The tyranny of stuff: How clutter can control your life

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When I was a kid, once a year, my parents made me clean out my room. This involved sitting down with my dad and going through every item I owned. If I’d outgrown something or no longer used it, out it went. I hated the process; for some weird reason, I felt I was disrespecting whoever had lovingly made the item I’d ignored—and that somehow the person knew of my neglect and was sad. Never mind that the item in question was some cheap trinket made in a Hong Kong sweat shop. When I became an adult, I had no incentive to perform this annual purge, so my possessions began to accumulate.

Pam’s story was different. Due to a series of unfortunate events when she was younger, she lost a lot of things that were precious to her. Because of that, she became fearful of parting with anything, especially if it had sentimental value. Maybe she didn’t really like that fuzzy pink sweater, but a dear friend had given it to her, so how could she get rid of it?

When we got married and combined households, we also combined our stuff. Her stuff included her two sons’ stuff. Our garage, instead of being a shelter for automobiles, became a warehouse for bags, boxes, plastic storage tubs, and loose items that couldn’t fit in containers. Eventually, we vowed, we’d deal with it.

In the meantime, we’ve accumulated more books, furniture, gadgets, tchotchkes, knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, and paraphernalia that needs to be stored somewhere. Then there are the home decorations: wall art, vases, framed photos, figurines, dried-flower arrangements, and souvenirs. Individually, they’re nice. Cumulatively, they constitute out-of-control clutter. And let’s not forget how every surface in the house becomes a “temporary” resting place for mail, magazines, and other items.

When company comes, we shove our excess clutter into boxes and bags, which we then hide in the garage or the guest bedroom. We rarely get back to those boxes and bags, though, so when the next round of company comes to visit, we add more stuff to the existing stacks. Eventually, we need something that went into one of those containers. “Oh, yeah,” I say. “I remember seeing that! I think it’s in…” I struggle to remember where I put it, and when. I dig down through the archaeological layers of stuff. Maybe I find the item, maybe I don’t.

My friend Jerry, for most of his life, has owned a minimal number of possessions. He doesn’t like to be controlled by stuff, instead preferring to spend his money on experiences. For instance, he owns one belt, which he bought on our trip to Kaua’i together in 1996. His girlfriend once said, “It’s hard to buy gifts for a man who has nothing.”

Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against stuff. The question is, do you control your stuff, or does it control you? Pam and I finally decided that our stuff has been controlling us. She likes visual peace, and we have visual chaos. Cleaning our house is a major chore. Our stuff attracts cobwebs and dust. We have pet cats and rabbits, so our house gets seriously dusty (the “dust bunnies” on our floor are made from genuine rabbit fur). And I curse under my breath every time I go into our garage to dig for some item I know I put somewhere, and I knock over an item that sets off a chain reaction of falling caca.

When Pam retires, we plan to move to another house. We don’t want to move all of our stuff with us. It’s time to let go of things we don’t want, don’t need, or likely will never use. Life is filled with stressors we can’t control, but decluttering is one area we can control. In this post, we give some tips that we’re finding helpful in our quest to downsize and declutter.

What about you? Do you feel like your stuff controls you?

Featured image at top: You don’t want to know.

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