Odds are you know of the cultural marvel, Marie Kondo. She is an organizing consultant, an author of four best-selling books, the star of a reality series streaming on Netflix, and is herself a ubiquitous presence, the subject of talk shows and magazine articles and the inspiration for YouTube videos.
What distinguishes Kondo from others in a similar line of work (for example, good housekeeping, closet organization, decluttering, refining) is her method. She doesn’t just go room-to-room (kitchen, garage, teen bedroom) and throw things away. She tidies up category-to-category (e.g., clothes, books, souvenirs, collectibles) in terms of what’s valuable, monetarily or sentimentally. Her goal is an environment whose furnishings and objects spark joy. For some of her devotees, tidying-up is also another way to present a higher profile on Instagram or other Scoreboards, not bragging, per se, but just looking good, prosperous, competent, no longer a drone in the great hive of human activity.
Of course, I’m all in favor of a tidying up our homes or wherever we have stuff. Why? Because all of the possessions we’ve acquired distract us. They also require some kind of maintenance, even if we’re merely moving them from place to place or putting them in storage to make room for more stuff.
But let’s take another look at joy, the deeply meaningful, life-shaping joy that comes of self-possession. More than 2500 years ago, Socrates, the Greek philosopher and teacher of Plato, said that the unexamined life is not worth living. He thought that we will always be discontent if we don’t investigate, articulate and reconcile the struggle between the blood-pounding and immediate natural force that we are with how the world wants us to fall into line and shape up.
Think about it. Without such information, we are, in large part, reflexive entities, driven forward and possessed by pressures and influences we can’t see and don’t understand, living at the behest of our biological immediacy and conditioned mindsets, neither of which we thoughtfully authored or govern. Situated thus, much of life just happens to us and we are left without access to the cultivated and elevated joys of wonder, creativity, gratitude, humility and fulfillment.
As a means to this enriched and enriching life, I help students focus on reducing the amount of mental debris (or the weight or the subjective load) we take with us everywhere we go. By mental debris, I mean being unfulfilled, dissatisfied and disturbed or harboring a pastiche of anger, resentment, rejection, even hate.
You know and I know that mental misery is among the worst things that can happen to us and its burden is pretty much a constant. We who study autonomy and life, however, think that joy should be our stable condition but we realize that joy, just as with much else that is valuable, has to be earned. It’s not a free lunch. (Better to realize there are no free lunches.)
Our philosophic discipline orients the autonomous individuals toward developing their courageous ability to reset the determination of their neurochemical profile so as to develop the neural circuitry to compete with their patterned instincts, habits and conditioning. I describe this ability as courageous because though we are forces of nature and forcefully determined by nature, many of us are too timid to stand up to the constant social pressures and stress that make us miserable.
It takes courage to interrogate the prevailing Scoreboard-shaped “reality,” and the wandering or angry thoughts, misconstrued feelings and misbegotten dysfunctional ego that accompany it, though none serves a principled purpose and each interferes with our ability to be agents of change. So what we focus on is not our tangible, branded possessions and beliefs, but our self-possession, the hard-won behavioral control we have when it comes to designing a life for which we are intellectually, emotionally and energetically a good and unique fit.
Despite the creative load we carry, the competitive environment in which we find ourselves, the adversity we encounter and the disappointments we cannot prevent and must endure, we can actually learn to relocate ourselves into the world of affinity, connection and joy. In short, our study of autonomy and life—the autonomy of our chosen pathway and our subjective experience of it—is our means to authority, to presence, to utility and to our claim of authenticity and legitimacy.
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