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Collier’s Fancies and Goodnights, which it quite literally falling apart at the seams and which has been functionally superseded by a shiny new copy I bought years ago.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.
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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