Total Messes

I was recently going through a period in my life where everything felt like a total mess. I felt confused about everything, and nothing felt like it was in its correct place. It felt like every aspect of my life was in a state of chaos, and I was desperate for a sense of normalcy in some, any, area of my life.

So I started putting pressure on myself to fix everything all at once, but it seemed so daunting a task that I had no idea where to start, so I kept putting it off and doing nothing. I decided the easiest place to start, if I couldn’t clear up the more important psychological and emotional clutter in my life, was to start with the physical clutter. Perhaps, my reasoning went, if I had an organized outer life it would help lend clarity to my inner life.

I started reading organization and clutter books and blogs, and realized that much of the sound advice given about physical organization also applied to emotional and psychological messes. For example, there are two ways to clean up a mess. You can clean up in a superficial way that just hides the mess but doesn’t really create true organization. Think of that television image of the person with an immaculate home, and you open their closet and a huge mess spills out of it. They just hurried up and shoved all their junk where it would be kept out of sight. They didn’t really deal with the mess, they just temporarily suppressed it, meaning it would have to still be dealt with later. It’s like putting a band-aid on a flesh wound.

People do the same thing with their emotional, psychological and spiritual messes. They keep shoving their baggage and clutter out of sight into their mental closet, the back of their minds, until the closet gets so full that it explodes and everything ends up spilling out like an avalanche. I think these “closet explosions” are what causes nervous breakdowns and news reports of people going postal.

Just like the clutter and organization books recommend that to really effectively declutter and reorganize, you have to make your room a lot messier before it gets cleaner, I think the same goes for our mental messes. We have to be willing to let them get messier and stay messy for a while in order to really overhaul ourselves.

I read a quote recently in a book called Women’s Infidelity by Michelle Langley:

Order comes from chaos. People whose lives are a mess are actually (and unknowingly) on the cusp of order. To achieve order, they have to recognize the mess and create an even bigger mess so they can sort, prioritize and eliminate.

That’s the hidden beauty of a true, total mess. A mess that’s gotten so out of control that you can’t ignore it anymore. It’s gotten to the point you can’t just shove the clutter into a closet anymore. Everything is out in the open and at the forefront, and you’re now forced to take an inventory of your life from top to bottom and figure out what to keep, what to throw out, and where the rightful place is for everything you decide to keep. What is clutter and what isn’t clutter, and for that stuff that you decide isn’t clutter and worth salvaging: how much work will it take and where does it ultimately belong?

Total messes aren’t necessarily something tragic; they’re often a hidden opportunity. So instead of being outcome-driven and rushing for a quick fixer-upper solution that would just mask bigger issues, I decided to take the opposite approach and focus on the process. Walk through the mess and look around it. Sort through it and explore it from the inside out. Even be prepared for it to get messier if needed before it starts getting better, the same way when your house should look significantly worse for a while during spring cleaning if you’re doing it correctly.

I suppose the trick is to know the difference between taking your time to explore your total mess and do a complete overhaul and wallowing in your mess and endlessly navelgazing. The latter’s probably an even worse approach than the quick fixer-upper approach because then the mess becomes your identity, your comfort zone even.

It’s all a matter of perspective. Life is still messy, but I suppose I’m learning to appreciate it.

5 Responses to “Total Messes”

  1. I agree.

    I recently had such a period of my life threaten to overwhelm me. Fresh off finishing a Master’s thesis, moving to a new city and having my car’s transmission die upon arrival, life sucked.

    As I tried sorting through the mess, an old friend came into town and spent the weekend. He recommended the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

    Aurelius talks at length about death, living in the present moment and being a man of reason/rationale. By keeping death at the forefront of the mind (but not in a depressing judgmental way), it has the power to dwarf the day-to-day problems so long as they are not life-threatening.

    Unresolved issues regarding death (as discussed at length in “Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality ( ) or “death denial” as its termed is dealth with through religion, culture and symbolism. They illustrate through psychological studies the grave underlying issue of ideological wars between cultures, subjugation of races and even suicide.

    Basically, by subjugating others and exerting power, we reinforce our own ideology and escape the anxiety of death if even momentarily. When we lose our sense of purpose and meaning within our social constructs, our means of escaping mortality, suicide looks like a nice option.

    I’d rank death denial as one of the root causes of mental closets busting wide open.

  2. Good luck cleaning up your messes. There’s a lot of wisdom here.

  3. Tangentially Randy Pausch has a great talk about Time Management.

    Fast forward to about 8:30 for his talk.

  4. Hope the mess is cleaner – speaking of, when’s the next posts? Miss your writing.