Since my article titled: “Six Reasons We Hold Onto Possessions and Seven Solid Reasons to Let Them Go” received such an overwhelming response, I decided to do a follow-up article pulled from two previous articles I’ve written that gives more dimension to the whole subject. First, some additional perspectives on the emotional underpinnings of holding onto things, then a look at discerning between treasures we should keep and trash we should discard.

A few years ago I wrote, “My husband and I are having major fun de-junking. The other day he pulled out of some forgotten corner of his office closet 3 striped or plaid jackets, 3 funny looking belts and 2 pairs of shoes—all vintage 70s. I had no idea he had them. He has no idea why he kept them. We both had a good laugh. I got with the program and discarded or recycled unused gifts (I can keep the love the gift symbolizes and still get rid of the gift), stacks of files I haven’t referred to for years, and contact lens equipment and square dance duds (I haven’t worn contact lenses or square danced since 1998).”

Why do we keep things we don’t need and don’t use?

Author David Dudley, who wrote an article on de-cluttering for AARP magazine said, “The rarely used objects cluttering our lives are not really objects at all but symbols of our plans and untapped potential. They are, as my father said while I hauled off a grill, ‘artifacts of unused life’ (AARP, February 2007, p. 66). That philosophy may apply to Doug’s trumpet that he hasn’t played since Jr. High, the stack of books I intend to read “some day,” and the dozen files of article ideas I may never get to. But I think they can also be symbols of “used” life.

Some of the things we keep are vital to recording and documenting the lives we have lived. Others may be indicators that we are clinging too tightly to the past, or afraid to face the pain of the past long enough to sort through them. Or we may be connecting our “things” with our memories to such a degree that we feel we would be throwing out the memory or even the experience if we throw out the thing. I know a woman who believes the “thing” is the memory; her life is complicated and weighed down by a house, garage, and storage units packed full of “memories.” I know a man who relates so closely to his “things” that he feels immensely disrespected, invaded, even violated if any possession is damaged, broken, or given away.

What is the truth about our connection with our “things”? How symbolic are they of our lives? Why do some of us have such a hard time parting with things that no longer serve us?

De-junking lecturer Gladys Allen said that we have a mental inventory (though it may be subconscious) of every old pair of shoes, every tarnished silver tray, every shirt we haven’t worn for years yet still keep. The energy we use to keep track of all that stuff, and to handle the guilt of not dealing with it, could be used so much more productively. Gladys, over a period of many years, helped many women taste the freedom of using their energy to clear their homes and at the same time, clear their minds.

The stories we attach to our things

David Dudley, telling of the battle that resulted from his efforts to help his parents downsize when they were moving to a smaller home, said of a chafing dish, “The dish came attached to a story: it was a wedding present from someone, now deceased, and was once used “all the time” at dinner parties of yore . . . [though never in the author’s lifetime]. Mom extolled the dish’s beauty and utility, and the kindness of the friend who bestowed it on her 45 years ago. And she insisted I would want it—even need it—someday . . . This defied all logic, just as it had for the giant punch bowl, the crockery set shaped like waterfowl, the candelabra with the broken arm, and the peculiar vacuum cleaner that was designed to vacuum hot fireplace ash.

I would never need them, because I did not have a life that involved punch parties or wood-burning and did not anticipate acquiring one.” He said his mother felt that by getting rid of her things he was trying to wipe out her life. He said, “I wondered how life had deposited my family at this point, hostages to the bric-a-brac that once served us” (ibid, p. 69).

Professional organizer Jeanne Smith, whose older clients often have an unfathomable connection with their possessions, said, “They’re going through a life-review process and a grieving process. They’re reliving 20 years of their lives through that coffee cup” (Ibid, p. 70). At a time when loss of control may be an issue, loss of “things” can seem quite unbearable. Jeanne says a listening ear can be a huge de-stresser. Just having someone to talk to about the memories before the things go out the door can make a big difference (Ibid, p. 71).

Taking pictures of items that seem to have the strongest memory ties may help a person over the pain of parting with things. Pictures take a lot less space to store, especially if the pictures are digital. I suspect writing about the memories as part of a personal life history might also help. No one wants their life to be forgotten, and perhaps keeping our things is symbolic of that desire. Documenting our lives in words may release us from the need to document them with so much of the stuff that reminds us of the memories.

Where does the tendency to clutter come from?

But wait! Cluttering is hardly a problem that affects only old fogies (like me!). One of my sons developed the disease by the time he was two. By age six his closet was the repository of burned out fireworks, rusty chains, empty boxes and broken toys that all had some mysterious value to him. I had a terrible time convincing him to let me throw any of his things away. He followed me to the car when I was taking some things to D.I.—including part of his never-ending collection of mangy stuffed animals. “Please, Mama. I want to keep them!” “Why do you need them all?” I countered. “What good are they?” “They’re good to hug,” he said, big brown eyes looking up at me imploringly. Needless to say, most of the stuffed animals went back into the house.

