Friday, August 20, 2010

Saying Goodbye to Sentimental Clutter

Even in our most zealous moments of uncluttering our lives, almost all of us are stopped cold when we're confronted with something that has sentimental value. That's understandable, but often what we really need to confront is the fact that our definition of what has sentimental value is too broad. Almost every object in our homes will conjure some sort of memory, but even if that memory is connected with a special person or is a part of an overall happy time in life, that doesn't mean that the object is worthy of keeping.

I've had the good fortune to inherit some truly lovely sentimental stuff, but eventually I had to acknowledge that many of the most meaningful items were no longer appropriate to have in my daily life. Redefining them was the only way that I could let them go and, logically, I knew that I needed to do that. (Specific stories are in my book.) When I did let them go -- thoughtfully and, a few times, tearfully -- I was both liberated and challenged in ways I hadn't expected. Yes, there was room for things that were more functional, but there was also a void. Who was I if I wasn't the caretaker of the antique family furniture and dishes? Who was I if I was no longer the girl who grew up playing the piano and continued to do so for all of her life? Did that mean I was disconnected from my heritage in some way? Was I supposed to abandon my love of music?

Of course not. But it's surprising how much our individual identities are connected with our possessions and how when we change, as we inevitably do, those objects that surround us can become anchors to a past that we need to carry more lightly or sometimes shed altogether. I had to realize that my connection to my family history was just as intact as it had ever been, even though I had fewer tangible mementos. My relationship with music was still solid, too, even though it was expressed in a different way. For some of us, or for some aspects of each of our lives, simply letting go of the past completely by letting go of the things we have that are associated with it allows us to be more comfortable with who we are now. However, anyone who's ever parted with something that signifies an important relationship with a person or a time of life that has ended knows that there's a feeling of finality and acceptance that allows us to move forward, yet we often find intermingled with that feeling a bit of insecurity about who we are now that we're no longer a part of that relationship. I think that's okay. In fact, I think that mixed feelings are what we really need to get comfortable with in order to navigate life with less stress and anxiety.

Too much sentiment can be a dangerous condition. There's a difference between feeling rooted or connected and feeling weighted down or burdened by obligation. There's also a difference between embracing our history and how it shaped who we are now versus clinging to our past and, perhaps, our youth, because we're afraid of change. Maybe we need to work on understanding and accepting ourselves as much as we need to work on understanding and accepting that the things we own are not truly what define us.

Of course, life is unpredictable, so even if we've resolved these issues, sometimes forces outside of our control will continue to make choices for us. For a dramatic example of imposed choices, read Anatomy of a TornadoTornado Chronicles and Nature is a Moody Muse, blog posts by Debbie Kaspari, an Oklahoma fine artist who survived the devastating effects of extreme spring weather that she refers to as The Event. She explains how her relationship with "stuff" and "STUFF" was clarified in a way no one wants to experience. Fortunately, not all was lost for her.

How sentimental are you? Are you clear about what's just "stuff" in your life and what is "STUFF" that has real meaning? Would it take a tornado to make you figure it out?

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob
Image credit: Joel Messner at stock.xchng


Lisa said...

I have no problems getting rid of stuff, save for things that have a connection to my husband, who was killed in Iraq 5 years ago. I simply cannot get rid of anything connected to him, even though I try to talk myself into saying I don't really need his old socks any more. Problem is, if I did let go of his stuff I would somehow feel like I was betraying him, betraying us. Maybe that will change someday, but...not yet...

Katherine Kean said...

Well said!

It can be amazing how quickly lfe can move forward without the excess sentimental weight.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

@Lisa: I am so sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. I understand completely your reluctance to let go of his things and acknowledge that everyone has their own timetable when coping with grief. You may already know intellectually that there would be no betrayal at all if you parted with his possessions, but sometimes the heart is slow to catch up with the mind. However, because five years have passed, it seems that it would be worthwhile for you to talk to a professional counselor or spiritual advisor to get some help moving on. You want to honor your husband's memory, not just hang onto things he owned. Especially in our difficult economic times, there are charities that would be delighted to accept a donation of those old socks and many other things that belonged to him. You could celebrate his life by knowing that his things are helping someone else live now. I know you'll want to save the items that are special, the STUFF, as Debbie Kaspari calls it, and there are many ways to consider displaying those mementos that matter so much to you. Organizer Peter Walsh makes some suggestions in this link: . I wish you the best, Lisa, and thank you for commenting. I hope you'll check in again and let me know how you're progressing with this.

@Katherine: Good to hear from you, Katherine! Thanks for your comment.

Chris said...

Lisa: My daughter died 15 years ago and I have not dealt with her personal belongings and her bedroom. Every time I attempted to clear it out it was like letting her go. I told myself that when I was ready I would do it. Well this is the year. I have decided that her clothes will be packed up and sent overseas. The other stuff I can't part with will be boxed up for another time. I told my surviving children that if I should die they can just take the boxes to wherever they want and get rid of them. I won't be around anymore. So I wish you luck because I know where you're coming from and I wish myself luck because this will not be an easy task for me to do. But I am bound and determined that it will get done!

Cynthia Friedlob said...

@Chris: Losing your child must have been a terrible trauma. Waiting until you felt ready to act was necessary for you, and acknowledging that the time has come is an important step. I hope you've already had the benefit of some professional counseling but, if not, you might find it helpful now as you work on this project. Your donations will certainly be appreciated and I hope that gives you some very small measure of comfort. I'm sorry for your loss and wish you the best. Thank you for sharing your story.