You know that thing — that one thing sitting in the corner there? It’s the one your partner has been on you like white on rice for six months to sell or get rid of. You keep saying you will — you’ll get to it! Then you do.
Then there is a process.
“Don’t bother me about it, okay? I’ll get to it,” and then a begrudging “it’s listed!” becomes, “I’ll sell it tomorrow.” Then maybe this becomes, “I took it offline, I’ll put it back up in a few days,” and then “it’s listed!” again and a vicious circle of eye rolls and deep breaths and going to bed annoyed and more eye rolls.
What is it about letting go of things that stirs up such immense emotion in people? A sigh of relief and good riddance for some somehow (and often) amounts to heartache and loss for others. This material loss turns into a near-funeral while someone looks on, laughing at how silly you’re behaving.
“It’s just a stupid bicycle, babe!”
But it’s not a stupid bicycle — not to you. Those chairs weren’t just silly, broken-down, un-sitable things — not to you. And those microphones surely weren’t useless and needing of a new home — not to you.
The act of paring down, of selling things and giving other things away, has always been difficult (read: not completely impossible, but a big challenge) for me. Confident that I couldn’t be the only one struggling with this, I wanted to find out from others how they feel when pressed to sell, give away, throw away or leave behind their precious things. While it was immediately obvious that I am not alone in the way I process my emotions around all of this, I was happy to see that there are healthy takeaways from each of the many perspectives on material goodbyes.
Some people (surprisingly this is not a gender-divided human trait) are romantic and have a hard time giving things up and it can be endearing, while others find that this act of clearing things out gives them a sense of serenity, perhaps making them more actively available in other ways. Still others find that they fall somewhere in between and, personally, I think they’re the ones that really have their shit together. Let me then suggest that there is indeed a sliding scale of emotionality around this act of paring down, and that it doesn’t always hit when we expect it to.
The “Abso-fucking-lutely Nots”
First there are the true Sentimentalists in this study. When touching and cataloguing their belongings, Sentimentalists find themselves travelling through time – both mentally and emotionally. Their brains go into fight mode at the prospect of losing something meaningful, and whisper dirty things like, “Remember the day you bought that sofa? That was the first sofa you ever bought and that was a big deal!” … or “these pyjamas were a gift from your Grandma and yes they have holes in them but you think of her when you wear them and you can’t just throw them out.”
When I moved to Paris I felt lost – I was the wrong person in the wrong place. Like something in me had died a little. It is always like that when I leave a place to start again, and even moreso as I get older. Often this happens less with concern for material things and more with concern for people, but it fosters a loneliness that I tend to fill with things to find some sort of equilibrium again; not only finding new regular faces and places, but hanging things old and new on the walls and finding comfort in small trinkets, photos, or pillows that recall special moments and people of the past. Even then, the feeling of having lost something persists, and I seek only to soothe that ache.
I am utterly and agonisingly sentimental. If someone were to ask me what is my most sentimental item, I am paralysed with anxiety. I have to choose just one?? You’re having a laugh!
Look, I moved around a lot as a kid so that meant holding fast to something that was meaningful to me. I collected meaningful things — matchbox cars discarded by cousins, baseball cards that nobody wanted, rocks and seashells (though we lived a thousand miles from the sea), found items on the street and at school, hair ties, toothbrushes, ponies, little green army men that were slightly mangled — and a little doll, Robin, who accompanied me everywhere I went. In my adult life, there have been periods where I moved every 12-18 months and, little by little, those boxes of meaningful things grew and moved with me. Storing things became my modus operandi. Some things have been lost along the way, and there are times I still feel loss for those things; but some of what is still there, boxed up, I cannot wait to get back to. Still other lovely things I probably won’t remember until the moment I see them again and then I’ll spend an emotional afternoon relishing their rediscovery.
When I decided to move overseas again, from Tennessee to Paris this time, I knew I’d have to fill and make comfortable an entire apartment on my own. So I did what any normal person would do (right?). I packed up all of my favourite things and shipped them onward: my best clothes, my nicest and most comfortable shoes (city walking, you know…), the “better” pots and pans, the “better” dishes and mugs and glasses, the vintage tea set I received as a gift from all of my friends when I was living in London, and the assorted trinkets that I loved having around.
Three weeks after arriving in Paris and the day after moving into my own apartment (which had absolutely nothing inside it to speak of save for one small cot mattress on the floor and a tiny red desk lamp in one corner of the lounge), I was thrilled to receive my boxes and start unpacking. Clothes and shoes, check. Pots and pans, check. Dishes…. oh. Oh god. No… NO. It’s okay, the tea set will be fi– fuuuuuck meeeee, what the fucking shitfuckers of all shitbags? How could you — FUCK YOUUUU, FRAAAAAANCE (please understand, it is always customary to take one’s anger out on France itself for those that live here)! Seriously though, what the actual fuck? Everything was broken. Everything that I loved and cherished, everything that held so many precious and sweet thoughts and laughs and moments in them, gone — destroyed by what, I would come to find out, is the norm for French delivery services.
