Owned by Ownership; The Need to Simplify

In one of those happy synchronicities, my column at First Things this week appears to play right into the hands of the Patheos Book Club.

Allow me to explain. Over at First Things, I chronicle the existential agida I am experiencing over how my husband’s pack-rat instincts overwhelm my need to throw things away, and the influence of Western prosperity on our sense of material balance and well-being:

Our Christmas was a modest one, by choice, and no one in our family is consumed by a burning need to own the latest in gadgetry, so finding “new” room is no issue. Still, in packing up Christmas, I felt overwhelmed by our inability to parse the seasonal bundles down, and by the sheer volume of our ownership. Discovering a crack in a Christmas lantern, I moved to throw it away, but my husband stopped me, saying, “but it’s pretty; just turn the cracked part around to the wall, next year!”

Anxious to be done and not seeking an argument, I acquiesced; I packed the thing away for next year, but grudgingly. Three days later, it is still nagging at me that something as inconsequential, meaningless, and unnecessary as a Christmas lantern could not be parted with because it was “pretty.”

Theologically, my husband was on solid ground: a thing needn’t be perfect in order to be valued, but then did the lantern’s “prettiness” assign to it a false value which has played him for a sucker? And was that not reflective of our whole society’s willingness to excuse a great many faults in individuals, because they are good-looking, or in institutions because they are powerful?

My questions go forward from there. I wonder about the poverty of our ancestors, and whether the 100-or-so-year adventure of their immigration is panning out as they thought. Did our former poverty make such consumers of us? And how do we detach from it? I end by noting with gratitude that the beginning of Lent is a mere 30-something days away.

And therein meet the twains. Over at the Book Club, they’ve begun talking about Paula Huston’s Simplifying the Soul; Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit

Huston is an author and Benedictine Oblate (a better one than I) and in reading this excerpt it becomes clear that she’s got something worthwhile to say to those of us who are beginning to feel owned by our ownership, and need to find a way to, yes, simplify. In writing of a move from a “big” house to something smaller and saner for a couple ready to contemplate retirement she shares:

In a house this size, there’s no leftover space for a random junk drawer. Yet we had plenty of them in the old place—crannies stuffed with unrelated items, some of them beginnings: easily tossed but others evocative of life phases weathered and nearly forgotten. What were we to do with these stashes when it was time to move?

My husband’s initial response was to pull his favorite junk drawer from a nightstand we were leaving behind and carry it through the woods to the new house where it sat on the floor beside the bed for several weeks. Though I was sorely tempted to cart it away, I instead decided to wait for Mike to surrender to our new reality; the days of heedless squirreling were over. Everything we carried on into the future had to be essential. Eventually, he accepted this fact. One day, the drawer disappeared.

The great third- and fourth-century flight made by thousands of Christians into the Egyptian and Syrian deserts stemmed in part from a similar impulse: to strip, to cull, and to give away or eliminate anything that might tie one to the past. The Desert Fathers and Mothers were on a quest for purity of heart, and they understood that physical items are never just themselves but rather symbols and reminders of the life we must, however reluctantly, be willing to relinquish if we are ever to change.

This is good stuff, and we often over-comfortable Christians of the West can use it. As her book offers a daily suggestion meant to help de-clutter and simplify, on this day’s reading she suggests tackling a junk drawer:

When we clean out a junk drawer for Lent, we are in some small way dealing with the detritus of breathless hurry and our corresponding inability to focus. We are beginning to tear through the sticky web that binds us to our past: not only to the fine and happy times, the poignant seasons of growth and change, but also to the tears we once shed, the idols we once worshipped, the myths we once believed, and the lies we once told ourselves.

On this first day of Lent, spend some time going through a favorite stash, asking yourself what these items represent. Many of them will no doubt qualify as genuine junk, things that were simply stuck away instead of being carried out to the trash. Others might be useful, except for the fact that they are never used; these are easily bequeathed to someone else. If you come across something you cannot yet bear to part with, don’t struggle with yourself too long. Instead, pack it in a box, label it, and seal it up; then store it in an beginnings: attic or the garage rafters for a few years, remembering that, if you leave it there too long, someone else will have to deal with it. Meanwhile, pray for liberation from these ultimately ephemeral reminders of the past.

I have a cousin who moved to a new location and found that some boxes remained in her basement long after her new digs were fully established. One trash day, she brought a box to the curb, “I didn’t even open it. I figured if I hadn’t needed anything in that box for the last five years, I did not want to open it and talk myself into suddenly ‘needing’ to keep whatever was in there. It seemed healthier to just let it go.”

Over the course of a few months, she eventually got rid of all of her stored up boxes, and now she uses the basement for creative projects.

It does sound healthier, indeed. And with that in mind, I think I will make a point of using Huston’s wise and spiritually grounded book for this upcoming Lent.

Deborah Arca interviews Huston, here

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • dry valleys

    What you will often find is that the most materialist people are those who experienced poverty or other privations during their formative years. And the actual state of being a hoarder is often a mental condition or the symptom of one, the best response to which is medical treatment.

