We spend the first half of our lives acquiring things, and the second half getting rid of them.
If your home is overflowing with stuff, you’re not alone. It’s all too easy to accumulate worldly goods. And while many of those things are probably lovely and full of emotional resonance, in the aggregate, they’re cluttering your life physically and energetically. It’s hard to move forward (let alone move) when your home resembles a well-packed self-storage unit.
There are all sorts of strategies to clearing out your possessions, ranging from doing it in one fell swoop to hiring a professional organizer to doing it in increments, like getting a big box and one by one, placing in it items you might be willing to part with. All of these approaches can work — once you’ve flipped the mental switch.
While that sounds simple, anyone who’s struggled with this understands the psychological and emotional challenges of throwing out, giving away or selling beloved possessions. (And simply reminding ourselves that we “can’t take it with us” doesn’t help.) These five stories, culled from Next Avenue’s archives, could help you take your first, or next step.
5 Approaches to Clearing Out the Clutter
1. Identifying too much stuff as a burden is not some modern concept. In the “Economy” chapter of his masterpiece, Walden, Thoreau observed, “I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of.”
And yet while most of us appreciate the need to “deacquire” as we get older, we also agree that it’s easier said than done. As Akiko Busch has observed, “One may be forced to downsize space due to economic dictate in recessionary times or might simply choose to live more simply and sustainably. But even if the mandate to cede one’s belongings is clear, one still needs insight and judgment to do so — and that can pose some complex challenges.”
In her fine essay "The Art of Shedding Possessions," she describes how she went from being overwhelmed at the task of turning her adult son’s former bedroom (still alive with “ghosts” of his youth spent there) into a viable guest room.
2. A great place to start the process is your clothes closet. This offers multiple benefits: You not only get to shed possessions and clear out what might be a big clutter fest, you’ll probably discover things you love that you’d forgotten about. And, best of all, when you follow the five steps and many practical tips in style coach Susan Sommers’ piece "Shop Your Closet," you can create a sharp new look for yourself. See: Less can be more!
3. It’s typically easier to help others in this situation. Emily Berns Heyser found herself thrust into that situation when her mother-in-law needed to downsize into a smaller space that was more appropriate for her declining state of health. But this woman equated the need to get rid of her prized possessions with a decree that her life as she’d always known and lived it was over.
As Berns Heyser writes of her “Mutter” in "Giving Things Away Can Make a Life Transition Easier": “A longtime widow with chronic diabetes, she was irascible and depressed, anxious about the future and doubtful that any change could be for the better. It was as if she saw her life as already over, and all the appurtenances of that life — from the books she had read to the clothes she had worn to the Christmas ornaments she had crafted — finished and done with as well.”
So as a loving (and clever) daughter-in-law, she hatched a neat plan: After packing and moving Mutter’s essential items, she set up a table outside the older woman’s home and created a kind of ongoing free flea market. Naturally the “shoppers” were thrilled, but the biggest surprise of all was Mutter’s positive reaction.
4. A couple of rungs up the ladder is that saddest of all possible endeavors: getting rid of your parents’ possessions after they die. Wendy Schuman had to do just that when her 87-year-old mother died, leaving a rich life and very full apartment behind.
An eager investor — and a snowstorm — were the impetuses that forced Schuman to hole up in her mother’s home and get down to business. Though a trying and emotional experience, it taught her some valuable lessons, which she distilled in "9 Tips for Cleaning Out Your Late Parent's Home."
5. Black Friday 2012 put me in a bit of a black mood. The following week, when all the nation's cash register receipts were added up — I pictured some nearsighted accountant scrunched over his adding machine, which has spit out the world’s longest paper curl — the figure was a jaw-dropping $52.4 billion-with-a-b.
As I observed in "How Much More Stuff Do We Really Need?" that’s virtually equal to diamond-rich South Africa’s gross domestic product. And it’s about 50 percent higher than California’s entire annual school budget for K-12.
(I’m pretty sure no mention of our national debt crisis is needed here.)
So rather than add to all this getting and spending, what if we as individuals chose to buck the trend? Getting rid of stuff is a wonderful thing to do: necessary and admirable. But if we don’t jump off the conspicuous-consumer merry-go-round, our newly stripped-down Zen-like sanctuaries are going to fill right back up, and we’ll be in the same sorry situation in another few years.
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