I have just returned from a summer of cleaning out my parents’ home so they can downsize. They’ve been living alone in the same 5-bedroom house for over 40 years and as a result the task was monumental. As we went through and separated the useful from the wistful, I was constantly puzzled as to why my parents had held on to so many things that seemed irrelevant in their current life.
I noticed that they clearly weren’t holding on to junk as we often see on those hoarder shows, but instead, had filled their home with items, which held a specific memory for them. They were emotionally attached to almost every book we took off the shelf and each piece of clothing we took out of the closet. It seemed that getting rid of these items was like erasing a bit of their past.
In my own life, frequent long distance moves required leaving items I treasured behind. And what I’ve learned is that the art of letting go comes down to negotiating the boundary between our emotional and rational selves.
It’s important to understand that even if we get rid of a box of photos, we will never get rid of our past. The moments we lived through and the items that surrounded us at that time have made us who we have become. They are internalized and cannot be taken away.
So our family hunkered down and started the process of letting go: we donated unnecessary pieces of furniture, clothing and toys, and drastically reduced the books. After a while a sense of lightness started to pervade the rooms we had cleared. My parents noticed this change, and their initial resistance faded. With more and more vigor they filled bags of things to be donated.
Upon my return, a friend of mine handed me a book I wished I had read before leaving. In Marie Kondo’s The Live-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, she cuts through our emotional difficulties by suggesting we pick up each item, look at it, feel it and ask the question: “Does this item give me joy?”
If still you derive great joy from a particular item today, then keep it. If you don’t feel that spark of joy anymore, but rather a sense of obligation to yourself (e.g. I spent so much money on this), or to your family (e.g. my grandmother gave me this for my 12th birthday) then let it go. Kondo suggests expressing gratitude to each item, while putting it on the discard pile.
Kondo’s goal is for you to be surrounded by only the items that give you joy. She states, “The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.”
I clean out my home frequently, because I enjoy the healing effect this has on my psyche. It not only allows renewed energy to flow through my house but also through my entire life. In a strange way when my home is organized, so is my mind. And this allows me to take on new projects with more energy and focus.
So, if your home feels more like a museum or a storage unit of your past, I invite you to set some time aside to go through it, start with a drawer or go– room by room – and decide what items are outdated and which still give you joy. You will be amazed at how much renewed energy your life will hold.