    A friend of mine had his early life blighted, and is still losing out in all sorts of ways, because his parents are obsessive about keeping hold of any old tat they’ve accumulated. They are very well-off (especially by the standards of the area we live in), but he’s barely seen any of the money because it mostly goes to maintaining several properties which are filled with junk and never put to any meaningful use. It honestly would be useless to get angry with such people though, because they are answering some deep-rooted need.

    I try not to have more than I need, and not to buy too much food either (it means I can eat decent stuff without spending a lot). I’ve had people incredulous, and almost angry, that my cupboards are almost empty and I save quite a bit of money in bank accounts. As if it were any concern of theirs! But it does really come down to fear of the (usually undefined) worst happening.

    That is what I do with money, but things I only have if I can see some obvious use to them. There are no drawers full of stuff that hasn’t been touched for years around here :)

  • Ann

    Last year, we bought a little summer cabin up in the woods, tiny really. We furnished it with just the very bare necessities, beds, lamps, a couch and a table. No TV, phone, cable, internet, toys, decorations, nothing but the very bare necessities.

    I look forward to going there for many reasons, but I realized one reason is to literally get away from all of our “stuff.” How messed up is that?

  • http://www.robinhardy.com robin

    I’m all for decluttering, and do it ruthlessly. But I draw the line at Christmas stuff. I cannot throw away cards from people I will never see again and cheap decorations from early in my marriage 30 years ago. Just can’t do it, is all.

  • Maureen from Canada

    My motto is – when something comes into my house, something must go out. So if a new chair comes in, then an old chair goes out. If a new sweater comes in, then an old sweater must go out. It is the only way I can keep on top of anything.

  • Will

    Many of us have too much “stuff”. I rationalize what I have because I have enough room to get both cars in the garage (unlike some neighbors) and have a fairly shaped-up living area in the house.

  • Helen Wells

    Yes, de-cluttering is a very healthful pursuit. Indoor air quality is adversely affected by the total amount of surface area inside a home. Less stuff = less surface = cleaner air = healthier living = more happiness. This especially applies to cellar storage, because that is where all your breathing air enters the house.

    In the past year, I have moved into a space ⅓ the size of my previous residence. My kitchen is smaller than my former clothes closet. Forced to organize, I have never been more productive. Now I garnish and my meals are more appealing than ever.

    Here’s a fun exercise. Clean out your junk drawer. I mean empty and really clean it. Now every time you use a utensil, put it in that drawer. After month, get rid of all the other utensils. Magically, you will then have 2 empty drawers in the most valuable spot in your home.

  • Ellen

    My weakness is books. Our public library has a Friends of the Library booksale twice a year and I use it as an opportunity to purge my shelves of books I won’t read any more. And thank goodness for my kindle!!

  • alcogito

    Our junk drawer is important and a time-saver! It’s where we go when we want a rubber band, a twist-tie, pair of scissors, a pencil or pen, stamps, return address sticker, tape, stapler, envelope opener, sunglasses, each in its own compartment. Where else should all that stuff be?

  • amanda

    I don’t mean to disagree with anything you’ve said. I too am guilty of acquiring too much and failing to let go. However, your story of the Christmas lantern makes me ask a question. Was not the purpose of the lamp, from the beginning; its prettiness? Did it lose its purpose or function because of the crack? Another point I’d like to make is that most of us would benefit from stopping buying new things, not trying to throw out “clutter.” It’s the same meme of “reduce, reuse, recycle.” If you reduce your initial consumption in the first place there is less to reuse and recycle. Plus you never get the stress of feeling cluttered, overwhelmed, and possibly even financially poorer.

  • Peggy R

    I am a de-clutterer as well. Having moved around apartments every few years as a single person, I learned to let go of stuff that doesn’t really matter–including books. My husband is pack-rat, but very neat and orderly about it. He hates messy clutter. I have a hard time getting rid of toys for the kids. What if they miss it? Think of how much that one cost–and they didn’t play with it? We get wiser with the kids’ gifts each Christmas. We have regular contributions to local charities. And some cheezy Christmas decor is included in this next bundle for charity. In fact we don’t put up excessive Christmas decor, ie, like table top items, b/c it gets too cluttery feeling.

    I have in-laws who are hoarders. They are just like the people on the TV shows. We don’t go to their house. It’s impossible. These are siblings who never married and live in their deceased parents’ home. They keep filling the emptiness inside themselves with stuff that they can’t let go. It is more and more stuff. They say they’ll do something someday with this or that. I think a lot of hoarders can’t face a loss and don’t know how to move forward. Getting rid of stuff makes them have to let go. It is a symbol of what’s really going on inside of them.

  • Kate

    Extreme hoarding behavior may be related to OCD or ADD. I don’t think it is necessarily a “spiritual” problem at all.

