Being Sentimental Is Irrational—and Sometimes Wholesome An ode to the stuff you just can’t throw away

In my life and my home, I like to run a tight ship. On the whole, the spaces I call mine are a temple to the Holy Cult of “a place for every­thing and every­thing in its place”. Tell me that a clut­tered room reflects a clut­tered mind, and I’ll not only nod vigorously—I’ll hug you to boot.

And yet… even an honorary member of the Anti-Hoarding League like me has, for lack of a better word, stuff that I just cannot say goodbye to.

Stuff like Hexie, my little stuffed dog toy that has lived in my bedroom for as long as I can remember. Stuff like my orig­inal paper­back copy of John Collier’s Fancies and Goodnights, which it quite liter­ally falling apart at the seams and which has been func­tion­ally super­seded by a shiny new copy I bought years ago. Stuff like that cham­pagne cork from the bottle a friend and I opened to toast to my new home when I moved to another city. Almost ten years ago.

These para­pher­nalia are of no worth what­so­ever to anyone but me. When I die, my kids will sensibly toss them in the trash. My life today could go on perfectly well without them. They take up space in my house and in my mind, and offer precious little prac­tical value in return.

But throw them away I will not.

A Matter of History

We humans are crea­tures whose minds run on a system called Narrative OS. We under­stand ourselves and our lives not as a collec­tion of atoms and processes propelled by greater forces on the playing field of biology and space­time, but as a story.

Or better yet, as a collec­tion of Russian-doll stories: an indi­vidual journey within a family chron­icle within a commu­nity tale within a town saga within a country legacy within… Through all these levels runs an inalien­able umbil­ical cord that connects every moment of our lives to the greatest of all stories: the very history of mankind.

As an aside, just to be clear, we are in fact collec­tions of atoms and ener­gies that will far outlive us and go on without us to become part of many other people’s stories—but for the present inves­ti­ga­tion, that’s irrel­e­vant. On top of the hard, objec­tive, scien­tific facts about our essen­tial nature, we are also minds that are self-aware through time and space, for as long as the candle is still burning.

Hexie, Fancies and Goodnights and the cham­pagne cork are, in a very real sense, part of me. They instan­tiate parts of the journey that has led me to where I am today. Theirs is an embedded worth, a histor­ical rele­vance kept alive by the habitat that is my conscious­ness. Outside of this nour­ishing envi­ron­ment, that worth will surely die.

Right of Admission

There is a paradox here. If such senti­mental, irra­tional mementos are to have any real value, they must also have a degree of exclu­sivity.

Imagine someone who held on to almost every single little thing they even owned, inca­pable of throwing away even the smallest posses­sions. Their hoard of stuff would be patho­log­ical rather than whole­some. It certainly wouldn’t qualify as collec­tion of keep­sakes.

In order to qualify as “stuff you just can’t throw away,” an object must be excep­tional in at least two ways. It must carry some unique value for you, its owner; and it must be rare among your belong­ings, the rest of which share a much greater degree of tran­sience and replace­ability.

Thought Experiment

It’s a matter of degree. Just as it is unwhole­some to hold on to too many things for senti­mental reasons, it may well also be irra­tional not to cherish at least a few souvenirs that remind you of previous chap­ters in your life.

As a thought exper­i­ment, imagine that from one day to the next, every single object you own would be exchanged overnight by a func­tion­ally equiv­a­lent, but brand-new, replace­ment. You wake up in the morning and every­thing is new. I think for many of us, this would be a deeply trau­matic expe­ri­ence. We’d feel unteth­ered, lost in a sea of stuff that feels like it belongs to someone else.

The useless things you can’t bring your­self to dispose of—as long as they are the exception—are mirrors that, through time and space, recon­nect you to the choices, events, feel­ings and iden­ti­ties you’ve lived through so far. Treasure them, but make sure they’re worth cher­ishing.

And now… go clean up your stuff!

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Top image credit: Contraste d’objet by Fernand Leger (source)

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