I went into instant “do what you can to survive this” recovery mode. Crying, I reluctantly threw away a box that was destroyed beyond repair and, for the pieces that I thought salvageable, I gently placed them in a tucked away spot and made plans to go to the hardware store for ceramics glue and super glue and any kind of heavy-duty polymer and affixing solution that I could find. I would buy them all. I would fix everything. Then I would buy replacement dishes and glassware for what was gone and I would make a new collection of mugs and everything would be okay. And, for the most part, things were okay.
For a true Sentimentalist, there are no mosts and favorites; it is all important. We have a pretty hard time letting go of anything – perhaps afraid our memories might be lost as well. Unfortunately, this can turn us into hoarders. We might like to think that paring down would be good for us and would bring a sense of clarity and cleansing, but in reality, we don’t enjoy letting go of anything we consider special.
“Everything is here because I invited it here. I give my things meaning and life. They become animate and remind me of where I’ve been. As long as they don’t drag me down, I can’t imagine getting rid of them.”
(Hint: obviously everything is special.) And in case you were wondering… Gifts? A Sentimentalist will never let go of a gift.
It becomes a chore then to begin the process of packing, choosing which things to leave behind or give to friends or put on the street. What kind of life will the next person give this? What kind of life will this thing provide to that person? How will it be treated? What if it is lost or broken? How can I let this go? That we want to hold on to our things, that we find them so precious that they could never be good for or to anyone but us and no one will take care of them the way that we do, perhaps this is borne from a selfishness or self-righteousness we can’t compute. We are crippled with the fear of change – not just for ourselves but for this specific thing as well. Our emotionality overwhelms us.
The “What’s Nexters”
Let us not forget that there are people on the opposite end of this spectrum, too; we shall call them the Economists. These people will tell you on multiple occasions that they do not identify themselves with or by what they own; they have few sentimental attachments to things and sometimes seek to escape them. Getting rid of things becomes more a matter of what type of economic value it might bring, or freedom it could incur, and less about what emotional value holding onto it might hold.
They will say things like, “I don’t have many pictures or souvenirs around because, actually, I think my memories are more important,” or “I feel that giving away is liberating, especially if a new adventure is waiting; when I need to let go of stuff the first thing on my mind is to make space for myself or for others or for new things.”
Paring down, both small and large scale, can occur at many junctures throughout life and even throughout a single year. Economists examine their things regularly and are happy to throw away those that are worn out and have come to the end of their natural lives. They don’t feel the item owes them anything and often quickly replace it with something of equal or greater quality.
On a larger scale, for a move or for that annual spring cleaning, Economists can be pretty ruthless. They are often found recycling, reselling or giving away anything from which they feel they have extracted enough personal value and in which someone else might find a new or different value. In clearing out grandma’s house, for example, even if having been very close to her, Economists walk away with a few choice items that are small and/or perhaps hold some significant monetary value (this, versus the sentimentalist who tries to carry away as many things as possible because they are all “Grandma”).
Yes, Economists are good at practicing the art of fewer, better things. As a result they try to live relatively clutter-free; the items they have around them on a daily basis are there because they have consciously chosen to keep them. Going through the process of decluttering leaves them feeling less burdened and lighter. They feel little guilt about keeping certain things and throwing away others, knowing that if need be, they will reassess and relieve themselves once again of an item’s specific load. Economists rarely regret the loss of an item, but if they do, it can be replaced.
“I enjoy getting rid of the excesses that you gather over your life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as sentimental as the next, but the spring clean feeling of decluttering is liberating.”
The brilliant thing is, Economists can easily feel at home in a new environment without their stuff surrounding them (save a few small things in a shoebox) and have no problem letting go. They don’t consider themselves materialistic and tend to easily give away or resell things they don’t need or want anymore. Each time they move, even for a big move overseas, they limit the quantity of stuff in their lives and move fairly easily.
Okay, we get it! You’re better than us! (folds arms, pouts a little)
None of this is to say that Economists are not emotional about holding onto their possessions, but they tend to have strong convictions about why to clear out. Sometimes it is truly economical, but other times, they admit to getting caught up about certain things and getting rid of them allows some emotional solution, some distance from the items. It makes sense. We can all admit that whenever we open those shoeboxes of souvenirs and memories there is a stream of complexity that pours out – the good, the bad, the regrets, the triumphs…
It would be fair to say that Sentimentalists and Economists rarely understand one another’s motives. TIMBL, a true Economist, recently recounted a story to me. We were all at a Christmas dinner at his former flatmate’s apartment, and someone was setting the table for dessert when he realised that one of the small plates was his. It was a Tintin “hero” plate that was part of a small bowl and plate set his brother gave him as a 10th birthday present. He had completely forgotten about the existence of said plate and doesn’t even remember what happened to the bowl.
