Cull your friends

How a Japanese decluttering technique can give you a manageable social life

Fans of Marie Kondo, Japanese author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying (2014) and Spark Joy (2016), believe she deserves a gong for services to serenity. The toddler-friendly clarity of Kondo’s wisdom, as revealed through her two bestsellers describing her KonMari method of tidying a home, has resulted in thousands, perhaps millions, of tons of excess possessions being shifted out of our overcrowded homes and into the hands of grateful charity shops and less grateful landfill sites.

Before we read Kondo, we were overwhelmed by acquisitions. They formed blockages within our homes. Not only were we stufficated, we could never pay our things the attention they deserved and the neglect made us feel anxious and guilty. Kondo showed how serenity could seep into the vacuum created by getting rid of most of these possessions. But could this method be applied to dealing with our overwhelming social lives? Bear with me while I enlarge on the KonMari method.

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In a nutshell, Kondo advises us to tidy by category. So, for example, we’re told to collect every single jumper in our house and pile them all up in a heap. Confronted by the physical proof of the absurd quantities of such things we own, it is easier to be realistic about which ones we actually want or need. We must keep only those jumpers that ‘spark joy’. How do we know? ‘Hold the item in both hands. When something sparks joy you should feel a little thrill as if the cells in your body are slowly rising. When you hold something that doesn’t bring you joy, however, you will notice that your body feels heavier.’

It sounds pretentious but does work. It is shocking to find we have, for example, 50 jumpers. So we deal with the jumpers first and then we move on to the next category, proceeding through skirts, dresses, china, books, paintings and komono (miscellany) until our home is filled with only joy-sparking objects. It has become our ‘own personal art museum’. All right, it is a bit pretentious, but with enough of a ring of truth to it to encourage me to send carloads of stuff to the Shaw Ridge charity shop. However, the trouble with paring down your possessions is that you can’t help but consider the other types of excess in your life. Friends, for example.

It’s not boastful to say you have too many. I’m told that the young have an average of 600 ‘friends’ on Facebook, but my generation has an average of at least a hundred real friends (a woman can tot them up by scrolling through the contacts on her iPhone).

We have met them at university, through sharing flats, through bonding in offices in the days when we still worked in them, through having children in assorted schools and then bonding with the parents of their friends, through sharing holiday villas. In my case I met them through writing profiles, through leading other writers on high-intensity fact-finding missions to the Caribbean in my role as aide to the anglophile Jamaican philanthropist and businessman Butch Stewart (which triggered Stockholm Syndrome-type dependency towards me from my guests) and through lengthy house parties in Scotland, Carinthia and Cornwall.

And now we’ve got too many. We can’t possibly see them all or pay them the attention they deserve. Kondo’s solution for jumpers would hardly work with humans. You would have to assemble them all in, say, the 20th Century Theatre in Notting Hill and hug them one by one to see if they spark joy before discarding and sending those that don’t to a metaphorical charity shop.

You can easily make a mental list of those friends who don’t ‘spark joy’ but are more likely to spark guilt, depression, weltschmerz, a sense of inadequacy or even l’ennui de l’escalier. And then you realise that, paradoxically, those are the ones you see most, because they are pushier than your kinder friends, who wouldn’t dream of trying to see you — they know what a nightmare it is trying to process their own friend mountains.

Henry James said: ‘There are only three qualities you need in a friend: kindness, kindness and kindness.’ Kondo says the possessions we keep should have three common elements: the beauty of the object itself, the amount of love that has been poured into it (acquired attraction) and the amount of history or significance it has accrued (experiential value).

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Having ‘discarded’ the non-joy-sparking friends, you can use Kondo’s method for possessions you are throwing out: ‘Thank them for what they have done for you and praise them for their good qualities before waving them on their way.’ You are left, in theory, with the core friends who you can be confident will spark joy. When you are unsure, Kondo recommends ‘praising them to the hilt’. She is talking about inanimate objects, but you could channel the same sentiments towards your low-joy-sparking friends. ‘Think of how they make your life easier, about their wonderful appearance and marvellous features, and tell them how great they are,’ she writes. ‘As you do this you will feel grateful for how they help you and to see how they support your life.’ You will gradually begin to feel a thrill of joy. So with core friends and borderline friends now on board and the others having been thanked and sent on their way, ‘You can then begin to appreciate the things you own and to strive to make your relationships with them as special as possible.’

After I’d finished discarding I found that there were seventy-something friends I genuinely love, 50 of them members of couples, 27 singletons. That makes 53 ‘social units to be processed’. There are only 52 weekends in the year. Take away six weekends for having flu, six for being abroad, six for your children being ill and six for servicing what Earl Spencer calls ‘our blood families’ and that leaves only 28 weekends a year to be divided between 53 social units — or roughly one weekend that you can allow each much-loved friend every other year.

Of course, the way to factor in these friends is by having house parties. To celebrate her and her husband’s joint 70th, Lady Bamford solved this problem by taking 150 friends on a fleet of jets to India. The Guinness family work each other off at multiple weddings and 21st-birthday parties which take place every six weeks or so. But some of us don’t have the wherewithal for that.

My husband says we need not worry. At our age, a lot of our friends will be self-culling — the metaphorical Penny Cascade will be sweeping most of them to the charity shop in the sky. And I’ll never forget my mother’s comment when I told her a few years ago — in the hope of eliciting sympathy — that Giles and I had reached the stage where we we’re having to attend a lot of 50th birthday parties: ‘Isn’t that very nice?’ she replied. And from the perspective of most of her own friends having gone on ahead, she had a point.


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