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“Grieved: For He Had Many Possessions”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 21, 2011

A purely personal essay, without any Mormon history value …

Mark 10 tells of the rich young man who asked the Savior what more he had to do beyond keeping all the commandments that he had been taught from his childhood. When Jesus told him he should sell all his goods and give the price as alms to the poor previous to following the Lord, the young man “was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions.” (Mark 10:22)

I know it’s a misreading of that scripture to twist it this way, but I too have been grieved for my having many possessions – not necessarily because I was unwilling that someone else should have their value, but because they were a burden to me to buy, to store, to care for, and to move.

You see, I’m a collector. Having two or three of something isn’t enough – I want to have the thing in all its colors, sizes, and styles. That is perhaps a good thing, when “collecting” means “transcribing all of the correspondence coming in to Brigham Young from throughout the world”; it’s a bad thing when “collecting” means you have to have all the Star Trek videos, and all the published books, and as many fanzines as you can find, and the jewelry, and rubber Vulcan ears, and models and blueprints and manuals and videogames and costumes and decanters and filk recordings and every other imaginable or unimaginable product.

You can talk yourself into believing that you’re being frugal, being prepared, by collecting and storing stuff you don’t have any use for but which might someday come in handy. That was my excuse for the stocks of fake fur (left over from an orgy of Star Trek tribble making, doncha know) and felt and sequins and beads and buttons and gold foil letters and numbers and other fun stuff. And it’s true that when I taught a Relief Society mini-lesson on time management, I had all the stuff on hand to make two really, really, really cute clock faces to decorate my table – they looked like women’s faces, one calm and serene and the other frazzled and distraught. But even assuming that your opinion of Relief Society table decorations is much higher than it probably is, could that single use possibly justify 25 years of storage and reorganization and state-to-state moving of all that cute, adorable, decorative stuff?

Almost seven years ago I needed to move from Utah County to Salt Lake City to live within walking distance of the Church archives. With the realities of my budget, that meant an apartment, not a house. And that meant I had to reduce my possessions from an overstuffed seven-room house, with outbuilding, and a parked car that had somehow become an auxiliary store room, to what would fit into a three-room apartment, without the slightest speck of outside storage available.

Even if you’re not one of cable TV’s “Hoarders,” even if you’re just living in moderate 21st century American overabundance and want to pare back on your possessions – as Huston is doing in his recent post Operation Declutter which provoked this post – maybe the mental adjustment I stumbled onto will help:

Emotionally, I couldn’t bear to focus on disposing of things. Physical objects held too many memories, were invested with too many emotions (some healthy, many not), and I couldn’t have stood it if the point of what I was doing was to get rid of things and their emotional associations.

Instead, I focused on the new apartment as a new world, a badly needed new life. Instead of seeing what I was leaving behind, I concentrated on walking through those seven rooms and selecting, as if from an endless treasury, only those things I loved the very best and couldn’t live without in my new life. I wasn’t choosing things to discard; I was choosing things to keep. It was as though the house were on fire, yet I had time to walk through and rescue everything that meant the very most to me.

And when the apartment was furnished with the useful and the beautiful, and one closet packed to the gills with the most sentimental but useless things (the Christmas tree ornaments I had grown up with, the one box of childhood possessions that preserve for me the reality of a little girl that nobody else remembers, my mother’s manual typewriter), I stopped. Everything else – no matter what I had invested in its purchase, or how complete the collection, or how frugal it might have seemed to keep it just in case, went. It had to. And because it had to, I didn’t waste any tears over it.

Not that it didn’t hurt. If I disposed of those thousands of books, would anybody visiting my new home know that I was smart? (Ha! Admit it! You keep many books that you will never read again, simply for the impression it might give to visitors!) Disposing of the children’s library I had assembled over many years was an especially painful day, an admission that there never would be children in my home. The Star Trek stuff (most of it; I allowed myself a small box of mementos) was surprisingly easy to wave goodbye to, once the decision had been made. Ditto the vinyl records, no matter their monetary value and sentimental associations.

And in the nearly seven years since then, I have wished I had kept a volume of M.C. Escher artwork. I’ve also realized that in working as quickly as I did to dispose of possessions, I inadvertently lost the Bee Keeper’s necklace (a badge of office in the Beehive Girl program) my maternal grandmother had worn in the 1930s; a small apron made by hand for me by my paternal grandmother who died when I was 2; and the badge I had worn on my uniform as a member of the fire department, and which the fire marshal had gone to great lengths to preserve for me when I should have turned it back to the county upon leaving that job.

But that’s it. One book I wished I had kept, and three sentimental objects that I regret losing. Otherwise, I’ve lived happily – and with relief – free of all that other stuff I had packed and hauled around with me, that cluttered my life and filled my rooms and cost me money I now wish I had in the bank.

That’s the mental trick I offer to other would-be declutterers: Don’t concentrate on what you’re getting rid of. Concentrate on what you’re choosing to keep, and why.



13 Comments »

  1. This post and the two websites will be the basis of our next FHE. We struggle with this as a family.

    One thing I have started doing is taking pictures of those sentimental things before I toss them out. Takes up only a few K on the computer, and if I am ever feeling really sentimental, I can look back.

    Thanks for getting my wheels spinning, Ardis!

    Comment by middle-aged Mormon Man — July 21, 2011 @ 11:41 am

  2. De-cluttering can also help you get out of debt, even if it’s just a little bit. :)

    Comment by Frank Pellett — July 21, 2011 @ 12:03 pm

  3. It does take a major effort to deal with possessions, particularly when you add paper to the equation. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject and your experiences, Ardis.

