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So, presumably if you’ve followed parts 1 and 2 of the challenge you have cleared out the unneeded stuff from part of your home or life. And you have spent some time reflecting on the reasons you owned things you didn’t need or use. Those reasons might have been sentimental, or because someone pressured you into a thing, or for status, or boredom, or because you shop when stressed. There are lots of reasons why we end up owning things we don’t really want in our lives. And perhaps the most important thing that will come out of this challenge for most of us is simple awareness.
Being aware of why we do things is an essential step in taking control of our own lives. Awareness isn’t something that is highly valued in our society, however. If we all walked around very aware, centered in our values, we’d be far less influenced by advertising and far less likely to make those impulse purchases that drive so much profit. (And that clutter up our homes and lives.) Being a consumer is about buying stuff. It doesn’t actually matter to the folks selling the stuff if we need or use their products, so long as we buy them. But you and I are more than cogs in an economic wheel, we don’t have to play the game of consumption. If we do play it, we can do so with intention.
Today’s exercise is the “now what” of this challenge.
Identifying our Triggers
My baggage issue is sentimental. I’ll happily donate an expensive item I bought myself but no longer use or need. But the ratty old shirt I got from my Mom? That I’ll hang onto for decades past it’s useful life. I know other people who cannot throw something away if they spent a lot of money on it, even if it is broken beyond repair. I attach connections to people to the things I own, others equate the things they bought with their own time and work. Throwing out such purchases would be like throwing away a month of your life! Except of course that it isn’t, any more than throwing away my Mom’s ratty shirt is throwing away my relationship with her.
Stuff != People
We have replaced people with stuff. This isn’t surprising, as a society we have grown more and more isolated over the years until one writer dubbed this the “age of loneliness.” There are far reaching consequences for human beings to be so isolated, addiction is just one. And shopping can be a very real addiction. Addiction to stuff is perhaps the most socially acceptable coping technique available to modern humans.
While we might not consider it OK to numb or cope through the use of heroin or cocaine, we don’t have any issue with a house full of stuff. Or a house, and a storage shed, and a storage unit full of stuff. Advertisers relentlessly hammer home the message that stuff is how we show someone we care. Stuff is how we reward ourselves, stuff is how we celebrate accomplishments, or prove that we’ve “made it.” Stuff is even how we connect with other people.
We use stuff as such a panacea that it has become urgently important for all of us to be aware of our relationship to stuff, and what it might be replacing. Instead of keeping my Mom’s old sweater in the back of the closet, I could talk to her more often (shocking, I know). Instead of holding onto my Grandmother’s blazers like a talisman I could tell her stories to friends and family more often. I could live my life in celebration of my grandfather’s generosity and playful spirit. I don’t need the stuff, I need the people. And I suspect that you had some similar insights while cleaning out.
Connection & Redirection
So what? We’ve cleared out our closets, or kitchens, or offices. But if like me, you’ve done this before, you are probably thinking that in a year or two it’ll be just as bad. And it might be, or it might not. The choice is up to us. As I said last week I did something different this time. When I was cleaning out that closet, this time I noticed the things I was reluctant to part with and I spent some time figuring out why I was holding on to things. The things I was holding onto for a reason that wasn’t healthy (replacing a relationship with an object) I was able to let go because I had finally identified the reason they kept hanging about like ghosts!
And now I have an action plan, I am aware of some relationships that need nurturing, of ways I was feeling disconnected from people I love and I have concrete ways to reconnect. I have concrete ways to fill that need for connection without the fake connection of my accumulated stuff. Because I have that I can prevent the same sort of build up in my closet in the future, and in the rest of my life as well. That doesn’t mean it will be easy, or that I’ll get it right all the time. But I hope that I’ve become better able to identify when I’m shopping because I’m feeling disconnected from my husband, or when I’m hanging on to broken old stuff because I’m missing my family.
Sit down with your journal again (or your blog, or the comments here, but something that can help keep you accountable) and going back to week two list the reasons you were hanging onto stuff you didn’t need. There may be one reason, there might be many. Tackle what you feel you can right now, the rest can wait. For each reason spend some time thinking about the relationship, connection, or other thing that is missing. This might take some doing, but you are really looking for the healthy connection the stuff you are stuck with is replacing.
Now the plan, how can you strengthen the connection you are actually longing for, instead of holding onto the stuff? It might be spending more time meditating because you want to connect with yourself, it might be calling your Mom, it might be taking your kid out for ice-cream and talking about their week, it might be signing up for therapy to deal with grief and loss, it might be volunteering at an animal shelter, or a soup kitchen, or making friends with your neighbors. It might be readjusting your goals away from money and stuff and toward something more fulfilling.
Write it down.
There is nothing as powerful as writing our shit down. It makes it harder for us to avoid or ignore. Write it down, and now find some accountability. Maybe it’s a friend who you can check in with, your therapist, your spiritual leader, your spouse. Make a plan and see how it goes. We’ll be back next week for the final installment of this challenge!