Throwing Your Life Away

What to do when getting rid of your things feels like throwing a part of your life away…

ult frisbee cleats bottom
(#2311: soccer/ultimate cleats; trashed — also see narrative details below)

Do you hold on to some of your things because you’re afraid of throwing a part of your life away?

During a recent meeting of one of my writers’ groups, someone said that she felt as if she was throwing a part of her life away when she was getting rid of some of her items. Though this was not the first time I’d heard this sentiment, it struck a chord with me this time. In fact, to me it’s another one of our more common inner voices — You can’t get rid of that; it’d be throwing a part of your life away!

I’ve been hearing this inner voice a lot lately since I’ve been working so much on getting rid of mementos. Of course there are some things that we want to keep for sentimental reasons. Or maybe we think we’ll find a use for it someday, or gain an important insight or memory or moment of happiness or joy.

At the same time, when my fellow writer said this, I heard an inner voice with a different view: you may think you are throwing a part of your life away, but you aren’t really.  There are, in fact, multiple meanings to “throwing (a part of) your life away” besides the fear of losing something valuable or important to one’s life.

In my experience, a more common and insidious version of throwing your life away is to hold onto things in a way that prevents one from realizing their value, whether it’s having too many things or they’re forgotten or never used. Instead of holding our lives, our things end up blocking our lives; they get in the way instead of becoming part of the flow.

Another, more obvious meaning is that “throwing your life away” can be something you actually want to do.  Several books I’ve read on decluttering emphasize the value of doing this to make space (physical, mental, and emotional) for new and wonderful things in your life, or as a way of getting unstuck from old patterns and forming new ones.

These alternate meanings suggest to me three useful and related strategies for dealing with this issue. One is to consciously let go of some things and to separate the wheat from the chaff. I’ve also found this to be particularly useful for more difficult mementos which reflect parts of my life which were once very important to me such as teaching ESL, aikido, college papers, or journal notes. Sometimes this is relatively easy, for instance the soccer cleats I wore to play ultimate frisbee (#2311 above) back in the day. The cleats were at least 35 years old, and the dirt has been on them for close to a decade at least; a cleat is missing, and they even have a tear on the side. I’ve only worn them once in the past 20 years, and I don’t plan to wear them again. So this pair of cleats was relatively easy to throw out.  Even for more difficult mementos, a strategy of culling artifacts has helped me get rid of most of them, while keeping some as reminders and others for which I’m not quite yet ready to let go.

Another strategy is to separate the thing from its meaning and value. Can you capture the meaning and value of an object by taking and saving a picture of it? Making a short video? Telling and capturing a short (or long) story about it? In other words, can you retain or preserve its meaning and value without actually having physical possession of it?

Even though I’ve done this a number of times now, it doesn’t cease to amaze me how little I miss most things once they’re gone. I rarely even look at the pictures or videos or stories, although perhaps some day I will.

Sometimes, I found that it’s enough to revisit the object one more time, remember it, and then let it go for good without creating any new artifact of remembrance. Going through mementos for a sustained period also satiates me; the process reminds me that I’ve been fortunate to have a rich life with lots of wonderful experiences. The resulting feeling of abundance makes me more willing to give more of my stuff away. It also helps me remember that I’m better off having fewer things and being able to enjoy them, rather than keeping so many things that their value and meaning get lost in the shuffle.

Curating is a third strategy. If there are many of the same item or set of items, can you cull or select a few that will represent the many?  Of course, some things are complete sets for which it doesn’t make sense to separate. But many items can be separated; currently, I’m doing this with my son’s artwork. In this case, I’m keeping most of it for him to look at because it is his stuff, but I’ve also culled out some pieces for which there are many other similar examples, which have been damaged beyond repair, or which I’m willing to guess that neither of us really needs to keep in physical form (for example, see #2486 below)— especially given that I’m still keeping hundreds of other pieces.

CHS star photo 3rd grade
(#2486: school art from 3rd grade; recycled)

Still, I’ve had many conversations with people who are so attached to their stuff that they can’t bear to part with any of it, even as they recognize that it’s getting in their way. I’m not sure my suggestions are very helpful for that level of attachment.  But, as a quote I read the other day so wisely puts it, “We change our behavior when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing.”  More on that in my next post…

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