I started to read Laudato Si' last night, in bed with an iPhone, and didn't get very far into it before I was too sleepy to go on and had to put it down. The dim rectangular afterimage of a glowing screen danced before my eyes for a few moments as I rolled over, snuggled in next to a baby, and let my mind wander.
Occasionally it's at this time that my brain makes odd connections.
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I've written a little bit recently about Japanese author Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Mostly I wrote about the practical advice on getting rid of stuff. I haven't written so much here about what a deeply foreign book it seems to be. I don't think the content must have been updated very much for an American audience. Kondo is Japanese, and wrote for Japan.
She takes for granted, for example, that the reader's home is laid out like a Japanese home. Here she is on closets:
If you have built-in closets in your home, most of the things in your house can be stored inside them.
Japanese closets are ideal storage spaces. They are deep and wide, are divided into top and bottom by a broad and extremely sturdy shelf, and have a cupboard built into the wall above.
And on the "fatal mistake" of storing things near where they are to be used:
For people like me who are naturally lazy, I strongly recommend focusing storage in one spot... If it only takes ten to twenty seconds to walk from one end of your home to the other, do you really need to worry about the flow plan?
Yeah, she's not thinking about American ramblers, or four-level urban homes with detached garages.
And then there are little tidbits like this:
I once worked as a Shinto shrine maiden for five years.
A very noticeable feature of the whole book, one that is central to her concept, is a relationship with inanimate objects that can seem a little bit bizarre. It fits right into my personal preconception of Japanese household culture, which I admit is heavily and almost exclusively influenced by Studio Ghibli movies such as My Neighbor Totoro, populated with strangely alive, anthropomorphic objects, down to spidery, googly-eyed balls of soot.
Anyway, to sum up, Ms. Kondo describes the process of selecting, storing, and using possessions as almost a dialogue between herself and the objects. Here are a few selections from different parts of the book.
When you come across something that's hard to discard, consider carefully why you have that specific item in the first place. When did you get it and what meaning did it have for you then? Reassess the role it plays in your life... [If] that particular article of clothing has already completed its role in your life,... you are free to say, "Thank you for giving me joy when I bought you," or "Thank you for teaching me what doesn't suit me," and let it go.
Can you truthfully say that you treasure something buried so deeply in a closet or drawer that you have forgotten its existence? If things had feelings, they would certainly not be happy....Let them go, with gratitude. Not only you, but your things as well, will feel clear and refreshed when you are done...
When you are choosing what to keep, ask your heart; when you are choosing where to store something, ask your house.
This is the routine I follow... First, I unlock the door and announce to my house, "I'm home!" Picking up the pair of shoes I wore yesterday and left out in the entranceway, I say, "Thank you very much for your hard work," and put them away... I put my jacket and dress on a hanger, say, "Good job!" and hang them... I greet the waist-high potted plant by the window and stroke its leaves. My next task is to empty the contents of my handbag ... Before closing the drawer, I say, "Thanks for all you did for me today."
So, this stuff is kind of weird. A few amateur reviewers I've run into have described it as "delusional." I think it's more that this comes from a culture, and a way of relating to inanimate objects, that most of us are not familiar with.
It's not like Westerners don't anthropomorphize objects; it's just that we mostly do it when we're annoyed with them, as in "OUCH! Damn this car door!" when we slam our fingers in it, or "This stupid shopping cart doesn't want to roll straight!" or sometimes when we need to pretend we are explaining them, like "This material won't dissolve in water because it's hydrophobic."
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So I had kind of brushed off the Kondo-isms as "probably just a Japanese thing." And then I encountered something small and almost entirely unrelated that made me reconsider it in a slightly different light.
I only got a little way into Laudato Si' where there is a short discourse on St. Francis of Assisi. In par. 11, Pope Francis briefly described the saint's attitude toward non-human things:
He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason”. His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection....
His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’”. Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.
By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.
Mind you, Francis (the pope) is mostly writing fairly narrowly here, about Francis (the saint)'s attitude towards "nature" -- by which we often mean plants and animals and the sea and the air and the earth, not always the collection of all objects around us. That Saint famously called natural objects "brother" and "sister" because they, like us, are created by the Father. His words remind us that in many respects, though we are persons and not objects we are more like to the rest of creation than we are to the Godhead. They are words of humility. But that's not all they are words of.
Some of what St. Francis was getting at, when he preached to birds and addressed "brother sun, sister moon," is gratitude. Because that is what a Catholic vision of "respect for the natural world" must, in the end, be reduced to. Respect is actually something owed to persons, and all "respect" for objects, natural or man-made, is really a respect for persons; the object is merely a means of transmission. Example: we show respect for, say, an American flag, not for its own sake, but because it's a way to visibly respect people who also share that flag, sometimes (as at a military funeral) very specific people.
And we "respect" the natural world, not for its own sake, but (practically speaking) to steward it and share it for the sake of other people's livelihood, and (more fundamentally speaking) out of gratitude to God for making a gift of it to all of us. Wastefulness and an attitude of total control risk us taking for granted this world of objects for which we should give thanks every day.
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So, I told you that I sometimes make really odd connections when I'm drifting off to sleep. I realize this is kind of a corny one. I am not putting The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up on the same level as a papal encyclical.
But the slight cross-cultural glimpse into Kondo's world of paying little homages to her possessions connected in my mind with St. Francis calling creatures "brother" and "sister." I think that there is something to be said for "speaking a language of fraternity and beauty" -- not just about blades of grass, vast canyons, colorful birds, cherries in bloom -- but even about the mean little things that we surround ourselves with, the things that we make, buy, and use.
Kondo recommends addressing our excess things personally as a literal act that frees us from needing to cling to them. She has you looking your possessions in the face, so to speak, and intentionally choosing which to let go. It is not hard to imagine that, having practiced this small asceticism, one might find it easier to choose not to acquire so much in the first place. To avoid waste not by keeping many things that "someday" you might use, but by never buying up so many things in the first place. Treating useful or beautiful possessions "the way they want to be treated" -- that being a sort of shorthand for "the way that will keep them functioning for a long time." Passing on things that still have some use in them, without dumping unwanted items on people. While acknowledging that this is a bit of a corny connection to make, I wonder if it might not be a good practice to behold and handle each of our possessions with some spark of gratitude for each one to the God from whom all blessings flow.
John Paul II's life's work, one could argue, was spent teaching us not to treat persons as if they were objects.
I could quip here that in this introductory part of Laudato Si', Francis is teaching us not to treat objects as if they were objects, either. At least: not objects "simply to be used and controlled."
May we use objects? Yes! That is one of the things that separates them from persons. We are not allowed to use persons. We are allowed to use objects.
May we control objects? To the extent that we can do so, yes. Again, this is one of the things that separates them from persons. We are not allowed to control persons all the way to their innermost being, who retain their free will and capacity to use reason absolutely, and no one has the right to interfere with those. We are allowed to control an object.
So the problem is in "simply" using and controlling them, I think. There is at least one other thing we must do with all objects: receive them with gratitude. Not really for the sake of themselves, but for the sake of the one who gives them to us as gifts.