“Out of clutter, find simplicity.”—Albert Einstein
I recently recounted the Great Purge of 2016 in which I rooted every unnecessary trinket, envelope, book, shirt, and mug out of my apartment.
It’s a great thing to clear off a mantel and sort through your collection of souvenir shot glasses. But just below the layers of stuff, there are several other benefits to discover from decluttering.
1. Remembering. In a big pine chest, I had three boxes of birthday, get-well, holiday, and congratulations cards; notes from my family and friends; theater ticket stubs; 3×5 cards with messages I passed to my friends in college classes; and assorted other keepsakes. Sorting through the mound of missives, all the memories of my dear friends came back. As you sort through your things, it might surprise you how many memories you’ll dredge up and how enjoyable your life in review can be.
I am grateful for what I have—but also for what I no longer need.
2. Giving Thanks. The surplus of clothes, decor, cups, CDs, and books that we sold and donated made me extremely grateful—not for the things themselves but for the realization that these things didn’t make me happy. It reminded me of what’s really important: friendship, love, joy, an organized life—and a tidy house. I am grateful for what I have—but also for what I no longer need.
3. Learning to let go. When we take a hard look at our stuff, we’re forced to appraise what it’s worth to us. If we keep more than we turn loose, it might mean we’ve formed emotional connections to it. Now if it’s an item that holds a certain emotional value (e.g., your grandmother’s urn, father’s football jersey, first child’s shoes), it’s reasonable to hold onto it. But sometimes our emotional connections boil down to greed, obsession, or fear—the fear that we might one day need something after it’s gone. These are, of course, toxic emotions, and we need to take a clue from Elsa and let it go. The more you put in trash bags and Goodwill bins, the easier it is to relinquish your hold on stuff. It takes practice, faith, and sacrifice, but it’s worth it.
4. Thinking Ahead. When you die, there are a great many things that your loved ones must do, such as making funeral arrangements, pulling together your will, and finalizing other business affairs. And they must do these things while grieving their loss. The last thing they need is to face a crammed attic, a jammed garage, and a stuffed basement. Go through your stuff now before your children have to shovel it into a dumpster.
A will is great for distributing your possessions after you’re gone. But you know what’s better? Giving the items to your loved ones while you’re still alive. Several years ago I received a package from my grandmother. Inside was the windmill music box that I used to play with on every visit to their house. Later she allowed me to take home a bell that I also enjoyed tinkering with when I was little. I think about my grandmother every time I see those items on my dresser, and sometimes they remind me to appreciate her while I still have her.
5. Making Room (and Money) for Other Things. Laura sold her Madame Alexander dolls and American Girl dolls from her childhood this fall, and I sold my extensive Pillsbury Doughboy kitchen collection and a host of other odds and ends from around the house. We put our earnings together and, along with money we received for Christmas, financed a trip to Disney World in January. What could you do with the money from a little time spent posting items on Facebook yard sales or hosting a yard sale of your own?
We also sold all of our travel-themed decor and made room to purchase two new nature-themed pictures. Along with the decor we repurposed from other rooms in our house, we changed the theme in our living room without spending much money and by selling rather than storing. With open space in our house, we’re free to allow new things to come in—or just to enjoy the new space.
6. Reconsidering Our Image. What does your stuff say about you? I like looking at the different desks at work. The minimalist desk with no personal touch and nothing out of place. The sloppy desk incomprehensibly filled with dirty bowls; food crumbs; and scraps of paper, stickers, or trash that once-upon-a-time served as an inside joke. The tidily-cluttered desk, like mine, where the desk walls might be filled with photos but in an arranged, purposeful fashion (or at least that’s what I tell myself).
We’re all different—that’s for sure. But it’s important to realize that what we own says something about us. Do we want to be surrounded with pointless accumulation or purposeful items?
7. Making connections. Sometimes I think about that scene on Walt Disney’s animated movie Alice in Wonderland when Alice eats the cookie and grows until she pops out of the White Rabbit’s house. Does your house feel so full of stuff that it might break through the windows and roof? If so, it might mean that other areas of your life are bursting with clutter as well.
Is your mind full of trivial things or insecurity? What about your schedule? Is it so hectic that you don’t have time for a half an hour of silence? Even your body: did you clutter it with too many snacks or too much sugar today? Is your spirit full to the rafters with anger, worry, or fear? In what other ways does clutter manifest itself in your life?
8. Simplifying. Recently, I upgraded to an iPhone 7, mostly because I wanted that tantalizing new photography feature, the portrait mode. Laura got an iPhone 7 plus. When we got home, I discovered that only the Plus has portrait mode. I was frustrated for all of five minutes until I realized what was happening. A thing was upsetting me. With so many other important issues to concern me, the last thing I want to do is salivate at the marketers’ bell. In general I don’t crave things—I crave time, intellect, character, compassion. And sometimes I feel that those non-things come best in the absence of things. (1)
“Don’t just declutter, de-own.—Joshua Becker
In her book Gifts from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh said,
“To ask how little, not how much, can I get along with. To say—is it necessary?—when I am tempted to add one more accumulation to my life. . . . Simplification of outward life is not enough . . . but the outside can give a clue, can help one to find the inside answer.”
Stuff certainly has a way of taking over our lives. We’re responsible to pay for it, organize it, dust it, maintain it. But it’s also up to us to deny it power over us.
Further Help for Decluttering
Decluttering is more than an exercise—it’s a mindset. When we lay aside the junk that “does so easily beset us” (Hebrews 12:1), we find our way through our houses, attics, garages, and storage rooms—and we just might find our way.
For more information on overcoming clutter, check out Clutter Free Academy and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Also visit A Life in Progress for tips on calming your spirit and simplifying your life.
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1) I eventually swapped it for an iPhone Plus when I found out how simple it would be to exchange. I’m satisfied to know that I was content to keep the one I had.