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Column: J John on coping with clutter

Having a clear-out? Author and speaker J John has a few words of advice ...

Coping with clutter


Last month, while I was recovering from a knee operation, Killy and l tried to de-clutter my study as well as our garage, shed, loft, kitchen and bedrooms. It has been a revelation. Let me tell you some of the things that we have found:

  • A huge quantity of business cards from people, many of whom I have no recollection of meeting
  • Several boxes of mysterious adapters and cables that fit no known phones or computers
  • Lots of empty boxes. Why did we store empty boxes for years!
  • A pile of cassette tapes, some marked ‘Keep!’. Not very useful for a household which no longer has the means to play cassettes
  • A huge pile of books that I have either not read, never finished or will never read. The very existence of some puzzles me. Why, I ask myself, did I get a Russian phrasebook? And did someone give me Church Architecture: A Glossary of Terms?
  • A handful of coins from mysterious countries, some of which I am sure I have never visited
  • A box full of keys – keys to what, I ask myself?

In the shed, there was a gas canister that doesn’t fit the BBQ. In the garage, we found numerous half-burnt candles, several tins of paint, each with enough paint to cover a postage stamp, and a good number of chipped and broken vases – why did we keep these?


As for the wardrobes – there were jumpers and jackets and suits I wore in the 1980s and which I haven’t worn for several decades. I still tried them on – although quite why, I don’t know!

And in the kitchen – why keep an old tea set we used 20 years ago, which we couldn’t stand then and certainly would never use now? Wow! We now have ‘space’ in our cupboards!


Clutter seems to be a disease of our time and culture. It used to be that when the kids left home you could consider ‘downsizing’ but sadly it seems that clutter expands to fill the space available. Although it is tempting to speculate about why we all accumulate so much, the issue with clutter is how we deal with it. Because successful de-cluttering is hard, we really need to have the right attitude: a ruthless, stop-at-nothing determination. We need to recognise that clutter is a serious problem. 

The word ‘clutter’ is apparently related to ‘clot’. And as clots block up arteries and impede blood flow with disastrous results, so clutter does the same to our lives. Think, for instance, about how it leads to wasted time. Consider a no doubt all-too-familiar scenario: you are working on a project and you realise that you need item A (whether it’s a document, a tool or a kitchen utensil). However, because there is so much clutter you have to search for it. Now note what invariably happens. In the process of trying to find A, you successively uncover items B, C and D, each of which are far more interesting and each of which demand your attention. The result is that when you finally do discover item A you have either run out of time to use it or you cannot now remember what you wanted it for in the first place.


So we must de-clutter. But the practicalities of dealing with clutter are far from easy. We have to engage in a process of filtering. So, in my own study, I end up asking over everything whether I should keep it, give it to a charity shop or simply consign it to the dustbin? It’s not an easy decision and there is a view held by some experts in the field of de-cluttering that the only thing to do is adopt a scorched earth policy and just bin it all. Although I have some sympathy for that approach, I don’t believe that everything should be thrown away.

If you are like me, your clutter is probably virtually worthless in financial terms, but you do need to remember that money is not the only measure of worth. The past has value and memories of events, and particularly of individuals, should matter to us. It is worth remembering how in the Old Testament Samuel put up a large memorial stone and ‘named it Ebenezer (which means “the stone of help”), for he said, “Up to this point the Lord has helped us!” ’ (1 Samuel 7:12, NRSV). 


There are some things you may wish to keep as ‘Ebenezers’ – honoured reminders of long-ago friends, mementos of times rich in blessing and testimonies of difficulties overcome. The past, even when it comes to us in the form of clutter, can provide us with much fuel for gratitude.


And let’s face it, it’s actually a privilege to have clutter. Only two kinds of people have no clutter at all: those who have so little to do that they don’t generate any and those who are too poor to have any. I thank God I am in neither category.


Yet although we may save some precious reminders, the reality is that much must be disposed of, so how do we decide what to get rid of? As I leaf through old files, letters and books I find myself repeatedly thinking of words such as ‘essential’ and ‘priority’. Anyone who has ever tried de-cluttering a study or garage will be aware of the danger that after a few hours’ labour you have in fact managed to justify keeping almost everything. We need to ask some very hard questions. Do I need this? Am I ever going to need it? One reason I think that many people today find it hard to deal with clutter is that they prefer to think they are here for ever. They imagine that sooner or later they really are going to read those unread books, do that unopened jigsaw or experiment with those French recipes. 


Here, as in so many other areas, I am helped by knowing that the Christian life is like a journey. As I look at all I have before me, I repeatedly ask myself a single, simple question: ‘Is it needed on the voyage?’ If you are looking forward to the next world, there’s a lot to be said for travelling light through this one.

Revd Canon J.John


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