. Photo provided by author.
“Hold each item, one by one,” Marie Kondo instructs families on her Netflix show. Then she says, “Only keep what sparks joy for you.” Everything else can be thanked and let go.
Sparks joy. That concept resonates for me as I have sought to live a whole and abundant life. Yet it’s an idea fraught with danger in a culture that equates happiness with indulgence.
Kondo’s method strikes a chord in me as she practices mindfulness and gratitude. I appreciate the way she gently encourages families to confront their overabundance and to do the hard work of letting go of anything that isn’t life-giving for them.
This technique alone may not be enough to transform American culture, however. I’ve heard stories of people who found the KonMari method life-changing when her book showed up on U.S. bookshelves in 2014 but who discovered that their tidy spaces had already refilled in the years that followed.
Perhaps the act of letting go doesn’t spark enough joy to keep us from accumulating more.
Kondo suggests that most people need practice to recognize what joy feels like. Christian mystics have long agreed that cultivating our awareness of joy can be a spiritual practice, one that draws us closer to the Spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
Letting go sparks joy for me because it connects to a deeper sense of purpose. God’s dream for our world is that everyone have enough, yet many of us consume more than our fair share of the world’s resources. What would happen if we took Jesus’ teachings seriously, if we truly lived what we say we believe, if we allowed love to drive us to radical, countercultural choices?
For my family, this has led to a journey of mindfulness: finding ways to reduce our waste by limiting what we purchase, avoiding packaging when possible, composting, recycling and reusing; prioritizing second-hand purchases, welcoming hand-me-downs and participating in the “gift economy” through local Buy Nothing groups; choosing to live well within our means in a small house; tapping into our creativity by “upcycling” what we have into what we need; and cultivating a lifestyle that wonders if we can do “more with less.”
And yes, this journey has included simplifying what we own and letting go of things that, a few years ago, we never thought we could release. We’ve found that letting go has grown easier as our motivation has emerged: to make space in our home to expand our family through foster care and adoption. Love for the children we have yet to meet overpowers our sense of loss; we have so much to gain by letting go.
Love motivates and sustains me on this journey. Love for the hurting children in our city and for the children of the world. God’s love compels me to care about how my choices affect the poor, the disenfranchised, the oppressed. We live in an interconnected world where our choices matter.
At the same time, I know our ability to choose is a sign of our privilege. We choose to do more with less. We choose to live in a small house. We choose to buy second-hand items. We can also choose to purchase sustainable products and shop at bulk-food stores. We have an overabundance to give away. We aren’t forced into these choices; we have the privilege of a middle-class income, reliable transportation and free time for hobbies, and we benefit from systems that advantage us at the expense of others.
Letting go also means accepting our responsibility to use our privilege to advocate for and alongside others who don’t have access to those choices. It means allocating part of our grocery budget to bring produce to food deserts in our city. It means advocating for the right to repair and for clean-energy incentives. It means working for safe and walkable neighborhoods. It means opening our home to a child who needs a safe, stable and loving family.
This journey is a long one, and it’s one I’m just beginning. It has led me to let go of my need for speed and embrace patience, to let go of my selfishness and learn kindness and generosity, to let go of my impulsiveness as I practice self-control. It’s a struggle, and I don’t always make good choices. But God’s Spirit is present, shaping me into the image of Jesus, who showed humanity how to let go for the sake of love (Philippians 2).
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a little Marie Kondo on Netflix—I certainly do—but we are called to something more than tidy houses. God’s Spirit is inviting us to commit to our neighborhoods and our world, letting go and embracing so that we love deeply and work for justice.
Only then will we truly spark joy.
Emily Ralph Servant lives in Baltimore and is a leadership minister for Franconia Mennonite Conference.
Letting go ethically
If Marie Kondo has inspired you to tidy up this spring, consider these tips from Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), which runs a network of thrift shops across the United States and Canada.
- Do your research. Ask your local thrift shop what items they accept before donating them. Some thrift shops don’t have the resources to accept furniture or electronics. Others may have an “upcycling corner” where they’ll accept items that are broken or missing pieces (like a puzzle or board game).
- Clean your items before donating. Many thrift shops, especially those who depend on volunteers, don’t have the resources to clean or repair items. When your items are clean, they have a greater chance of being sold and avoiding the dumpster.
- Don’t donate broken items or old TVs. Unless a thrift shop tells you differently, assume they don’t have the resources to repair broken appliances or electronics—and it could cost them more money to responsibly dispose of them. Instead, look for recycling programs through your city, energy provider or local box stores.
- Be thoughtful. Would you give the item you want to donate to a friend or family member? If not, perhaps you need to think about a different way to reuse or recycle it.
- Buy second-hand items as much as possible. While thrift shops are grateful for your donations, repeatedly buying and donating new clothes (“fast fashion”) does more harm than good. Thrift shops are often overwhelmed by donations of women’s clothing but are more likely to need men’s and children’s clothing.
- Consider volunteering. MCC’s thrift shops are more likely to have the time and skills needed to ethically dispose of and recycle unsellable items if they have a strong volunteer base.
MCC’s network of thrift stops are all working to handle donations responsibly, with concerted efforts to reduce waste and care for the environment. Most of the proceeds from the shops go to MCC’s “Most-Needed Fund,” which supports humanitarian efforts in local communities and around the globe, including relief and development, peacemaking, education, prison ministry and immigration advocacy. To see what’s happening at your local thrift shop, visit https://thrift.mcc.org/.