Sandra M. Levy-Achtemeier, Ph.D.

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The Stuff in Our Lives, or ... Have You Seen My Closet Lately?

Published on Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Stuff in Our Lives, or ... Have You Seen My Closet Lately?

Hoarding or Just Sentimental Treasures? Not a Sin ... but a Problem Indeed

George Carlin had a funny routine having to do with our penchant to accumulate “stuff” in our lives. And it was funny, but it also had a deep ring of truth to it. Most of us stash stuff away over the years in closets, on shelves, in drawers. Not exactly certifiable as “hoarders,” but maybe tending in that direction.

But now here’s the thing. I like a neat room. So as long as I don’t have to open a cabinet or the pantry, or look at what’s stashed on the top shelves in the kitchen, I’m happy. But. I know the stuff is there.

In a fairly recent New York Times piece titled “When the paper trail ends at your table” by Ronda Kaysen (July 8, 2018), she writes about a couple living in a small apartment in New York City. Their space has gotten taken over by papers that arrive daily in the mail: bills, receipts, ask-its. So the lady of the house moves all the piles of paper stuff into a second bedroom where it joins all the other piles of stuff waiting to be filed. And the flood of stuff that arrives in the mail daily does not quit. It’s a never-ending tide of papers that wash up on the couple’s shore every day.

Kaysen in fact says that life – this couples’, yours and mine – “breeds paperwork. Old tax returns, subscriptions to magazines that there is no time to read, insurance forms, mortgage records, user’s manuals for equipment not seen in years.” The writer says that paperless billing helps, but you still need to run off hard copies and file them and who has time for that?

Interestingly, moving into a bigger place is also not the answer because – you guessed it: The more space you have, the more space that gets filled up with ... stuff! Every nook and cranny gets filled like “things just expand,” becoming “part of the topography.” And pretty soon, you don’t even see all the old clutter if you can just find one more nook to stuff it into. Toward the end of her article, Kaysen writes:

Perhaps we avoid sifting through all those papers because we fear what we will find if we look too closely. Scour those old credit card statements and you may discover just how much money you have spent on your home–and all the work that still needs to be done to keep it churning.

Paperwork “is a receipt of the life you’re living, and it’s overwhelming and scary to have to go there again,” said Faith Robertson, a professional organizer in Manhattan. “A lot of time people avoid papers because it’s acknowledging a part of your life that may have been painful or traumatic.

Or if not painful or traumatic, perhaps just reminding you how you are living your life – like looking at your checkbook register and seeing where your money goes ... or perhaps just hanging onto this sweater or that dish at the top of the kitchen cabinet because of the sentimental memories that they evoke – Grandma knit that for me when I was 12 or that dish was part of my mom’s collection.

Peter Gomes, preacher and former chaplain to the Harvard community, once wrote that having money (and by extension, the things that money can buy) is not a sin. No, not a sin ... but a problem. I mean, if you have little or none, that’s a problem because you can’t pay the rent. But if you have a lot ... then that can be a problem because where your money goes, there your heart is invested.

Now I have to admit that I hang onto a lot of stuff. Clothes (although I try to cull my closet periodically), old photos, old letters and cards from friends, and so on. I am by nature a very sentimental person, and many, many things that clutter my life hold memories that are precious for me.

In a back issue of the Christian Century there appeared an article by MaryAnn McKibben Dana titled “The Joy of Stuff” (March 30, 2016) It was basically a piece about the Konmari Method of decluttering that emphasizes our emotional attachment to things and asks only – when “decluttering” -- to consider whether the thing at hand “sparks joy.” If that sweater or dish or old letter brings you joy, then it’s worth hanging onto. Perhaps I’m not doing the method justice but I will say that when Kondo also insists that our things have feelings and it’s OK to talk to them in the process of determining their worth, I do draw the line. Anyway, as Dana concludes, maybe the method is one good start to considering the value and role the things play in our lives ... but only a start.

We are people of the Incarnation, and things themselves are not a sin. But hanging on to that coat in the closet – the coat you almost never wear and someone who has none could use to keep warm – can be considered at least bordering on sin or downright sinful if hoarded rather than shared. But not just clothes of course. What about the newest technology – computers, cell phones, gadgets of all kinds – that clutter up our lives and take up our energy? And what about their negative effect on this planet Earth, on the environment? In her book Speaking of Sin (2000), Barbara Brown Taylor talks about the things we take to the dump – VCRs, outdated computers, copiers and the like – piles of trash in landfills polluting our waters in the process. We feel bad about that of course. But feeling bad about our contribution added to the local landfill is simply not sufficient. And yet, Taylor notes that her guilt in this regard didn’t keep her from buying a new Hewlett-Packard Office Jet printer. She says: “You see the problem.”

Well folks, I don’t have a solution to all this. But I will tell you that we are in the process of trying to “declutter” our home. We are vowing to take one room at a time and tackle what’s in it. Every closet, every shelf – even the cabinet in the family room that contains old family photos, an old slide projector and all my Dad’s old slides in trays. I mean, either we are going to do this ... or our kids are going to have to do this one day – as they wonder, looking through the old photo albums – “who are these people?”

Let us celebrate the art of “diminution” – as Taylor calls it in another article written many years ago. She quotes Meister Eckhart who wrote 700 years ago, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by subtracting.” “Despite our fear of diminution, what this math promises is fullness of life.” (Christian Century, November 3, 1999)

Again, things are not a sin. But ... they are a problem.

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.>

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.

I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Other posts by Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
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