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.