We’re obsessed with stuff. We fill our homes with things we’ve collected, and when there’s no more room we rent storage lockers to house our stuff. I’ve been there, too. For at least a year I paid $200 a month for a storage locker. When I look back at that time, I ask myself: What was I thinking? It’s just a few years later and I have none of the things that I paid so much money to hold on to! Why didn’t I just let go of it all in the first place, instead of paying at least $2400 to keep a bunch of stuff in a big, dark box?
I’m not the only one who has been through this experience. It’s made me curious to know, what is the meaning of clutter? And why can’t we let go of all this stuff!?
This week’s topic: Clutter
Human beings are born naked and vulnerable. We find security in possessing items that we find immediately useful, such as food. Since we’re also capable of imagining and planning our futures, we also feel secure when we possess potentially useful items. The physical source of clutter is a desire for physical security, convenience, and comfort.
Human beings are emotionally vulnerable, especially when we’re forced to be alone with our own thoughts. A tropical island is paradise when we’ve got friends and entertainment; it’s torture when we’re alone and bored. Collecting stuff is emotionally soothing because it ensures a source of entertainment.
Human beings have brains that want to ensure survival, which translates into a fear of the unknown. Memories, relationships, resentment, habits and habitual thoughts are rooted in the past, and therefore are known to us. New = unknown = scary. Because anything rooted in the past is known, it’s comforting in a way. Holding on to the past is comforting simply because it is not new.
A brief analysis of the collection habit reveals that clutter is probably rooted in fear. We are afraid to let go of something because we are worried that we will not get the same or better in the future.
Ethics of Collection – Happiness
Aristotle thought that happiness consisted of a combination of circumstances and character. Many people agree that circumstances are at least partially responsible for happiness. Perhaps Aristotle’s view was reasonable in that health and minimal income can help human beings to live happy lives. However, the belief that happiness rests partially upon circumstances also makes it difficult to let items go, for fear that any one object potentially contains the grounds of happiness.
I can imagine that somewhere in your closet you have a shirt that you don’t wear but cannot give away. Why? Somewhere inside there is a voice warning you that one day you might want to wear it, but you’ll be really sad if you give it up. In other words, that shirt somehow potentially secures part of your future happiness. (Try it: find it and give it up right now.)
“More stuff” seems to imply “security” and “happiness”, so we are driven to collect more and more stuff. Yet some happy people tell us that circumstances and objects – even health and minimal income – are not required for happiness. The Greek Stoics were such people. Like the Stoics, could we refuse to let objects hold us, and our happiness, hostage?
Ethics of Collection (II) – Authenticity
Holding on to a lot of stuff is counter to your authenticity. Although it seems that clutter increases your options, it in fact decreases your ability to act authentically. In every situation from what to wear to work to where to spend the next three months, owning too much stuff limits the what, where, and how you act. Clutter is an anchor on your free expression and authentic movement.
I recently saw a homeless person pushing three shopping carts full of junk covered in tarps. Seeing this image saddened me in many ways; not only was he homeless, but he was still being controlled by a fear of being without – so much so that he was using his energy to push around carts of garbage. When circumstances had trapped him, he was further trapped by fear of leaving anything behind.
The perceived value of clutter is increased options and security. In reality, clutter has no real value.
- Did you grow up in a household that was minimalist or full of clutter, or something in between?
- What did your parents teach you about giving things away that you do not use?
- Do you think that you associate your belongings with security?
- What security value that you get from the objects you own?
- What emotional value do you get from the objects you own?
- Do you think that there are any objects that are required for happiness?
- Make a list of twenty of your favorite things: 5 objects, 5 memories, 5 emotions, and 5 people. Now cut it down to only 5 items in total. (Ask: Will I need it? Could I do without it? Is it replaceable? Does it bring me value or joy? Is it essential to who I am?) What do your results tell you about where your priorities should be?
How to Get the most out of Know Thyself 2019:
Don’t rush through the questions. Do one question every day, leaving space to add thoughts later as you learn and evolve. The journal is designed to help you develop a consistent, daily practice of self-reflection.
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