My friend handed me an adorable mug, pink with owls, and before I could comment on how pretty it was, she said: “You gave me this.” I had forgotten. Years had passed, during which I’d never imagined that I would be standing in her kitchen again. I was surprised that she still had it. “Yeah, I didn’t Marie Kondo the mug,” she joked.
But the words tripped out of my mouth. “Well, but I Marie Kondo-ed you, because I thought you’d Marie Kondo-ed me.” We both blinked at the prickliness of that moment. “What I meant,” I scrabbled. “Is that I wouldn’t have kept it…”
Objects which are mnemonics of pain, consciously or unconsciously, are a whole category of attachment (again, often unconsciously – hoarders don’t necessarily feel the attachment until asked to part with something). And many people who have transformed their spaces, inspired by Kondo’s techniques, known as KonMari, have done so through confronting the feelings evoked by, if not energetically contained in, those objects. “Does this spark joy?” has another question on its flipside.
Now, having organised and decluttered their surroundings, some KonMari enthusiasts have begun talking about taking the technique further. Top of the list seems to be toxic friends, another category of painful attachments. I’m all for good boundaries, freeing oneself from bad influences, refusing to be manipulated, laying ground rules for healthy relationships and the very effective liberation of headspace through social media unfollowing. But using a single question to evaluate an entire relationship? Not so much.
The idea of pruning connections purely for the purpose of having fewer of them to manage is itself suspect. And if it’s truly toxicity that’s the concern, it gets complex. A one-size-fits-all approach will not work; unlike what people are saying, digitally unfriending a classmate you don’t remember on social media is simply not on the same scale as ending a friendship with someone who is violent to their partner. While a catalytic event, the final straw, is often how we break out of abusive relationships, the exit is usually a long time coming. It takes circuitous routes, just as the healing is non-linear. The most toxic of our relationships are often also the most precious to us. Which means that by KonMari-ing our intimate circles indiscriminately, we’re only isolating ourselves further from sources of support who could help us clean up where we really need to. And sometimes, that cleanse is within – the friend is just a scapegoat.
It’s dangerous to label something “toxic” just because it currently contains friction, boredom or heavier demands on time and energy (for example: a friend going through a divorce is not toxic just because their pain is radiating from them all the time). A friendship, or any significant relationship, will not always reliably spark joy. There will be rough patches, misunderstandings, irritations and imperfect circumstances.
This was more obvious to me than ever in that kitchen, holding a simple object that my friend had divested of power by keeping, but which had suddenly become a mnemonic of our time apart. For a bond to last, you work at it. Love is complicated, but not clutter.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 24th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.