March 26, 2011

On Tidiness

If you own more than three things, the things own you
                                                 -African proverb - or Lao Tse (experts disagree)

Hmm. I have been gone for a while from my communication command headquarter. I have been owned - or held captive - by my room. I was on a cleaning mission. When I was little I used to have a poster on my wall with the faces of two perky-looking bright pink yet profoundly muddy pigs in a pigsty (something similar to the picture below). The poster text was: It's my mess and I love it!

Pinky and Perky ( Emjulien Flickr)
Actually, I never felt my room to be messy. The poster was given to me by my parents. I was perfectly happy in what they thought to be a chaotic room. I used to feel that having it "tidy" everywhere was a sort of tyranny. If you have to keep every thing "tidy" all the time, you will definitely suffer, I felt. Luckily my parents respected my room as a disaster zone and let me do whatever I pleased there. I was never nagged, but there were times when my dad opened the door and just shook his head in disbelief. When that happened, I felt bad, but quickly recovered - after all he didn't have to enter my room.

Of course, the practical problem of "tidy" vs "messy" mostly begins when you share living space with other people and spread your things around. When wallets and cameras and passports start to play hide-and-seek it becomes a problem of a whole household, as others are bound to be dragged into the search party.

I am sure issues of tidiness are similar in most households. For instance, as I was growing up my mom was the primary keeper of tidiness. My dad would always be singing: "Penny, have you seen my X?" Then a rather predictable pattern of communication would enfold. My mom would sing back: "Have you looked in Y?" He would then proceed to open Y, cast a quick glance and sing: "It is not there!" My mom would sigh and let go of what she was doing and join him at Y and with great precision extract X. "How did you find that?" my dad would look sheepish and amazed at the same time, then murmur: "Anyway, it is not where it belongs. You always put things where I can't find them," and leap away before my mom could scrape him with her tigress claws.

I was very happy when I came across Gregory Bateson (1904-1980), a social scientist and cyberneticist, who wrote a metalogue (a conversation about a problematic subject) he had with his daughter on tidiness. I would like to share some excerpts of it here.

Metalogue: Why Do Things Get in a Muddle?

Daughter: Daddy, why do things get in a muddle?
Father: What do you mean? Things? Muddle?

D:   Well, people spend a lot of time tidying things, but they never seem to spend time muddling them. Things   just seem to get in a muddle by themselves. And then people have to tidy them up again.

F:  But do your things get in a muddle if you don't touch them?

D:  No - not if nobody touches them. But if you touch them - or if anybody touches them - they get in a muddle and it's a worse muddle if it isn't me.

F:  Yes - that's why I try to keep you from touching the things on my desk. Because my things get in a worse muddle if they are touched by somebody who isn't me.

D:  But do people always muddle other people's things? (...)

F:  (...) First of all, what do you mean by a muddle?

D:  I mean- so I can't find things, and so it looks all muddled up. The way it is when nothing is straight - 

F:  (...) do you think you mean the same things by "tidy" that other people would? If your mummy makes your things tidy, do you know where to find them?

D:  Hmm...sometiems - because, you see, I know where she puts things when she tidies up -

F:  Yes, I try to keep her away from tidying my desk, too. I'm sure she and I don't mean the same thing by "tidy."

D:  Daddy, do you and I mean the same thing by "tidy?"

F:  I doubt it, my dear - I doubt it.

D: (...) if I have a special meaning for "tidy" then some of other people's "tidies" will look like muddles to me (...)

F:  That's right. Now - let's look at what you call tidy. When your paint box is put in a tidy place, where is it?

D:  Here on the end of this shelf. 

F:  Okay - now if it were anywhere else?

D:  No, that would not be tidy.

F:  What about the other end of the shelf, here? Like this?

D:  No, that's not where it belongs, and anyhow it would have to be straight, not all crooked the way you put it.

F:  Oh - in the right place and straight.

D:  Yes.

F:  Well, that means that there are only very few places which are "tidy" for your paint box - 

D: (...) very, very few places.

F:  All right, very, very few places. Now what about the teddy bear and your doll, and the Wizard of Oz and your sweater, and your shoes? It's the same for all the things, isn't it, that each thing has only a very, very few places which are "tidy" for that thing?

D:  Yes, Daddy- but the Wizard of Oz could be anywhere on that shelf. And Daddy - do you know what? I hate, hate it when my books get all mixed up with your books and Mummy's books.

F:  Yes, I know.

D:  Daddy, you didn't finish. Why do my things get the way I say isn't tidy?

F:  But I have finished - it's just because there are more ways which you call "untidy" then there are ways which you call "tidy."

D:  Oh, Daddy! Stop it!

F: No, I'm not fooling. That is the reason, and all of science is hooked up with that reason.

                                                          From Steps to an Ecology of Mind by Gregory Bateson

I think three things would be really easy to keep track of. I need another week to think about which three things I am going to keep. So, I am sorry, but I now have to leave you and get back to my room in order to make some hard choices. Don't worry - I will be back, so please don't get rid of your computer before I have come up with my next post!


  1. Ingela hats off and the timing of this article cannot be more apt than now in my life. This question of what is tidy and untidy and what belongs where is a perennial argument with S :-). I will recommend this on my blog

  2. This is a very enjoyable post,I agree with you totally..let my muddle be my muddle, why does anyone tell me this? Trust me but I cant stand the untidiness of my son, thank God he is old enough to do whatever he likes to do..

  3. Thank you, Paneer! I am so happy to get some comments on my blog - I have not shared this link with many people, so when people I don't know comment, it makes my day :-)