This weekend I’ve been helping my boyfriend deep clean his bedroom, send a lot of things off to the Goodwill and a lot off to the dump, and generally try to start with a fresh slate in terms of stuff. It’s interesting because it’s been a fairly emotional process for both of us. I’m not entirely sure why we as human beings feel such an attachment to possessions, but one thing that is certain is that a large part of cleaning house involves looking at who you have been and where you have gone, and making decisions about where you want to go in he form of asking “Will I ever use this again?” or “Is this important to me?”
As we answer these questions, we decide which futures still seem possible to us. Each time you look at an object and decide whether you will need it, you’re deciding whether it’s part of the future you want, and with it, all the possibilities that it represents. When you throw away the sushi kit you never used, you have to abandon the small part of you that still dreams of being a sushi chef. And while you do it, you also have to recognize the things you’ve failed to do, the things you’ve failed to accomplish: you never used it. You never pursued that dream. Things didn’t work out the way you intended when you purchased it and imagined rolling out your homemade sushi.
None of us like to cut off futures. None of us like to close doors. Unfortunately, when we’re cleaning, we don’t get to see the new doors that we’ve made space to open. Each of those things that you’re holding on to is taking some amount of your attention, some amount of your energy, and when you consciously choose to move on from it, you’re freeing up mind space and physical space that can be used for something new, something that you’re passionate about now, something you will actually love and move forward with. The difficult part of cleaning house is that you don’t get to see that particular pay off. All you see is your past walking out the door.
Because of the link between objects, emotions, and futures, cleaning house can be a practice in cleaning your mind. You remove the rubble, the things that you were holding on to and thinking of and worrying over, and try to let them go.
An important element of this is the reminders. Objects are firm reminders of the past. You see pieces of who you used to be, dreams and identities you used to have, past relationships, past careers. All of these are difficult to be reminded of, and can trigger you to reprocess the memories and the events. The objects you chose to keep can symbolize a lot about how you felt towards a particular event or person. Choosing to remove those reminders can feel like giving up on the past or losing your connection to your past, and even more potent, looking at your past laid out in front of you can be a really difficult moment of self-evaluation. All of us have disappointments, whether it be looking at the guitar we gave up playing, or finding a letter from the lover we thought we’d marry, and when you see the objects from past years strewn out in front of you it’s incredibly difficult to not feel like you haven’t done enough or you haven’t done well enough, like you’ve stagnated, like you’ve disappointed others and yourself.
In reality, these physical reminders are often just reminders of the bad things. We don’t notice the diploma we already have hanging up, or the books we’ve read and replaced on the bookshelf, or the career that we now have. And while we might feel bad about removing the reminders of the bad things, we can’t escape the past no matter how hard we try. It shapes who we are. When we choose to remove reminders, we free up mental and emotional space that can be used for the here and now. It can literally give your brain the space to begin rewiring for new identities, thoughts, priorities, and actions. And it gives you the literal, physical space to grow again: you can begin new projects, you can feel comfortable enough to start something in your apartment, or to dance, or to work out. Giving yourself literal space to move around in can absolutely make you feel mentally more comfortable.
Choosing to make changes like removing detritus or purging your things is always difficult. It means accepting that certain things in your life are over, letting go of who you were, accepting that your life has changed. It can also mean accepting lost opportunities. But on the plus side, accepting all of these things is the first step towards changing and growing. It’s an odd paradox, but the first step towards change is radical acceptance of what is, because you have to accurately see the current situation before you can change it.
I think perhaps the best part of practicing cleanliness and simplicity in your home and your things is that it can help you to live in the present. When you are living in the present, the only pain you feel is the pain of the moment. You’re not thinking of the futures that could be, and you’re not thinking of the past and what hurt you then. The future and the past contain a great deal more pain than this moment right now, and when you recognize that and only reside in the present, you liberate yourself of a great deal of pain.
I have always believed in the importance of limiting how much STUFF I hold on to. I think that having enough things to tie you down and make you feel solid, as if you have a real identity and have chosen which memories to keep, can be extremely beneficial to feeling certain of who you are. But like any practice of emotional balancing, it’s important to consistently clear out the remnants that you don’t want, so that you can feel solid without being weighed down.
Things are often more metaphorical than we realize. It can be good to think of what they’re representing for us.