I remember reading once about the Broken Window Theory, and thinking it was an interesting idea, and one that I can actually see as being applicable in my own life. Basically the theory states that monitoring and maintaining an environment helps to prevent small crimes, such as vandalism, which in turn plays a role in preventing the encroachment of larger crimes. I interpreted this as meaning that a broken window shows a lack of care or concern, which encourages those who may already be predisposed to asocial behavior to assume that no one cares, and therefore to break in. One small break-in leads to great ter lawlessness.
I don't actually know anything about how effective this theory is in actual practice, at least in terms of large urban environments, but it makes sense to me as I can see it play out in my own small environments. People tell me I am organized. But I am organized only because the cost of disorganization is so high, and because it is easier to spend a few seconds putting something away than it is to spend hours cleaning up a larger mess. Perhaps this is simply because I am inclined, as my mom reminds me, to be lazy. I'm inclined to think that view is a bit simplistic.
Do you know the story of Mary and Martha? In the gospel of Luke, Mary sits at Jesus feet, listening to his words, while Martha hustles and bustles, serving everyone. Sometimes people think that, because I am organized, because I can get things done, I am a Martha. I am not. You who read this blog are privileged to see my Mary side. I am only as organized as I need to be, as organized as necessary to feed my own sense of balance and well-being, and indulge my Mary-ness. I have mostly learned that there is a level of disorganization, mess, and unruliness that increases my stress levels. I suspect we all live on a spectrum of comfort with order/disorder and for most of us, there is some point where the disorder starts to engender stress and anxiety. I am only as organized as I need to be so that I do not have to be plagued by anxiety over what has not been done. I am only organized enough that I can sit back and enjoy. It is possible that I have a greater need for organization is than some others. It is also possible that my need to live without anxiety is also great I prefer stress to be a positive influence rather than a negative one. What is negative for me, may not be negative for someone else. I want to sit and listen. I love solving problems, but I want to solve the problem then sit back and enjoy the moment. I don't need to go looking for another problem to solve. I fully accept that are people, the Martha's, who more content to hustle and bustle. Both paths are valid and necessary. Both can be allowed to grow to extremes. Just as one can be disorganized to the point that it interferes with health and happiness, one can also be over-organized to the point that it interferes with health and happiness. Either path can be a crutch. Either path can be a tool.
I think my attitude toward organization, and life, is much like my attitude toward parties. I love having people over. I love feeding people. I love the anticipation, the process of planning, and preparing food and drink and preparing a setting. To me making food to feed people is an act of community, of love. It does not have to be perfect. Perfect is the enemy of good. But that love of cooking points to what I really love, spending time with people, not necessarily doing something, but just being with them. Once the doorbell rings, I take off my apron and start to enjoy my guests. I want to enjoy my own party, and for me, that means sitting back and relaxing in the moment, in the conversations. I am all for getting everything pulled together and set up in advance, because I am no Martha. Once the guests start to arrive, most of the work needs to be done, because I'm going to be sitting on the floor listening. Yes, I'll get drinks, or bring food to a table, minor things, but the real work has already been done and the time has come to simply enjoy.
That doesn't mean that I don't misjudge, don't make mistakes, don't mess up. I do. Last weekend I had to spend quite a few hours on Saturday cleaning the garage. The job was bigger than it should have been because I let things get out of hand. But it started simply. Like the broken window theory, one small act of neglect led to another, and another, and soon the thought of tackling the whole project became a source of stress and anxiety, stress and anxiety that could have been prevented.
It started in the fall. I ordered too many bulbs. I got carried away with dreams of gardening and forgot that I had committed myself to a couple of big projects that would eat up large portions of my time, preventing me from planting bulbs. The bulbs were not all planted before winter set in and it grew too cold. I was pretty annoyed with myself.
I had read that if I refrigerated the bulbs I could plant them in the spring and they would still grow and bloom, and since I had a small dorm-sized refrigerator in the garage that I had used as a beverage refrigerator, I decided to try it out. I put the beverages inside in the kitchen refrigerator, and used the dorm refrigerator to store bulbs. So far so good. Order was maintained. I didn't have a place to chill or store beverages, but in the winter the garage is cool, and I just left them on the garage floor near the shelving.
Spring arrived and once again I had over-committed myself. But now my stress level was higher. I had spring tasks to attend to in the garden. I had commitments to fulfill, and I had a couple of hundred tulip bulbs occupying my garage refrigerator that needed to be planted, that should have been planted the previous fall. The very presence of the tulips created an undue burden. The garage was getting warmer but I couldn't use the refrigerator. The bulbs should have been planted already but there they were, still sitting there. I didn't have enough time, but I carried a heavy burden of expectation, my own expectation mind you, but expectation nonetheless.
Yes, the tulips got planted. Yes they grew and bloomed. But the garage grew worse. The refrigerator was filled with dirt from the bulbs and needed to be washed. Cases of soda and water were still on the floor of the garage and needed to be moved before I could wash the refrigerator. Because there was already stuff piled up on the floor, I let tiredness rule. I would come home, and instead of climbing over the boxes to put something away in the proper place on the shelf, I would simply add it to the pile. It became difficult to reach the shelves, so more things piled up on the floor, or in the closet behind a closed door. Every time I walked through the garage, which was daily, my stress level rose. Every day when I walked through the garage, my despair at the thought of having to clean it all out rose. At this point my anxiety over the garage took on a life of its own. Because my anxiety was great, I would try to shove it into a corner, to ignore it. I would do other things instead, things that made me feel better, even though I knew that I really needed to clean the garage.
We all do this you know, whether it be garages or work or relationships, we all do this. It starts innocently enough with one small accommodation, often because we are tired, or simply distracted. But one thing always leads to another. We let something slide, and then our anxiety over it grows to the point that we can no longer face it. So we avoid it. Sometimes we engage in activity meant to make ourselves feel better, but which actually makes the situation worse. Sometimes our anxiety and our fear, our fear of failure, of having hurt someone, our fear of not being good enough, of not being able to face the consequences, overwhelms us. Sometimes we need help to face the problem and get through it.
I didn't need help to clean the garage. I just needed to start in one corner and do it. I needed the refrigerator. My working refrigerator was filled with beer and soda and water and kimchi. I needed that small refrigerator, but I was pushed over the line when I couldn't find a drill bit. Now I've needed to organize the drill bits, and the tools in general for years. That was George's territory when he could still do it. George's system was to stack everything in piles, or in boxes, on his workbench. Wrenches to the left, hammers on the right. In theory at least. What we had was a three foot high pile of tools and boxes of miscellaneous screws and nails and drill bits. We didn't move the entire pile here, but we still didn't have a system. And then we were no longer a we. I don't have the patience to sort through boxes of things to find just the right single item. But I still left that mess intact because I suppose I wasn't ready to claim the title of "Mistress of the Tools" . Perhaps the entire garage had to go to hell before I could claim ownership of something as simple as a box of screws, or a box of drill bits.