He admits that something clinched deep within him upon seeing it, but he is still not sure what it means to him nor whether he should ask for it back. He is battling internally, fighting the sentimentality he could afford it against the knowledge that he had forgotten its existence entirely, and meanwhile I am sitting there listening to it all and have tears welling up in my eyes. He laughs a little, “I knew you’d react this way if I told you about it — you always do this — you really are so silly, girlfriend.”
(Note that now, three years later, as I am forced to pack up again — with him this time — many thoughts are dwelling on those first days of unpacking my broken, beautiful things in Paris and how miserable it all was. Then I am struck with fear. For I know that tucked away in a very safe place in the kitchen is my broken tea set and gold plate, with all of the unopened polymers and glues sitting just to the side. I’m going to have to throw them out this time — and before TIMBL sees them.)
I am silly. The way we react to and interact with these shoeboxes of ours is just different. Sentimentalists can often see Economists as cold, cruel and too business-like in the way they sell off and give away their lives; and Economists too often label Sentimentalists as non-negotiating, stubborn and (highly?) impractical.
Good news — there is a middle ground!
Admittedly, even with Economists, it is difficult to find a true hard-liner. There are people who find themselves weaving through both categories quite easily. For these softcore Economists and Sentimentalists, the Middlers we’ll call them, there is always something sacred that must be kept – be it a category of things, like books or photos, or single personal items that the person eventually decides do contribute to their identity and emotional existence in some way – but they understand the process and enjoy paring down or clearing out from time to time.
“Overall, I don’t have a big problem with letting go of stuff. Even though I’m a true consumer and I feel the need to fill my life with new stuff, I don’t consider myself to be materialistic. I don’t really identify myself with what I own (of course I’m not talking about photographs or any super personal stuff). For example, even if I know I could purchase the same book again, it wouldn’t be the same. This particular one I took with me in my bag and devoured in India; a new one won’t have the same scratches, or the same smell.”
Middlers find themselves dwelling on both sides and across the emotional spectrum of “how to behave during the act of paring down.” The once-simple act of choosing to let something go (or leave it behind when we go) ends up throwing them into the middle of an emotional ping-pong game between the head and the heart. They can be hugely sentimental, but they try to keep in mind the perspective that starting over with less can offer peace.
Cleared spaces can be refreshing – like staying in a hotel with only what you’ve brought in your suitcase. But being in a place where you are completely surrounded by your accumulated, meaningful life-things can in turn provide some relevance or substance to your life.
One Middler put it pretty simply: “I’m completely neurotic and feel like I have to keep everything, but once I break through it’s game on. I know I have to trash the first thing. Until then I can’t function, but then I love it and want to throw everything out.”
Even if, afterwards, too much space and not enough of what Middlers need can cause a panic attack and a constant questioning of why they got rid of all of their shit in the first place; the act of clearing out can carve a path toward that sought-after freedom, that liberation, and thus chance and space to be something or someone different and new. They admit to being scared and anxious about leaving things behind but every time it happens, they claim that it felt great, like a relief. One close friend said, “It’s kind of like a part of my life might go away and maybe I’ll regret it forever, but once it’s done, I realise I am perfectly fine without that silly something which sometimes is actually just trash.” (We also had a lengthy discussion around how hard it is to throw away magazines — ummm… why?)
* * *
Perhaps some Sentimentalists, like myself, should aim to function more like a Middler within this age of constant relocation and life change that we humans now inhabit. Giving things up is hard; and perhaps the peace — the one that comes with starting over or (gasp) having the adventure of doing without — is delayed until one starts to settle into new routines or begins a new journey. Perhaps the Economists have a point and it is a good way to clear the mind, but I know that clearing out during this round is only a means to an end; I will eventually start the cycle all over again and get attached to new things.
I admit that with age, I am changing. I get less and less attached to newer stuff, and more attached to those things that have stayed and travelled with me the longest. I can admit now that some things need to be thrown away and it will be hard, but I will do it anyway (and painfully — oh, darling teaset, you have served as my emotional placeholder for things I am worried about forgetting for long enough). I will make a list, I will edit it, I will put certain things in certain sell/give piles and then move them to other keep/store piles and then back again… and eventually I will make progress. Packing up my Paris life to begin anew will be my first big attempt at paring down in recent years, and it is scary as fuck.