Could it be that cluttering is in our genes? For obvious reasons many people believe it is connected to creativity and multiple interests. However, some of the most organized people I know are also the most creative—they extend their creativity to creative ways to keep things in order!

What about clutter-bugs whose houses are cluttered more because of lack of time to sort and clean than to any connection to their things? And what about those who keep things because they are simply indecisive, and every discard requires a decision.

Many organization gurus suggest that the best way to start working ourselves out of clutter is to label three boxes: 1. discard, 2. give away, 3. store. Dividing the contents of any drawer, cupboard, or closet into those three categories gives you a good place to start. Another consistent guideline is to clean out one small area at a time to avoid feeling overwhelmed (and to avoid having family members ask you if a bomb hit the house).

When I wrote a de-cluttering article in 2007, responses were interesting: One woman from Idaho just said, “Ouch!” One from Texas said, “You did such a great job advocating for the loss of clutter in our lives. I find that less clutter in the home helps to keep me with less clutter in my mind, too. I thought about how even in my mind I have several ‘items’ that are no longer useful and yet there they are… Luckily, there is also ‘garbage pick up’ through repentance!” Don’t you love that analogy?

Another reader sent me an article called “Say Yes to Mess!” as an alternate point of view. A Colorado man said, “Wait a minute! Don’t be so quick to judge and discard! My grandsons delight in wearing some of my vintage clothes — talk of the school! Everyone asking where they might get some of the same! And, our missionary grandsons anxiously stand in line for first dubs on Grandfather’s ties (I limit them to 5 each)! Other missionaries ask where they got such neat ties! If I had thrown out all these things, look at the pleasure I would have robbed from my grandsons!”

Things That Can Turn Our Hearts to Our Ancestors

That response got me to thinking about the treasures my mom saved and how much we have enjoyed them. At her 85th birthday party her daughters and granddaughters did a fashion show of special clothes Mom had kept—all the way from a beautifully cut dress from the 1920s that she wore when she was dating my dad to the outfit she wore for her 50th wedding celebration. Since Mom’s death I have divided her handwork, quilts, and afghans among children and grandchildren and we all treasure them. I have a couple of baby dresses that she made for me when I was tiny and pillow cases she embroidered for me when I was getting married forty years ago. An assortment of her pins framed on a velvet background (one given her by her mother as a keepsake from her grandmother) hangs on my wall. I have her journals, hand-written tender messages and pictures from her children and grandchildren. These may clutter my house, but no one could call them junk!

The same day I was thinking about all this I visited a friend who had re-done her living room as an “ancestor room.” As I stepped into the room I saw a beautiful old trunk her parents used when they moved from California to Utah. Inside she stores many large archival acid free black boxes—each labeled with an ancestor’s name. Inside the boxes are hand-made pieces of clothing, eye glasses, coin purses, and letters, some over a hundred years old. Each box also holds photos, a short history of the person and an explanation of each item inside.

Pictures of her grandmother, Anna Viktoria Lindberg and her mother Anna Kristina (taken in 1916 in Sweden) grace one wall. They were the first in their line to be converted to the Church. They left their homeland and arrived in the United States in October of 1920. Restored and exquisitely framed pictures of her husband’s pioneer grandparents sit on end tables. On shelves of a tall bookcase are ancestor pictures from the early 1800s, along with a pair of Suzanne’s tiny baby shoes, antique cameras and wooden button boxes.

Two smaller trunks hold some belongings of her Grandpa Parker—his wool sweater, his paint brushes, his wallet, and a few of his letters and photos. She says the room is a wonderful place to share stories of special ancestors with her young grandchildren. These stories and photos make each person become a real and living person. Suzanne says her grandchildren are intrigued when she holds the very paintbrush used by Grandpa Parker. She tells them how he could make paint from the elements of the earth and was a master at matching the paint with any decor. All these items bring an appreciation for the past into the present. Suzanne feels that through pictures, artifacts and stories, these ancestors are becoming a part of her grandchildren’s lives, and are giving the children a greater appreciation for the blessing of the present. They made me wish I had more such “clutter” in my home!

Seeing the Difference Between Treasures and Junk

So, whatever rules apply to the general clutter of our lives—to the no longer functioning walkman, the five stained T-shirts we haven’t worn for years and probably never will, the stacks of tapes and CDs that never get listened to—they don’t apply to treasures that may connect us more closely to our relatives. “Turning the hearts of the children to the fathers” may be a lot easier if we have artifacts, handwritten journals, cards, and letters, and even special articles of clothing worn by the person (think of displays in the Church History Museum). Let’s not get carried away and discard treasures. At the same time, for every one potential treasure in our cluttered closets, there are probably a hundred things we would never regret having parted company with! The trick is to discern the difference.


Author note: To hear a thought-provoking interview that Nick Galieti did with me, check out the following link that will take you to the FairMormon website, entitled Articles of Faith, posts.