    Comment by Researcher — July 21, 2011 @ 12:30 pm

  4. We suffer not only from our own tendencies to keep too much stuff, but also our kids who have moved out, and don’t have as much space as we do. I currently have in my garage, a large (5 foot tall) cardboard theater diorama from the original release of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, along with a Star Wars banner some three feet by six feet, printed on heavy duty vinyl, also rescued from some theater. Plus our son-in-law, who is a diesel mechanic for a school district, recently moved the tool box he used in mechanics school to our garage. It’s big and yellow. And I also have books to impress people, but they are not doing much of that sitting in boxes in the garage. Need ice skates? Haven’t touched them in over 20 years, and never will again. It goes on, and on. I need to rent one of those big dumpsters with sides to high to see over, park it in my driveway, and just start filling it up.

    Life is full of too much stuff. Nice to have you share your thoughts on this, and also to know that you had rubber Vulcan ears. You should have kept them to wear to the CHL on Halloween.

    Comment by kevinf — July 21, 2011 @ 12:55 pm

  5. It was as though the house were on fire, yet I had time to walk through and rescue everything that meant the very most to me.

    That is exactly what cured me of any tendency to hoard — a house fire. After calling 911, I could tell I had time to collect what I wanted, and realized this was the perfect time to rescue those five things you write down in Sunday School that you would take with you to a deserted island. Except I couldn’t remember a single thing from the list. I walked out with a pair of shorts that contained my wallet and keys and left behind everything else, including my impulse to collect stuff.

    Comment by Sideshow — July 21, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

  6. Over 10 years ago, I moved from a 2800 sq ft house in the intermountain US to an island across the sea. Due to financial constraints, I was able to bring only what would fit into 2 suitcases. I was about 3 years post-divorce, and not really aware of just how ready I was to get rid of all of that STUFF. I had yard sales, gave things away, threw things away, donated even more to DI, then threw away even more. When I was ready to move, I rented a small storage locker for the things I just couldn’t part with. On a visit 4 years later, I was looking through the storage unit wondering why I paid $30 a month to store all of that…

    Since then, I’ve tried to remember how liberating it was to get out from under all that stuff. To start over, fresh and clean. And how easy it was to keep my new island home clean without having to deal with so much junk.

    Don’t ever love anything that won’t love you back.

    P.S. I do NOT keep books to show how smart I am. I have hundreds of books, but they’re not pretentious ones. Just my good friends. No one would be impressed with my collection at all…

    Comment by Fiona — July 21, 2011 @ 8:19 pm

  7. Thanks for the hat tip, Ardis, but that post was written by my friend who publishes as magicmilox, not me. Just giving credit where it’s due.

    Comment by Huston — July 21, 2011 @ 9:55 pm

  8. Truely fascinating, even without any Mormon history connection. As a friend I appreciate your willingness to share your personal insight with all of us.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — July 22, 2011 @ 8:00 am

  9. My wife says she is going to bury me with my boxes of books!

    I totally love this non-historical post. I really need to start de-cluttering my life of “treasured mementos”. But then, why do I have this impulse to run out and buy the newest Joseph Smith Papers book?

    Comment by Cliff — July 22, 2011 @ 10:30 am

  10. I’ve found one solution to the problem of so many books, which is an ereader. My wife and I bought Nook Color ereaders last fall, and I currently have about 40 books, plus my scriptures, and a host of pdf and word documents all at hand with a 7″ screen and weighing just less than a pound. The potential is with an added SD card I could conceivably carry around 5000 books in one hand. The problem is that I have to buy all of the books that I already own again to get them on the Nook, and there are some titles just not yet available in an ereader format. So I am acquiring fewer “non-streaming media artifacts”, ie physical books, but not really reducing the shelves, piles, and boxes already there. Kind of like dealing with the national debt. It just keeps on growing.

    Comment by kevinf — July 22, 2011 @ 11:25 am

  11. It might be hard to believe that just the phrase “filk recordings” could be so moving, but believe me by the end of the essay I had tears in my eyes.

    My grandparents and parents had the luxury of houses, they got to keep precious mementos and preserve the special importance of such things. I’ve had to live in a series of increasingly smaller apartments, each move has meant extreme culling. I’ve lost many treasures over the years because I didn’t have the resources to store things long enough to know their value to me.

    Anyway, if I had a time machine at my disposal today, Ardis, I would take you back to my 6th grade birthday slumber party. As a special treat, my Dad brought home that week’s Star Trek episode BEFORE IT HAD BEEN BROADCAST and projected it on our old home movie screen. It was “Assignment Earth” with Gary Seven and Terri Garr as his mod clad secretary. It was the best party ever.

    Comment by Mina — July 22, 2011 @ 1:57 pm

  12. ***sigh***

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 22, 2011 @ 2:06 pm

  13. It is no vice to amass Star Trek collectables!

    When I was growing up, for Christmas one year my parents gave me a Star Trek play set with 8″ action figures of Kirk, Spok and a Kingon. It was one of my favorite toys for a long time. Recently, someone has purchased the rights to the play set and action figures. You guessed it, I bought a set for my own children (who love it as well). Moral of the story–it’s good to declutter, but it’s also nice to share some of your childhood with others–some of what made you who you are.

    Okay, that was a stretch–I just wanted to tell everyone about the Star Trek set. :-)

    (Mina: I liked that episode. We watched it with the kids a few weeks ago.)

    Comment by Steve C. — July 24, 2011 @ 7:25 pm

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