The Victor of the Kitchen Sink: A Sermon on Decluttering,
Countryside Church, Unitarian Universalist , Labor Day Sunday 2011
Geneva Unitarian Universalist Society, April 15, 2012
© Rev. C. Scot Giles, D.Min., LLC - All Rights Reserved
Four months ago I selected a topic for my clinics called “Living Free from Clutter.”
In the 1970s, the physician who was my mentor, Dr. Bernie Siegel at Yale, studied the people who beat the odds with life-changing medical problems. He discovered that they had certain personal characteristics in common, and that these characteristics could be taught.
He created a program based upon teaching those “survival skills,” and research continues to show that people who learn them do better medically.
Living an uncluttered life is in fact a characteristic of the long-term surviving people with a range of illnesses. I figured it was time I put together a program of self-hypnotism to assist people in learning how to do that.
Did I get a surprise.
Almost immediately the clinics were filled. I even received requests to let extra people in. I agreed, and was startled to realize that the “extra people” who wanted to come in were actually the staff of the hospitals and wellness centers where my clinics are based.
That’s when I realized that most of us live lives that have far too much clutter in them.
If You Came Into My Home....
If you were to visit me in my home, or in my office, you would not see clutter. In fact, the rule is that there can be absolutely nothing on any horizontal surface that is not there for some important reason. Everything has its place, and unless it is being used, everything is in its place.
I was not always this way. In fact as a kid I was routinely criticized by teachers and relatives for being messy and disorganized. However, as I got older I realized that I wanted to be effective. As I had only so much energy to go around, I found that I was more effective if I was organized.
I had some help. At an early age I went to work in restaurants, joining the culinary union and rising in its ranks from Apprentice to Journeyman Chef. I left professional cooking to enter the ministry, but had I wanted to stay in food service, an Executive Chef’s ticket was well within reach.
Being a chef isn’t an easy life. The hours are long, and you work them in volcanic heat usually at a fast pace. On my first day as an apprentice, the chef who was my trainer, a madman named Saviastano, showed me the most important place in any professional kitchen.
Any idea what that is?
It’s called the “misen en place”, French for “putting everything in place.” When a professional kitchen is in operation the first thing done is to put everything that will be needed during the shift into a particular place so it can be located quickly.
“I should be able to cook in this kitchen with my eyes closed,” roared Savistano. And God help you if you used something and didn’t put it back where it belonged. Savistano would very likely call you over, dump it down your chef’s jacket and make you wear the stained jacket for the rest of the shift.
Like I said, he was a madman; but a madman who could makes sauces that were so etherial people would fly to New York to taste them. That’s why he could get away with being a madman.
Oh but I learned. In a professional kitchen every motion has to count, because every second does. I learned the value of organization and the peril of clutter. I put that lesson into use in other areas of my life and quickly saw it’s value.
When I studied with Dr. Siegel and his Exceptional Cancer Patients Organization I was both pleased and surprised to learn that living free from clutter was one of the survival skills we found in our research.
“Every time someone walks by a pile of clutter that they were meaning to do something about,” Dr. Siegel said, “that pile reaches out and takes a little bit of their energy away from them. That’s deadly, because these people need all their energy in their own lives to heal.”
Think about that. Do you live in a world where there are stacks and piles of stuff you are meaning to get to?
Consult your feelings every time you walk by such a stack or pile and see what your feelings tell you. Very likely you will feel a resigned, downward emotion and experience a thought like “I got’ta do that stuff....someday....” and when you walk on you will notice that you are a little bit weaker than you were.
Try it. You’ll be amazed at what those stacks and piles are doing to you.
I’ve even encountered cases where getting rid of the stacks and piles of clutter was sufficient to help some people resolve actual clinical depression. The energy they recovered when the clutter was no longer draining was enough to reverse their mental state.
Physical clutter is only one kind of clutter. Some of us clutter up our bodies with excess pounds. Some of us clutter up our spiritual lives with too many practices instead of mastering just a few. Some of us clutter up our minds by not thinking ideas through to reasonable conclusions, and end up holding positions that are inconsistent and contradictory.
Clutter is a problem. I’ve found that by tackling physical clutter first helps bring the other in line.
I do need to say that my sermon today is about normal clutter. I’m not addressing people who have a clutter problem brought on by depression, obsessional disorders of attention deficit. Those are medical problems that have a medical solution. Today I’m just talking about having too much stuff.
When Lindsay and I got married almost 24 years ago, one of the issues I had to face was that I was marrying a handicapped person. Lindsay has had severe osteoarthritis since childhood and during the time of our relationship she has had three of the five major orthopedic operations that allow her to walk today.
And Lindsay also cannot cook...
...She’s really, really bad. The Geneva UU Society where she has been the Parish Minister for the past 34 years actually has a written policy that she is not permitted to cook for church events. I’ll tell you the story someday...
What this meant is that I was marrying a partner who could not do any housework. As we could not afford a maid, If we wanted to be homeowners, all of the shopping, cooking and cleaning was going to have to be done by me.
