We aren’t born clutching material possessions in our hands and can’t take anything with us when we die. So why can we become so attached to objects while we’re here?
There’s a poignant moment in John Steinbeck’s classic, The Grapes of Wrath, when the family are packing to leave Oklahoma and must quickly decide which few possessions they can take and which they must leave behind. With eleven adults and two children about to board a dilapidated old truck with no idea if it will make the journey to California or what future awaits them if it does, there’s no room to salvage anything but essentials.
‘How can we live without our lives?’ ponders the mother, as she sorts through the family’s meagre personal belongings. ‘How will we know it’s us without our past?’
This is radical decluttering on a scale that most people never have to experience. But the thoughts she voices are similar to those I’ve often heard people express in modern times while clearing their personal clutter, as they confront their internal tug-of-war between wanting to live in the present and embrace the future while realizing they can only fully do so if they are willing to let go of the past.
Our relationship to material possessions
Psychologists have identified that babies only start to understand they have ownership of their own body at around two months old and it’s not until they are about twelve months old that they begin to bond with items such as teddies or blankets. At around 21 months, they start using the word “mine” and may start to squabble with other children over toys.
So it seems we are hard-wired to own things. But sometimes people take this too far and their entire home becomes a museum of things that relate to their past. I’ve been given guided tours where each item has a special story attached to it about how long the person has had it, how it came to be in their possession, what was happening in their life at that time, why it’s special to them, and so on.
These stories are often long and complicated, requiring a lot of detail and explanation, and the person can be very convincing about how important the items are. They believe that their well-being rests on continuing to own each object so that they can remember the particular event in their life that it relates to.
But when viewed through an outsider’s eyes, it looks like a home full of useless stuff. And when the person dies, it’s highly unlikely anyone will want any of it. It will most likely end up in landfill or, at best, be donated to charities.
Why a museum of possessions is no substitute for life
When people ask me for my advice about this as they sort through their things, I point out that the question to ask yourself is whether you really need to remember all the people and events of your life? What purpose does that serve other than to create mental and emotional clutter?
You are the sum total of all your life experiences. They have made you what you are, and whether you remember the events or not, it doesn’t change who you have become. You are the walking, talking embodiment of your life to date, as any facial diagnosis expert can tell you (a person’s entire history is recorded in their face). You can’t change the past, but you can certainly change the future through the choices you make in the present.
The truth of the matter is that anyone can archive the past. What takes far greater skill and courage is to let go of the past and live fully in the now, to become all that you can be. As one woman said to me after letting go of her personal museum of things, ‘When I gave such importance to archiving my life, it felt as if I was already dead.’ She realized, as many others have done, that resting on old memories brings only limited pleasure. True happiness can only be found in the present.
Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd 2018, updated 2023
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