To keep or not to keep . . .


29 May 2019

In a world where people are exhorted to declutter, holding on to possession might just be a radical act.

‘Well, I had a good look at all my sewing and gardening books, and I decided that I still want all of them,’ said my friend, Helen. She looked uncharacteristically defiant, and clutched her coffee mug in both hands. ‘Why should we have to get rid of things we love?’

We were sitting together in her living room. This long room, with its garden views, comfy brown leather sofas, blue wing chairs, needlepoint cushions, crammed bookshelves, paintings, and blue and white china, welcomed us. It is friendly and unselfconscious. It has a telescope in the window corner, a music collection, a television and a computer desk in it. Everything is well-loved, and speaks of well-lived lives.

De-cluttering craze

Our conversation was about the latest craze for decluttering, inspired by the Japanese expert, Marie Kondo.

I had shared my amazement on driving past the Vinnie’s Store on the Tuesday following the long weekend. The entire shopfront was stacked about two metres high, and almost as deep, with donations. Volunteers arriving at the shop later in the morning would have needed a fork-lift to clear a way to the door to unlock for business.

Clearly, the holiday had been spent by many households removing unwanted clutter from their homes, solving the problem of disposal by leaving it to the charity shop to deal with. But how long, we wondered, would it take before the decluttered spaces filled again with the endless tsunami of stuff that flows through our consumption-driven households?

The pressure to consume is relentless. Packaging fills our bins, unused food by the tonne fills our tips daily, and bargain shops offer new clothes for less than Thrift Shops prices. Sale! Upgrade! New! Sometimes, I truly think that if I stopped dealing with stuff for just one week, the house would be knee-deep. I’d have to get behind a broom and push it all out the door to deal with it.

Collecting or hoarding?

For some people, the line between collection and hoarding is blurred. For others, shopping has become an addiction, with more and more stuff filling available storage, and spilling over into spare rooms and garages. One study suggests that 85% of double car garages are not used for car parking, because they are completely stacked with possessions.

Why do we have so much? And how do we cope with owning so much stuff that we don’t even know what we have? Overwhelmed, we might well pull down the roller-door and hide.

If this sounds a bit like someone you know, Marie Kondo can certainly help. Her advice is not to start by throwing out what you don’t want, but rather, to sort out what you do want to keep. Working in categories – clothes, paper, sentimental – she advises that you bring it all into one space, picking up each item in turn. Ask yourself, as you hold it, if it ‘sparks joy’. Do you want to continue to own this possession, or can it be moved on? As you place each item down, thank it.

What you decide not to keep, you dispose of thoughtfully.

Relieving emotional tension

Marie brings great compassion to her clients, never judging or forcing them to make decisions. She begins her work by praying with them, and believes that tidying brings happiness, as it de-stresses families and individuals who live with the emotional tension of out-of-control stuff. And an unexpected side-effect seems to be better communication and respect in the household.

Obviously, there are many belongings that do not ‘spark joy’. An eggslice, for example. However, the possession of such a tool makes us grateful when it’s bacon and eggs time. And we are happy that it can be found in its assigned place in the drawer when we look to use it.

And sometimes, instead of joy, deciding what you want to keep can spark sadness. Is it time to say good-bye to the unused serving dishes and bowls you bought five years ago, because you imagined inviting your distant and broken family to a wonderful dinner party? It’s a dream, as well as the dishes that you farewell.

Maybe the real work is in forgiveness, of yourself and others. Maybe it’s time to choose to let go. However, some things of little value to others may be very precious to you.

It would be sad if the fashion for uncluttered surfaces, and unadorned walls meant that gracious rooms like the one we were sitting in, were dismantled.

Where, in the subsequent pared back simplicity, would there be room to display Mum and Dad’s wedding photo, or the kids’ sports trophies – ‘Most Improved’, and ‘Runner-Up Under 12 D-Grade Indoor Cricket’?

Choose what you keep

In his ‘First Principle and Foundation’, Saint Ignatius advises that the best way to choose what to keep, and what to reject is to ask ourselves whether it helps or hinders us to live the life for which God made us – free to praise, reverence and serve our Creator.

Keep the things that matter, not because someone told you to, but rather, to make space within for the soul to breathe, and our hearts to welcome the Paraclete.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2019 edition of Madonna magazine.

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