Unlike some men whose idea of housework approximates to living in a cave, I’ve always kept my home in reasonable shape. I know that if you don’t stay on top of things they inevitably fill with clutter, and the the chores become far more difficult.
As I practice from a home office, every one of my clients was going to get to see how good, or bad, a job I was doing. I couldn’t afford to do a bad job.
Thankfully, I discovered the Flylady.
The real name of the Flylady is Marla Cilly. Her website is flylady.com and her best known book is Sink Reflections. If you like this sermon I suggest you check out her work. I swear by it, and honestly don’t know how I’d keep up my home without her ideas.
If you are not sure if you would benefit by her ideas, ask yourself how you would feel if I came over to your house today directly after church. Would you be okay with how things looked and smelled, or do you have what the Flylady calls CHAOS; an acronym for Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome. If so, get her book and check out her website.
Marla Cilly lives with severe clinical depression. In her book she describes how that illness caused her entire life to get out of control. As part of her recovery she created techniques to get her from one day to the next.
She started out with two daily chores. First, she would get out of bed and get dressed. Second, she would clean her kitchen sink. That’s it. That’s all she had the energy to do.
Over time that clean kitchen sink became a symbol of sanity for her. It was a beachhead of order in a home of chaos. Gradually she expanded that into a complete system to maintaining a home that took minimal time and effort. She became the Victor over her Kitchen Sink and you can be too.
Her system, everywhere called The Flylady System, is based on staying on top of things, cleaning as you go and tossing things you don’t need, so the clutter doesn’t even get started. That way things never get too far out of control.
She recommends that you create certain household rituals for yourself. Interestingly, the most recent motivational research confirms this. It’s as if all of us have a limited pool of energy that we can use to think our way through things. Every decision you have to make deceases that pool. Therefore, you just set up rituals that you do without thinking.
The Flylady wants you to have a Morning List and an Evening List of things that you do as routinely as brushing your teeth, along with an Outside List of things you do whenever you are outside of your home.
Here are some examples of such rituals:
-When you get out of bed in the morning, immediately make the bed.
-Once the bed is made, shower and dress yourself all the way to your shoes.
-When you fill the car with gas, use the time you are waiting for the tank to fill by cleaning all the trash out of your car and putting it in the trash can next to the gas pump.
-When you finish up your day, put the dishes in the dishwasher and clean your kitchen sink so it greats you in the morning in all its shinny glory.
-Just before you get into bed, lay out your clothing for tomorrow so you don’t have to think about it when you get up.
These are all simple things, and not all of them apply to everyone. But the basics of her system are:
Have a Morning, Evening and Outside list of rituals that you just do without having to think about them.
You divide your house up into five zones for the 4.3 weeks in each month. Each week you clean one zone. Every day, you set a timer, and do exactly 15 minutes of cleaning in the zone for that week. No more. No less. Just 15 minutes is all it takes and everyone can find 15 minutes. Apart from that, just try to clean as you go so nothing piles up.
Once a week you do a one-hour House Blessing, where you vacuum and mop the high traffic areas.
Have a three ring binder or a computer file where you list all the important reference information such as the phone number of your plumber, your kids’s soccer schedule, your mother’s birthday, etc. So there is only one place you have to look for find an important bit of information.
(This is the hardest one) If you are not really using something, get rid of it. Throw it away or give it away. Minimize the clutter in your home by getting rid of everything you don’t really need.
The hardest of her rules is the one about tossing the stuff you don’t need. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking they can organize clutter. But taking a big pile of clutter and using a system of bins and folders to break it into small piles of clutter doesn’t actually do anything. You have to let the stuff go. Throw it away of give it away or there will be no real progress possible.
As it says in the Bible, “there is a time for everything under the sun,” including “a time to keep and a time to throw away (Ecc. 3:6)
Now I’m not saying you can’t have collections of something or mementos. I’m talking about clutter, and the difference is obvious. Collections and mementos are neat and orderly. Otherwise they are not collections. They are a heap or a pile, and that’s clutter.
Well, that’s what the Flylady has to teach. Follow it religiously and you will never have CHAOS. Your home will always be orderly enough to have someone over. Millions of people have found this works, including me.
Of course I do other things. At my office I’ve followed a formal system for workflow management for decades called Getting Things Done, created by productivity guru David Allen.
David Allen argues that you need to get your tasks and responsibilities out of your head and into a simple external system that you can trust. Provided, he says, that any system you have is so simple that you can keep it up even on a rainy Monday morning when you have a bad flu. If you’re interested, look him up.
Clutter is a Symptom
Most of us have too much stuff. Comedian George Carlin had a wonderful 1986 routine about “Stuff.” Commenting that the “meaning of life is trying to find a place for your stuff,” and “your house is just a pile of your stuff with a cover on it.” Hey. Carlin knew his stuff.
As one looks at all the stuff most of us have laying around there is a question that comes to my mind. Why do we collect all this stuff in the first place?
