Should we keep childhood memorabilia because it helps us remember the past and reminds us of how we came to be who we are? Or do these things weigh us down (physically, spiritually, etc) and prevent us from living more fully in the present? I know it’s about balance, and will be different for each of us…
Have you ever read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up?
It’s that book where Marie Kondo explains that you can clear all the clutter in your house by holding every item in your hand and asking: does this bring me joy?
It’s like the old William Morris quote—”Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”—taken to an extreme. And honestly, I never put down the book and started maniacally paring down my closet. I think joy alone is an odd metric for these decisions; I’m not really sure it’s wise to throw out my potato peeler just because it doesn’t give me toe-tingling thrills. There are other reasons to keep things.
Still, I do believe the book has changed lives, because it gets at a truth we know from another great teacher: where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Often I let my things hold onto my past (or my beliefs about the future) because I’m not willing to really process it and make it part of me. I just want to be able to visit the past, to know that it’s near, to cozy up to old selves and milestone events without actually deciding what they mean to me; but by leaving the past in limbo, I end up dividing my heart.
When I moved to a new house this summer, I knew I didn’t want a lot of stuff crammed into it. Cramming takes time and space and mental energy. So I did my own little version of the Kondo experiment: I held each item in my hands and asked, does this deserve to take up any more of the space and time in my life?
In the process, I found the things asking questions back to me.
Why have I kept this reminder of a painful school year until now? Because I think I’m supposed to?
Am I really going to pick up this hobby again? Why do I want to believe that?
Is this bringing me joy—or just reminding me that it used to do so? Might a photo of it or essay about it do the same?
I know I’ve faced some of these questions before, but in the past, I defaulted to keeping the thing so I could avoid answering the question. This time, I put a higher value on the space and time in my life—so I made myself come up with an answer.
Maybe I thought the pain could somehow be fixed—or maybe I hadn’t even acknowledged that year was really that painful.
Maybe I’d like to think of myself as someone who does this hobby—but maybe it would feel even better to finally admit that I’m not.
Maybe by now I’ve held this in my hands and smiled enough times that I won’t forget loving it.
In a lot of cases, once I answered the question, the stuff lost its gloss. It became an exercise in letting go.
In the Hebrew Bible, of course, some things are kept for the same reasons: because their questions must be answered over and over. The Israelites had rituals, altars, buildings, and decorations that existed solely for the purpose of inviting children to ask: why is this here? What does it mean?
Because everyone needs reminders of the simple answers to children’s questions, these objects deserved the time and space they took up. The questions they held could be answered with stories—stories of God’s faithfulness, stories that told the people who they were, stories that invited them to live as God’s children.
Of course, the stories and the storytellers were really more sacred than the objects; but those reminders were still precious. The stories were too important to plan to tell them “someday”; so the objects made an occasion to stop. Stop what you’re doing and gather round. We’re remembering together.
If you’re like me, you start looking for the “balance” when you don’t want to admit that something is a both/and, neither/nor, sometimes-this-and-sometimes-that situation. Wouldn’t it be more comforting to lay down some more straightforward rules? How will we measure our righteousness (or our productivity/happiness/health) without some ideal to shoot for, some Platonian form of “balance”? It would be nice if some authority could tell us, “every adult should have five or fewer childhood items in their house!”
But you already know that, in this case, there’s no easy standard. It just depends. What are the things? Might someone else need them, or might they be causing you harm? Could you do something with them that would make them more useful or beautiful? Are you saving them for your children? How much space do you have in your house? How many stories do you have to tell?
Marie Kondo would stand behind you and whisper, throw it all away. But she might be just a wee bit…unbalanced.
For my part, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t come and tell you what to do with each thing. But maybe I could help you listen to the questions and the stories each object holds. Maybe I could remind you that when you keep the best and let go of the merely good, you usually end up with a feeling of greater abundance. I’d repeat a few mantras to you:
Place a high value on your time and space.
Be honest with yourself.
Never keep something just because you’re afraid to let it go.
Don’t get rid of things when you’re in a bad mood.
Be kind to your past self.
Treasure things because they represent stories told—not because they harbor stories untold.
Taking stock of your things can help you take stock of your life; so have nothing in your life which you do not know to be useful or believe, somehow, to be beautiful.
Have you encountered this problem? Share with us: any tidying-up mantras you’ve discovered over the years?