Can you relate to the funny experience my husband and I had a few years ago? One day, he pulled out of some forgotten corner of his office closet a striped jacket, a plaid polyester leisure suit, and two pairs of patent leather 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.

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

Author David Dudley 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.’”[i] That philosophy may apply to Doug’s trumpet that he hasn’t played since junior high and the stack of books I intend to read “someday.”

While some of the things we keep are vital to recording and documenting our lives, others may be indicators that we are either clinging too tightly to the past or afraid to face the pain of the past long enough to sort through them. We may connect our “things” with our memories to such a degree that we feel we would be throwing out the memory if we throw out the thing.

What is the truth about our connection with our “things”? How symbolic are they of our lives? I know a woman who believes the “thing” is the memory; her life is complicated and weighed down by a large house, garage, and storage units packed full of “memories.”

Two other reasons, in addition to sentiment, that we may have a hard time parting with things that no longer serve us are:

  1. We may think getting rid of things is like throwing money away. In reality, we lose time, money, space, and sanity by getting, having and keeping unused and unloved items.
  2. Our houses may be cluttered because of lack of time to sort and clean or because we are simply indecisive, and every discard requires a decision.

“How-To” Solutions

If we fall into the category of connecting “things” with memories, taking pictures of items that seem to have the strongest memory ties may help us over the pain of parting with things. Pictures take a lot less space to store, especially if the pictures are digital.

Writing about the memories as part of a personal life history might also help. No one wants their life to be forgotten, and keeping things may be symbolic of that desire. Documenting our lives in words may release us from the need to document them with so much of the stuff.

If time and indecision are the main problems, the key is simply to start! Many organization gurus suggest that the best way to start working ourselves out of clutter is to label three boxes:

  1. to discard (because they would not be useful to anyone)
  2. to give away (to a family member who might need or want it or to organizations such as D.I., Salvation Army, Goodwill Industries who welcome donations)
  3. to store (treasures or things that will surely be useful in the future)

Dividing the contents of any drawer, cupboard, or closet into those three categories makes it easy to move on to the next step of deciding what items really belong in that area and storing or getting rid of the rest.

To avoid overwhelm (and to avoid having family members ask if a bomb hit the house!), we might clean out one small area at a time. The satisfaction of even one little drawer transformed from a mess to clean and orderly can motivate us to continue our de-junking quest!

How to Decide What to Keep

Counselor Ed McCormack suggests, “If a thing doesn’t enhance your enjoyment of life, build you up, or express your best self, it’s junk.” I like the idea of having nothing in my house that I do not find useful or experience as beautiful.

Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, suggests we hold or touch each item and ask ourselves first, if it sparks joy in us, and second, if we need and use it. If it does not spark joy and if it is not needed or useful, discard it.

Reader Responses

When I first wrote about de-cluttering for Meridian (in 2007) I received some interesting responses. One reader sent me an article called “Say Yes to Mess!” as an alternate point of view. One woman from Idaho just said, “Ouch!” One from Texas said, “You did such a great job advocating for decreasing the 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 items that are no longer useful, and yet there they are. Luckily, it is possible to de-clutter our minds and there is also garbage pick-up through repentance!” Don’t you love that analogy? 

Some Things are Worth Saving 

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! His schoolmates are 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 Can Turn Our Hearts to Our Ancestors

That response got me to thinking about some treasures my mom saved and how much we have enjoyed them. At her 85th birthday party Mom’s daughters and granddaughters did a fashion show of the few special clothes she had kept — all the way from a beautifully cut dress from the 1920s that she wore when she was dating my dad to her 50th wedding celebration outfit. 

After my mother died I was able to divide her handwork, quilts, and afghans that she had saved in her cedar chest with family members who use and treasure them. I still enjoy using pillow cases she embroidered and dishtowels she decorated. An assortment of her pins framed on a velvet background hangs on my wall. (One of those pins was her grandmother’s and dates back to the 1890s.) I have pictures histories that we created together in the last years of her life and a few of her journals. In a glass cabinet I have artifacts from parents, grand-parents and great-grand-parents. No one could call these things junk! 

The same day I was thinking about all this I remembered a friend named Suzanne who redecorated her small living room as an “ancestor room.” When I stepped into that 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, eyeglasses, coin purses, and letters, some more than 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, and her mother (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 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, an antique camera and wooden button boxes. Two smaller trunks hold some belongings of her grandpa—his wool sweater, his paintbrushes, his wallet, and a few of his letters and photos. 

Suzanne 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. She says her grandchildren are intrigued when she holds the very paintbrush used by her grandpa and 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. “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). 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.

Seeing the Difference between Treasures and Junk

So, whatever rules apply to the general clutter of our lives (such as the no longer functioning walkman, the five stained T-shirts we haven’t worn for years and probably never will, decades-old inedible food storage items, the stacks of CDs that never get listened to) they don’t apply to treasures that may connect us more closely to our relatives—or that may meaningfully document our own lives for our posterity. 

Let’s not get carried away and discard treasures, such as pictures, journals, cards, and letters, and even select artifacts and a few meaningful articles of clothing worn by the person (think of displays in museums).  At the same time, for every one potential treasure in our cluttered closets, drawers, and cupboards there are probably a hundred things we would never regret having parted company with! The trick is to use some of the above ideas (and many resources) to discern the difference.

Even though it takes time initially to sort, dejunk, and declutter, the end result can be a simpler life with more time to create, more time to serve, more time to love.

Happy New Year!  Happy dejunking!

[i] AARP, Jan-Feb 2007, p. 66.