An American public health nurse hired by a university in northern Iraq works to develop the nursing program for Kurdish students. She tried to raise $15,000 to build student capacity, continue education for faculty, and fund the purchase of equipment. Tried and struggled and is failing, because let’s be frank, who cares about the health of the Kurds? Does caring for their health and their education spark joy for most Americans? Apparently not.

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Marie Kondo tells Americans in her book and now her popular Netflix show to toss out everything that does not bring them joy. Touch the object. Feel no joy? Out it goes. And so, mountains of excessive items that fail the joy test pour out of American homes. What does tend to give Americans joy is to donate their used items.

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The public university in Northern Iraq where the American nurse works receives an anonymous shipment of 18,000 books, many of them nursing books. Every nursing book was published in the 1980s, except the one published in 1965. Thousands of outdated, potentially harmful nursing books bring no one joy and they bring no one health.

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I imagine the American who decluttered their home of all these books leaves the post office full of joy at having done a good deed. They are so joyful, they may head straight to the store to buy more junk.

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I work at a school and launched a girls running club in the Horn of Africa and we have also received donations of items that brought no one joy in the United States. Sports bras with two different sized cups. Underwear with one leg hole massively stretched out. Shoes with no laces. Shoes with holes through the bottom. Used coloring books. Popped balloons. Burned down candles. Children’s books with pages torn out.

While it might spark joy for the person donating the used underwear or popped balloons, it does not spark joy for me to receive them. Or to spend time going through boxes of worthless donations. Or to spend even more time carting the junk to the already over-flowing city garbage dump.

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The American nurse now has to spend the week figuring out how to explain why Americans sent piles of worthless books, and decide what to do with them. She has less time for her students or her classes. She, her students, and other faculty feel insulted and ashamed. And she still struggles to raise the money needed to run the program at top capacity. The cost of shipping the container would have made a significant dent in that need.

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What if instead of Marie-Kondo-ing all the excess junk, Americans didn’t buy it to begin with? What if a movement to declutter morphed into a movement to never clutter? All that excess money saved could be spent to save lives in northern Iraq. Not lives saved by military conquest or complicated and short-term political solutions. Not lives saved, in theory, by donations of used clothing. But lives saved by fellow Kurds who have learned the skills to be effective health care providers and who can now serve for an entire lifetime among their people?

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Why do people end up with hundreds of shoes they have never worn, never even taken out of the box? Those shoes alone (and I’m referencing one of the episodes) could more than pay for this nursing need in Iraq. Why do people have so many holiday decorations they can’t even celebrate the holiday? What hole in the heart are we trying to fill and when will we learn that stuff will not fill it?

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I’m not saying never donate or don’t send things. I pass on my shoes and shirts and pots and pans that I don’t use anymore. We donate, we ship. We have way too much stuff. I’m not immune to this and am speaking to myself as much as to anyone else.

I’m just suggesting we behave thoughtfully, respectfully, and wisely.

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Two things to end with and you might call me crabby or mean and that’s fine. I get that my opinions from this side of the ocean are not popular with people on the other side.

Don’t let your spark of joy be an excuse to cause someone else a groan of frustration.

Consider never cluttering to begin with and think of generous ways to use what could have been spent on that clutter. That could spark a lot of joy.

 

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