Yesterday I cleaned out some clutter from my house. With the coronavirus quarantine in full swing, it seemed like the thing to do, because sitting around the house weeks on end has given me ample opportunity to stare at my "stuff."
The late, brilliant comedian George Carlin had a hilariously insightful monologue about stuff in which he said, "That's all I want, that's all you need in life, is a little place for your stuff, ya know?... This is my stuff, that's your stuff, that'll be his stuff over there. That's all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That's all your house is, a little place for your stuff... A house is a just a pile of stuff with a cover on it."
While I am not a minimalist, I am by no means a pack rat or a hoarder either. I would like to think that I fall right in the middle on what I would call the "stuff spectrum." Typically, I get rid of stuff I don't need or use. Like anyone else, some things are more difficult to get rid of than others for me. We all get attached to various forms of stuff for different reasons. I love reading, and until recently, I had a tendency to hold on to some books longer than I need to. While it makes sense to hold on to books you love and may want to re-read, I had a tendency to keep every book I purchased, even the ones I ended up not liking very much. I was pretty much cured of this a few years back when I saw Jerry Seinfeld do a bit on books in which he said, "What is the obsession people have with books? They put them in their houses like they're trophies. What do you need it for after you read it?"
As I was going through my stuff yesterday and deciding what to throw or give away and what to keep, there were two collections of stuff I anguished over while trying to make this decision- my running medals/awards and my ticket stubs. The ticket stubs, which were souvenirs from games of college and pro basketball teams I have worked with over in years, were displayed on a large mirror in my bedroom. While they represented good times and partnerships I experienced over the years, I figured I had other mementos, namely digital photos, from these experiences. So I made the decision to trash the three hundred or so dusty, yellowed ticket stubs.
The medals, however, were not as easy to discard. For years, I was a distance runner, and the experiences from those races I competed in around the world brings back many good memories. While looking at those medals and trophies, which were prominently displayed in my home, usually evoked good thoughts about yesteryear, sometimes they were painful to see. This is because I am not physically able to run anymore due to my degenerative knees. Looking at the stash of over one hundred running awards and finisher medals, I decided that most of them were simply collecting dust and taking up a great deal of space. I took my time going through the large stash, and I ended up keeping six that represented my favorite races, which was determined by things like: performance, locale, and/or friendships made.
While at first it was difficult emotionally to discard these running mementos that represented such a good time during my life, after a while, it felt liberating to let them go. To a certain extent, I felt as if I was letting go of the past and creating space for what is to come next for me. I came to the conclusion that when we take inventory of our stuff and clean it out from time to time, it gives us an opportunity to evaluate what is important to us at any given time, because our priorities and values change as we progress through our respective life journeys. I am not suggesting that we throw away meaningful family heirlooms or scrap books. However, I think it can be cathartic to to give away or throw away things we don't really need anymore.
The emotional attachment we have for our stuff cannot be understated. From a mindfulness perspective, we cause much of our suffering from clinging on to things or ideas. What is some of your stuff that may be holding you back or keeping you from the present moment? Would it be helpful to take inventory of this stuff and consider giving away or discarding what you don't need?
While getting rid of clutter can help to free us up emotionally, that's not the only benefit it can bring us. Living in our modern world of distraction, it does not take much effort for us to get off task. Clutter makes us anxious when we are trying to work. In short, "mess causes stress" for several reasons:
1. Clutter causes our minds to deal with excessive stimuli. By doing this, our minds are working overtime on stimuli that is not important or necessary to the task at hand.
2. Plies of clutter or excessive stuff distracts us.
3. Fixating on clutter zaps our productivity and creativity by sucking up the open spaces that should be allowing us to think and brainstorm.
4. Being around endless amounts of stuff makes it difficult to relax. Clutter stresses us out on physical and mental levels, as it induces a physiological response, including increased levels of cortisol (a stress hormone).
Clutter can also negatively affect a child's school performance and overall well-being. Most children struggle with organizational issues. If you don't believe me, I invite you to come to the school where I work and go through any sixth grade boy's locker of your choosing! The best thing we can do for our children on this topic is to resist the temptation to frequently clean up the stuff in their rooms and their backpacks. Instead, we should teach them how to take care of their stuff and how to combat the clutter in their lives. Make an effort to work on these skills frequently with them.
We should't expect young children to master these types of organizational skills regarding the caretaking of their stuff. Not only is this a skill and a habit that takes quite a long time to cultivate, but from a developmental aspect, the prefrontal cortex, the part of their brains that oversees executive functioning skills, is still developing. While that sounds like a great excuse to let them off the hook, don't! We can still work with them on these skills. Just keep in mind, that we need to be realistic, and strive for a growth mindset, because perfection in this domain will never be attained!
As we know, the children in our lives are sponges. Modeling the ways in which we deal with our own stuff will have the greatest impact on the ways in which our children will eventually deal with theirs.
Greg Graber, the author of Slow Your Roll- Mindfulness for Fast Times, teaches mindfulness to schools, top sports teams, and various organizations around the world. Graber, the current Head of Middle School at Lausanne Collegiate School, will begin his tenure as the school's Director of SEL & Mindfulness in June. His website is www.greggraber.com