Collecting without a purpose is just grasping: collecting and holding on…
#753 (recycled): picture by my son Chris: yes, I got rid of this one, but there are hundreds more where that one came from…
The urge to grasp — to collect and hold on to things for a variety of reasons, or for no particular reason at all — is strong, and The 1000 Things Project did not remove that urge from me. Even now, for instance, I still feel a twinge of guilt about getting rid of a possible Family Heirloom, like the suitcase (#674). Some weeks after I had donated it, I looked at the picture of the suitcase and noticed the initials on it: A.G.S. A sudden stab of regret hit me: oh no, maybe I should have kept it as a piece of family history. What would my family say? Um, wait a second. Who in my family had the initials A.G.S.? My grandmother was Sarah Amanda Sener, but her maiden name was Gingrich, so maybe it was her suitcase under the name Amanda Gingrich Sener? My younger sister confirmed that this was the case, and also that she had no worries about my donating the suitcase to charity. Still, this incident got me to thinking: even if one of us could remember the family history behind an object, what was the point of keeping that object if the family history was relatively trivial and if it had no inherent value to any of us otherwise? I certainly wasn’t going to use that suitcase as a suitcase ever again. More importantly, what was the point in feeling a twinge of guilt about getting rid of a “family heirloom” if the connection to that object was weak or had been lost? How was this thing any different from any other object which was lost, long forgotten, or never even known about?
This helped me realize that my connection to my things often loses its power if the personal connection is lost. My parents had so many things in their attic that simply mystified us: where did all the hatboxes come from? Where did those 18th century 10” tall German bibles come from? What were the stories behind these things? Although these objects were fascinating in their own right, it would have been far more rewarding to know the stories behind them. Grasping too many things — collecting them and holding on — can make it easier to forget their stories or to fail to pass their stories on to others. We might forget where we got them in the first place, or forget that we even have them. As a result, soon we become incapable of deriving pleasure or energy from them through memories, happiness, or quiet confidence in their future value or use, and they begin to weigh us down.
I looked at my own collections of things for which I had forgotten the stories, for instance mementos from former students who gave me things as tokens of gratitude, and I felt bad that I couldn’t remember the story or sometimes even the person. But I usually held on to them anyway, in case I remember sometime in the future. The urge to grasp is strong, after all.
Every once in a while, though, I’d find myself reacting to this mindless tendency to hold onto something for the sake of holding on; instead, I would simply just let go.
Purging can refer to a healthy process. It’s the urge that drives countless numbers of spring cleanings. It’s the satisfaction of relieving ourselves of a heavy burden, the relief and calm that can come from liberating a physical or psychological space: a cleaned-out closet, a now-empty corner of a basement, a reduction of the vampire load of things that one no longer has to think about or even remember. Purging can generate gratitude from donating useful things, from ceasing to deprive others of their use. In my experience, unfortunately, purging too often meant “enough already!” It became an outburst of simply getting rid of stuff thoughtlessly when I was overwhelmed, stressed out, or had reached my limits of patience.
The process of clearing our parents’ house certainly stretched us beyond our limits of patience. At some point, the experience of dealing with so much stuff was so overwhelming that we went into full purging mode, loathe to keep anything except for a few things we considered most valuable or precious. Even then, there were moments of hesitation during the process of sorting through this mound or that, in which one of us would identify a random thing — a watch, a vacuum cleaner attachment — and would say out loud, ‘this could be useful; maybe we should keep this’ — and then everyone else would look at that person and start laughing until he or she came to his or her senses, remembered the reality of the situation, and tossed the thing into the dumpster. In the course of clearing out their house, we filled three-and-a-half freight container-sized dumpsters with trash, in addition to all the things we were able to recycle, sell, or give away. There were many things that we might have decided to keep under different circumstances but couldn’t or wouldn’t under these circumstances. It was a purging experience, and not in a way that my parents intended or that we might have liked.
Although they were not nearly as numerous or intense, I had similar moments with my own stuff during the 1000 things project. Sometimes it was the result of cleaning out a nest with too many small things, for instance a collection of miscellaneous office junk (#715-26; trashed) culled from a few drawers, or “assorted small items from bag” (#728-747; trashed). After a while, sorting through so many little things began to test my patience. Other times it was an individual thing such as an old basketball (#587; trashed), an old roll of film that I realized I would never develop (#859; trashed), or a tape measure (#941; trashed) which I got as swag from a conference but which didn’t work well. In these latter cases, the process of trying fruitlessly to figure out a better fate for each thing was what drove my patience beyond its limits. The volume of choices overwhelmed me, decision fatigue set in, and finally I just said “the hell with it” and either tossed them in the trash — or more often, decided to defer the decision, which is to say I reverted to grasping — holding on to the thing even if I really couldn’t tell you why. One of my fears is that such grasping leads to even scarier forms of collecting without a purpose…