Listen hard enough, and you can probably hear it: vacuums whooshing, glass squeaking, brooms sweeping, mops splashing.
Spring has sprung, so spring cleaning has begun.
Every year, like clockwork, temperatures rise, flowers bloom, and Americans across the country commence the seasonal ritual of organizing, discarding, and deep cleaning.
It’s an unspoken, unofficial tradition – there is no date on the calendar that marks the occasion, no formal cue to begin, no custom or ceremony to follow, it’s just something we do. It’s in our blood – an urge, an impulse, an itch.
Everyone seems to feel it at some point, yet it’s a uniquely individual ritual – we each do it in our own way, on our own time, when we’re ready, and with what we need.
But why do we do this? Where does this itch come from? And why does it come now, of all times?
In many ways, spring cleaning makes no sense. Just before we’re all about to spend more time outside, we spend all this time and energy cleaning up inside. Fall seems a much more logical time for spring cleaning, when we’re about to be cooped up indoors, face-to-face with all the messes in our space. So why do we shake down our houses before the season in which we spend the least time immersed in them?
Maybe “autumn organizing” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Or maybe spring cleaning is, at root, about much more than just cleaning.
Perhaps witnessing the rebirth and new life in the natural world outdoors spurs within us the desire to experience the same in our own lives. Maybe, subconsciously, we feel the link between what’s occurring outside and what’s going on inside, reminding us of the connection between our external and internal space. Maybe spring cleaning has far less to do with the physical act than the emotional and psychological process and reward.
We all, at some time or another, have experienced the way our space and our stuff affects our mental state. We see the pile of rumpled clothes, we feel the negative response, we start the self-critical dialogue: “I don’t have enough time.” “I can’t even get my laundry under control.” “My life is too hectic.” “I’m such a mess I can’t even fold my clothes.”
That pile becomes symbolic of our lives, of our selves. Our homes and rooms become externalizations of our minds and souls.
Of course, it works the other way, too. We set out to conquer that cabinet or closet to feel the sense of accomplishment, to know that we are capable, to feel in control and empowered.
As professor and psychologist Jordan Peterson put it, “There’s no difference between the chaos that’s outside of you in a place that you spend as much time as you spend in your room and the chaos that’s internal, psychologically.”
It’s not about the stuff, but how that stuff can make us feel.
Cleaning, like spring sunshine, can be a catalyst for growth: “Out with the old, in with the new” can apply both to our homes and our souls.
Benjamin Franklin considered cleanliness a virtue unto itself. In fact, he believed it was necessary to master on the path to higher moral development. For him, “Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation” belonged on the same list of personal admonishments as “Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”
That makes sense – cleaning is hard. It’s work. And it’s a holistic experience, demanding energy of every kind. Scrubbing floors can be physically exhausting. Efficiently organizing can be mentally challenging. Purging stuff can be emotionally draining.
And doing these things necessitates exercising other virtues. Spring cleaning requires Industry and Resolution, as well as a healthy understanding of Moderation. It also leads to virtues like Order and Tranquility, and study after study shows that cleaning can make us happier and healthier. Tending to our homes and inventorying our belongings can generate gratitude for what we have, remind us of those with less, prompt empathy for others, and humble us profoundly all at once.
Our environments can transform us. We all, on some level, know this. And we all, to some degree, desire this. We want well-ordered homes and we want well-ordered souls and we want to experience the transformation. It’s no wonder that witnessing it outside can create a yearning to feel it inside.
What is a wonder is that something as simple as cleaning can be one of the most powerful – and virtuous – things we do.
So, go ahead – go outside. See the buds on the trees. See the new life, the rebirth, the growth, the transformation. And then go inside, bust out the broom, and prepare to feel it all yourself.