  • dry valleys

    I quite agree, Kate, and with regard to Helen Wells’ remarks, if (a big if for many working-class people, I know) you have any choice over where you live, you should go for a place with generous windows. Natural light is much more important than space if there are no children involved.

    I live in public housing myself, built to proper standards back in the days when we had proper governments that saw to things like this. My parents live in a terraced house (I think you call them “row houses” in America) that was built in the 1930s, it is tiny compared to McMansions but whoever built it was careful to fit in windows. A lot of the newer builders don’t do that because it isn’t in keeping with maximising their short-term profits and bugger the customer.

    As for having too many books, a la Ellen, I used to be like that until one day I decided I was going to stop trying to know all about everything and focus my reading on a few subjects, mainly British history (especially just before 1914) and contemporary Britain. Only occasionally will I read about another subject, and this is related to my discovery that I am not Christopher Hitchens, I can’t know about every subject going, and breadth can be at the expense of depth. So my only acquaintanceship with the wider world is on secular websites, my trips here to get the opposing side’s point of view, and in reading “The Economist” weekly (I don’t keep the copies after reading them- though I know people do).

    Sorry if that is a bit TLDR but what I mean is that I am more modest about things and don’t get carried away. You can re-read a book and decide you’re not going to buy any more this month. I suppose everyone here is curious but I personally can’t be a Renaissance man who can quote from memory the book on everything :)

  • Peggy R

    I don’t know whether hoarding is “spiritual” or not. I don’t know whether it’s OCD or ADD or what. I watched the TLC shows too much perhaps, but I am fascinated b/c my in-laws are hoarders. I do think it’s emotional and almost always the hoarder has some loss (s)he hasn’t dealt with. Often they live in the home they grew up in. I guess they feel strange trying to throw out their deceased parents’ stuff, then the not getting rid of stuff while continually bringing in new stuff, takes off from there. They seem like emotionally stuck people who can’t move on. They have many ideas of things they’d do with the many things they bring into the home. But the ideas never come to fruition. They are not mere collectors, though it sometimes has that element.

    I feel so detached from the desire to have stuff. Sure I buy things that I might need or would enjoy, but I just don’t want any more clutter in my life or home. Life is busy enough.

  • dry valleys
  • dry valleys

    Lots of others too. But I didn’t sleep very well last night so I still can’t be bothered to bring them all to mind ;)

  • Barb S

    This book sounds wonderful but it violates one of my relatively new anti-cluttering rules because it is not available as an eBook!

    If I need a new book, I will buy the Kindle version and not add to the thousands of dead tree books I already have.

  • http://www.patheos.com Amy

    Good article, good suggestions and comments. To add to the mix, if I haven’t worn something in my drawers or closet in a year, I donate them. I asked my husband if I could donate some of his shirts some time back. He said, “Those are my favorite shirts.” To which I replied, “If they are your favorites, why have they been on hangers for the past 20 years and you never wear them?” I also say, if a hurricane came or a fire destroyed everything in our home, would we really miss it all?
    What happens, too, if we downsize, buy what we need, not what we want, doing without all that our society tells us we REALLY NEED TO HAVE? All of that “stuff” will not be sold, jobs will be lost, businesses will shut down….the Chinese will have nothing to produce….causing STRIFE throughout the land!!!! Ok. I am getting a bit carried away. Simplicity and letting go are commendable. After all, we can’t take it with us when we die.

  • http://JOYfilledfamily.blogspot.com lena

    looks like a good read. thanks for sharing.

  • Greta

    I guess it all depends on what you replace the clutter with and how you use that old clutter. If one has great books cluttering up their mind and empty them out and replace them with pornography, one is hardly moving forward. I must become less, He must become more within me.

    I have never been found of things, even as we had ever increasing resources to aquire them. I found much greater joy along the way using what we had to help others, especially if they were not aware of our help. In this I had an amazing partner. We also were never fans of “making our kids life better” by giving them everything they wanted. I started work part time at 11 years of age and my husband started at 14 full time during the depression to make ends meet with his family. My dad was a doctor and we were paid with a variety of things with the exception of cash in most instances. He got me a job working at the hospital cleaning up in the business office which at the time was 6 people for a 100 bed hospital. Same hospital today would have about as many business people as beds but thats another story. So if someone says that very poor people hold onto things out of fear, I doubt they were really Catholics. If we had anything, mom or dad would think of someone who needed it much more. We also learned early on that gifts did not hold value by what they were or how much they cost, but by what was given with the gift of ourself. I have to laugh as we watched some football advertising those giving their signifcant other a lexus. I suspect this type of gift comes from someone who holds the gift of themselves as not worth very much. My friends son is married 10 years. He dated this same girl another 10 years before that starting in high school. His gift to her was a wonderful video of pictures of them at significant points in their life, including the additions of each of their children accompanied by some amazing music and closed with his wish that she would keep him for another 60 years. Now that is a gift and one I would hope would clutter her mind for all of those 60 years.