Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
A purge of the possessions held onto for decades clears more than storage units; it frees the mind and heart as well
When my wife passed away in 2017, I needed to downsize from a house to an apartment. I was too overwhelmed by grief and the complications of life to think clearly about much of anything. So I filled three storage units with everything from furniture to books and clothing. Many memories were locked away when I did this. And I went on with my life.
I knew that there were precious things locked away, but I also knew that much of what I had put in storage was not precious. It had been easier for me at that point in my life to not make tough decisions.
If you also have a storage unit or have had one, you know what I am talking about. But even if you have never had a storage unit, you have faced the same challenges in your own home. We have all found that over time we tend to accumulate a lot of things, and we put off making decisions about what we should keep. We buy new clothes to replace things we have, but then we keep the old clothes “just in case.” In case of what? We can’t answer that question, but we keep the old clothes anyway. And after a few years, we can’t understand why our closets are so full.
I have never defined myself in terms of my possessions, and I suspect that you don’t either. But things do matter; possessions don’t need to define us to be important. At the same time, giving oneself the freedom to grow and change also matters. It comes down to balance, as is the case for so many things in life.
A couple of years after I put things into storage, I couldn’t remember exactly what was there. I could picture some things clearly, but others were locked away in my memory in places I could not access. And years passed. I found love again, married, and began a new life. In doing so, I had no intention of ignoring my past or setting it aside, but by having so many of my possessions in storage, I was living with an unresolved past. I was sheltered, in a way, from the need to achieve a sense of closure — something that would give me the freedom to embrace all parts of my life as a unified whole.
There was another factor. The cost! I was spending almost a thousand dollars a month for my storage units, and the company I rented from raised the prices every few months. That’s a lot of money to spend just to not make decisions. And I began to think of what I could do with an extra thousand dollars a month.
So I finally decided that I had to do it. I had to face the daunting task of going through my storage units. The first thing I did was to invite my two daughters to take anything they wanted for themselves. I still had a few boxes of their things from childhood, and I wanted them to make their own decisions about those things. Beyond that, I told them they were welcome to whatever else was important or useful to them. I was delighted that one of my daughters needed furniture. She was renovating her basement and creating several new rooms, so she was able to take almost all of the furniture that was in storage. It made me feel very good that it had found a new home. And both of my daughters took other things as well.
But the rest was up to me. I set aside three full days for the task. I knew it would be hard work, but I had not prepared myself for how emotional it would be. What I discovered was that every single thing I touched sparked a memory. This didn’t mean that I needed to keep every object. But the memories flooded in.
Going through the storage units was like reliving over forty years of my life — its ups and downs, its triumphs and tragedies.
The things I touched, one by one, were like mystical passageways to so many stages of my life. I could see images from my past. I could hear conversations from years gone by. It took my breath away. At moments, it was so powerful that I had to stop what I was doing and seek out a place to sit over a cup of coffee and reflect.
Here’s an example. I have a strong relationship with books. They have always been important to me, and my home library is not just a place where I keep books of interest; it is a kind of autobiography of my life struggles. Each book represents a piece of me, of how I became who I am. I had already kept a large number of my books out of storage and set up my new library, but I had left in storage hundreds and hundreds more. Each one with a story. Each one capable of unlocking part of myself. I guess I felt that I might need them all again at some point. But as I went through my boxes, I realized that I did not need all these books to be whole. And the memories were not really in the physical books. They were in me. I am what these books and the teachers who helped me read them helped to create.
Somehow I found the strength to throw away many of those books. It was really difficult, but I know it was the right decision. And not just books. I gave some things to charity and discarded others, if they could not be donated. And I saved things as well, of course, but I forced myself to ask each time I picked something up: “Is this truly important? Do you need this? Should you keep it?” When my three days were over, I discovered that I was actually finished. I took one last look at the now empty storage units, and walked on.
And speaking of books, I read my first Agatha Christie novel recently — one of her Miss Marple books. Towards the end of the book, Miss Marple said something that touched me deeply and that seemed as if it had been a reflection of my experience with my storage units. She said, “I learned that one can never go back, that one should not ever try to go back — that the essence of life is going forward.” Thank you, Miss Marple.
As the saying goes, we come into life with nothing, and we leave with nothing. But this does not mean that our lives are nothing. Our lives are important to us, the people we love, and I believe that the thoughts and feelings we have, the people we know, and the way we live is linked to eternity.
Our mortality does not mean we do not matter. In fact, I believe that it is mortality itself that adds urgency and potency to our lives.
And possessions are important, even if they are not everything. A possession can spark a sweet memory and bring back to one’s consciousness images that would otherwise lie dormant in the heart.
But I came to understand that the life I have lived and the memories that I have do not depend on keeping every one of my possessions. Letting go of some of them is poignant but can be positive. Life is about moving forward, and while we don’t need to abandon our past to make that happen, we do need to lighten our load from time to time. Possessions can be life-enhancing, but they can sometimes tempt us to live in the past, rather than just honor the past. We just need to find the balance.
You may also enjoy Heal Your Living: A Q&A with Youheum Son, by Bill Miles.