So I began to ask people, mostly clients, but sometimes friends, why they were keeping all the stuff around them that they had? I looked for people who obviously had a lot of clutter in their lives (which wasn’t very hard) and asked what was in those piles and stacks that was so important they didn’t just throw it away? I got three basic answers.
Some people responded that they were “buried in treasures.” That is, they knew all the stuff they had around them has some value. They really didn’t want it themselves, but they knew that some idiot on eBay might pay a pretty penny for it if they ever got around to selling it on eBay, They were clinging to their stuff for fear of getting rid of something valuable.
Others responded that the stuff they had around had a sentimental value. They had their dead grandfather’s Chest of Drawers, and their departed Aunt’s tea service, High School yearbooks and the granddaughter’s kindergarten pictures. They were living surrounded by a sort of “deconstructed” shrine to other people. They were clinging to stuff because they thought that throwing it away would show disrespect about people they loved.
Finally, a third group, by far the largest of the three, responded that they held onto things because “they might need them some day.” They tended to be the hoarders who would throw nothing away that didn’t actively smell. They lived surrounded by books they would never read again, empty jars that might be useful to holding things if they ever got organized, old rugs, newspapers and magazines, and a long list of other things that might “someday” be needed. They held onto stuff because it had a hallucinogenic quality. It appeared to be an asset when actually it was mostly a liability. Some of their homes were so cluttered you could hardly move from room to room.
That’s when I figured something out. even after you have gotten a grip on your stuff by organizing the “misen en place,” using the Flylady System or reliably getting you paperwork under control, there is still another sort of stuff that you have to deal with. That’s the stuff in your head. If you don’t deal with the stuff in your head, you will live a life that is cluttered with stuff.
The Stuff in Your Head
Fundamentally, I have come to believe that there is only one reason why people live with clutter. They may have clutter in different degrees, but there is one reason.
I’ve come to believe that this reason is essentially a spiritual reason. People have clutter to the degree they do not feel safe. It’s a lack of religious confidence.
The word “religion” comes from the Latin word meaning “to connect.” Religion is that thing which connects us to a Higher Power and to the world that is the offspring of that power. When we really feel our religion we feel connected and supported. We have a place in the process. We’re part of the whole.
People who feel secure and safe about their place in the world are willing to let go of things that are really in their way, even if they might be valuable.
They know what they have what it takes to get their needs and responsibilities met, and the thought of “cashing in” on every little thing is outweighed by the thought of their own convenience and effectiveness.
While they may miss the people who have left this world, they understand that an appropriate way to keep a memorial going is at a cemetery, in a memory book or at an annual day of remembrance. Not by stacking stuff in the living room or elsewhere around the house.
People who feel safe about their place in the world have confidence in their own abilities to cope. Therefore, they don’t cling to old books, magazine, articles or objects that “might someday be useful.” They know that in most cases these things will not be useful, even if one could find them amidst the clutter.
They are confident that if they really needed to they could figure out a way to get the same information without turning their home into an obstacle course.
Fundamentally, people who have conquered clutter have also conquered their religious insecurity about being in the world. They don’t need stuff, and they don’t need their home to be a cover for their stuff. They know they are supported by a power greater than themselves and therefore don’t need to hold themselves up with piles of stuff.
Clutter is, I’ve concluded, a spiritual issue and it has a spiritual solution.
So how do we find that solution?
To answer this question I turn to the work of William James, the 19th century philosopher who many believe was the founder of modern psychology.
“Feelings follow behavior!” exclaimed James. If you want to feel a certain way, first you must behave in that way. Then, over time, your feelings will fall into line, and you will come to feel as if your behavior was completely appropriate.
If you want to feel more self-confident, act in the same way that the self-confident people in your world act.
At first it will feel strange, for you know you are playing a role, but over time your feelings will change to match your behavior. If you wait until you feel a certain way before you act that way, you never get there.
Feelings follow behavior. If you want to feel a certain way you must first act as if you already did feel that way.
People in this congregation who have had the chops to work a Twelve Step Program know what I mean. I admire such people, because Twelve Step Programs are among the most spiritually rigorous disciplines in our word today.
In such programs the principle I am talking about is called “Fake It Till You Feel It,” or “Fake It Until Your Make It.” They are all based on the same insight from William James. If you want to be different, act as if you already are. Then, things will change for you.”
This is true for the Great Spiritual War Against Clutter too. If you want to live free from the feelings that drive you to live a cluttered life, the best way to get there is to actually take the risk and declutter your home or environment.
Throw Stuff Away. Reduce your possessions to the minimum you need. This will feel weird at first, but Fake It Until You Make It. After a short while you will discover that you are happier in your uncluttered environment and that you would never go back to the way things were.
If you want the spiritual confidence that will let you lead an uncluttered life, start by tossing away the clutter. Soon you will feel like you too are the Victor of the Kitchen Sink and clutter is something that you will automatically remove from your world.
As the Bible says, “there is a time to throw things away.”
And I agree. And that’s my sermon.