Friday, May 23, 2014

Home, control, judgement: be a friend

Can you tell the state of mind you, your friends, and your family are in by the way they keep their desk? How about their kitchen and bathroom? We all have eye-rolling stories about the state of someone else's uncontrolled living quarters; we may affectionately
think of it as a pigsty, and grin. Or you may have a friend or loved one whose house feels so cluttered or dirty to you that the thought of eating anything that came from their kitchen, or even of visiting, brings you anxiety. But is it wrong for them to live that way? Can you keep yourself from judging, from giving your unsolicited opinion?

Folks who are extremely fussy and meticulously neat are also the subject of our speculations. If a home feels too sterile and impersonal, too clean, too tightly controlled, guests can feel uncomfortable sitting on the furniture or using a glass. Maybe we make snarky comments about how anal and perfectionist they are. Maybe we just assume they are dull. Houses that seem like hotels feel unloved, and we assume the owners are unloving. It is difficult to relax when your host is picking invisible hairs from the sofa next to you, or pulling out a vacuum to pick up the crumbs in the kitchen before you've started eating your lunch. But perhaps they feel right to the person living there. Can we let our expectations go? Can we visit and relax?

We wonder: how can they live like that?

We all have days when we feel more or less in control of our environments, and want to look around at other people's lives to see how we measure up. Maybe we'll take a Facebook test or pass along a meme that "proves" messy desks are a sign of creativity or that neatness is a source of calm and contentment. Maybe we'll open a fancy decorating magazine, or if we want to feel pious, watch that TV show Hoarders and be glad we aren't those wretched people. (As an aside I absolutely loathe that show.) But it's harder to judge another person's mental state through their home than you might assume: some people have chaotic, kind of scary messes everywhere and are simply too happy and busy with other more exciting projects to be bothered, or who cycle through their homes with a joyous ebb and flow of cleanliness oblivious to other people's standards. Some people with gorgeous spare, perfect looking homes have confessed to me that they obsessively pare down their lives for fear of becoming chaotic and were uncomfortably fidgety, living disconnected from their own homes, afraid of their own natures. We don't ever really know what's going on in someone else's mind when they are home (or anywhere else, for that matter). It's natural to wonder if our homes reflect more than we think they do of our internal lives, to try and ascribe different values to different styles and states; but it's wrong to assume we can read the homes of others any more than we can read their minds. 
If we are envious, or disappointed and disturbed in the homes of our friends, isn't that more of a reflection of the state of our relationship to them rather than of them to their home life? Perhaps it's time to assess what those relationships truly are. It's quite a different thing from friendship to negatively judge and attempt to assert control over a long standing home control standard that doesn't align with your own, whether that be by opining to them or to others that it's not good enough as it is. One is about love, the other is pecking order, devaluing someone else to raise your own value. Are they actually your friend, or are they a comfortable means to patting yourself on the back because you feel superior? Is your sense of self-esteem bolstered by surrounding yourself with people who seem less in control than you are? Can you imagine someone saying to a stranger "yes, my friend is talented and lovely, but you should see the state of her house?" I've heard that. You can say "My friend's house is too messy for me to feel comfortable in, so I'll just invite them to mine and enjoy them here," with joy and anticipation...or with scorn and resentment. Whose house would you like to be invited to, the resentful person or the joyful one? Mmmhmm.
If your friend has a cleanliness standard that's plunged dramatically because they are living in exciting and wonderful times, put down the damn vacuum and go do something with them, woohoo! There will be time to clean - maybe you'll make time together. If it's because of hard and sad times, lovingly allow your friend to tell you how to help after you've offered - but leave them in control. If they don't want your help, let it go. If you weren't spouting off your opinion about how they should be before, you'll be welcome when the moment comes that they aren't happy with where they are and want to change. Messy is not always "stuck." Clean is not always a measure of control. It's how well we live and love together that matters, not about measuring whose house is cleanest and neatest.

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