From Sorting the Pieces of Your Life: A Woman’s Guide to Simplicity, Order, Renewal, and Trust
“For more than 40,000 years, intellectually modern humans have peopled the planet, but never before has any society accumulated so many personal possessions.” Life at Home in the 21st Century, Elinor Ochs, Jeanne Arnold, Anthony P. Graesch
What do our possessions cost us? Not just the actual monetary price we pay, but what price do they exact in procuring, maintaining, and storing? How do possessions make our lives more complicated?
UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families conducted a nine-year study of contemporary suburban America with 32 Los Angeles families who opened their doors to CELF’s researchers. They discovered a staggering number of possessions –furniture, televisions, DVDs and digital devices of all kinds, clothes, souvenirs, trinkets, toys, flags, family photos, games, sports equipment, collections, food, and more.
The researchers found that cars had been banished from 75% of garages to make way for rejected furniture and cascading bins and boxes of mostly forgotten household goods. “It told us a lot about who we are as a society,” they wrote. The study revealed on over focus on possessions at the expense of quality of life.
Today we take an important step into simplicity and order, a step toward reclaiming our real lives – the experience of living versus possessing. It has been said that ‘thing order’ precedes ‘thought order.’ It’s hard to think clearly when surrounded by clutter and chaos, let alone function well. But a fundamental factor in sorting and eliminating our possessions is the emotion that ‘letting go’ evokes, something that is often not talked about.
Eliminating clutter and maintaining the simplicity and order that brings requires an ongoing awareness of and attention to our emotional life. What do our possessions represent to us? What is the emotional glue that causes us to cling? What emotions fuel our acquiring of more stuff?
Each of us has our own inner landscape of emotional holes created by precious childhood longings that were not met: to be seen, valued, acknowledged for who we are. Maybe our most basic needs were neglected. And there were losses we suffered both profound and simple. Many people suffered poverty growing up and some were burdened with the excess of possessions that made up for love.
We feel the gravity of these losses as we are pulled toward possessing more and more. And it is tempting to use shopping and purchasing as an antidote to the stress in our current lives. Ironically, the UCLA study found that our need to reward ourselves materially actually increases our stress. We are weighed down by the clutter in our lives.
I’ll never forget how I felt when I walked into the small and simple town home we moved into after we lost our 3,000 sq. ft. home. Tears filled my eyes – not from sadness, from relief. “My life is going to be so much simpler,” I whispered.
To claim that simplicity required releasing rooms full of possessions acquired over many years.
So where do we begin?
We begin by being. The first step is to be still so we can experience our own emotion. By quietly sitting with ourselves we feel our resistance with its rigid muscle intensity; our fear with its heart- stuttering urgency; our anxiety with its hummingbird buzz; our lump-in-the throat sorrow; or our relief with its slack-jaw-surrender.
By just noticing the inner experience of our emotion we come to our own assistance to heal. This enables us to stop repressing or discharging emotion through unhealthy behaviors. Our emotional presence replaces stuffing our pockets of pain with possessions. This is the foundation of emotional regulation and self-soothing.
It also helps to imagine ourselves letting go of those things we know have become a burden instead of a blessing. In so doing we are practicing going to our own emotional edge and being able to cross it. As we cross those edges, we become free—one of the most important gifts of sorting the pieces of our lives.
Maintenance is another cure for our overstuffed lives. Regular cleaning out can seem overwhelming, but there are ways to simplify the practice. Make it a regular part of life. Keep empty boxes or bags for charitable donation handy. When doing the laundry, immediately discard clothes that no longer fit or are rarely worn. Same with doing the dishes—those extra five knives or pans, do we really need them? Just picking up the house is an opportunity to pare down.
If you want to start a major clean-out, start with a macroscopic approach and apply the refining microscopic reordering later. Is your bedroom dresser buried beneath a mountain of clothes? Get a really large container and drop them all in. Voila! You have just simplified and ordered one surface. It feels great! But I know you’re worried about the clothes in that container that needed to be fixed, or laundered, or just hung up. So set the full container somewhere in your room and attack the contained mess, one item at a time over the next day or week. As you sort, part with anything that doesn’t bring you a surge of joy or comfort to put on your body. It is so much easier to maintain five outfits you just love than a closet full of clothes that don’t fit, or that you only minimally like.
Apply this same macro/micro process to other areas of the house. If we start with the micro, progress is too slow and we often stop.
If you are going to launch a full-fledged cleanout, arrange boxes or bags into four categories and sort appropriately: Throw away, give away, stowaway, and put away. (I learned this simple system years ago from The Art of Homemaking by Daryl Hoole.)
This process is not only about physical objects, but also about emotional release and inner spaciousness and freedom. It is a pragmatic and meditative way to do our inner work—as without, so within. Let us illuminate our dark and hidden corridors. Let us release stagnant and antiquated beliefs and behaviors.
A while back, I sat with a person who was dying. Brilliant rays of sunlight filled the room and a gentle breeze blew through the window casting a subtle other-worldly spell. We spoke quietly about releasing the care and concerns of this life and explored the anticipation of eternity.
The person was not afraid and knew death would offer relief from suffering. But they were very concerned for the loved ones left behind. We discussed writing letters for after, words that could be spoken now, and simple activities and loving embraces for the time left.
Not a word was spoken, a care given, about possessions.