Seeking Clarity about Learning, Working, and Flourishing with Clutter

“His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for
Pahom to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to
his heels was all he needed.” –The conclusion to Leo Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need?

“In 2016, I got a letter from my insurance company, stating that I needed to get rid of the ‘debris’ around my house. My best guess is that they were referring to the highly sought-after, single-side-cover VW transaxle from the mid-1970s that was sitting under an overhang. Perhaps they meant also the front end, complete from spindle to spindle, that I removed from a donor car and that currently lay in potentia in my car port, awaiting a full rebuild before being transplanted into the Karmann Ghia. Could they mean the body pan rusting along the side of the house, with a perfectly serviceable torsion housing and trailing arms waiting to be harvested? Or the heated leather seats under a tarp, which I spent three hours to remove from a late ’90s Audi at Chesterfield Auto Parts (a salvage yard on the south side of town)?” –Matthew Crawford in Why We Drive (68-69)

As I’ve been doing house maintenance this sumer and attempting to declutter my stuff, I’ve been thinking through the wisdom needed to work constructively with clutter in order to flourish as a learner, teacher, and human being.

The quotes from Leo Tolstoy and Matthew Crawford represent at least two angles on such wisdom.

Tolstoy’s story represents an intensely existential version of the advice to think “with the end in mind.” I look over my possessions this summer as I clean house, and I think of Tolstoy’s story. I also think of spiritual traditions that can further the intensity of the story with more commentary, asking questions such as, “What good does it do to gain the whole world yet forfeit one’s soul?”

Meanwhile, Matthew Crawford, the philosophical motorhead, gets me thinking about how life is often enriched by patiently working through the challenges of gathering and saving things when we’re not quite sure how they’ll fit into our next projects. Crawford invites further considerations about how to constructively live out our callings.

I admire Crawford’s insightful understanding about how working with concrete things can challenge us to think in complex ways, turning away from the overly automated habits of consumption and careless disposal promoted by contemporary technology. With Crawford, we can learn that some experiences of what may seem like clutter can actually help us work toward greater clarity, complexity, competence, and care for the world of things and people.

Crawford’s account of his treasure trove of yard-parts reminds me a bit of my maternal grandfather who always kept two AMC Pacers in his possession: One to drive and the other to raid for parts. It may have not been aesthetically pleasing, but it was practical and functional.

The AMC Pacer

This summer, I’ve also been thinking about the challenges of clutter, clarity, care, and constructiveness. As I donate books to thrift stores and greatly attempt to reduce my possessions down to a more manageable and necessary amount, I teeter between reckless abandonment in disposing of everything and wisely keeping resources that may prove useful in the future.

As I thin out my old books, I’m often amazed at how some texts that seemed esoteric or overly academic years ago suddenly take on new relevance with some trend in society (many of my literary theory books from the 90s are a case in point with their relevance to current discussions about Critical Race Theory).

Digital books help reduce the space, but some texts only come in print and some texts just need to be read in printed form to most understand and appreciate them. Over these summer days, I have some books that I move in and out of the donation boxes as I reflect on their potential usefulness.

Our various contexts and constraints will differ, but somewhere in this tension between Tolstoy and Crawford, there’s wisdom for the ways we work through our clutter and cares.

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