Letting Go of Things

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Today, I dropped off two giant boxes and a bag of books to trade in at the Autumn Leaves book store downtown. There were 5 or 6 dozen books altogether, many of them I’ve had for years.

I also took a giant box of board games that I’ve accumulated to a little coffee shop called Waffle Frolic — they are a waffle bar / coffee joint. The games ranged from mainstream (Monopoly, Risk, Clue) to the obscure (World in Flames, Monad, Honor of the Samurai).

While in both cases, there turned out to be monetary compensation, it was just icing; I had originally planned on just taking the whole lot down to the library and/or thrift store and donating them.

As I gave these things away, I kept asking myself how I ended up with so much stuff in the first place? Thinking about it over the past couple of weeks, there are three main reasons I’ve found for how I accumulated them; and learning to overcome these obstacles has been both challenging and liberating.

“I might need it later”

This came up with books, particularly old college textbooks, and movies.

There was a time when my collection of media was small and manageable — 20-30 books at most. Over the years, throughout several moves across state lines, many garage sales, used book sales, college classes, bookstore visits, and gift-giving holidays, it grew substantially.

I would see a movie that I liked, feel compelled to get the DVD so that I would have it at my fingertips on the off-chance I felt the need to see it again. Or maybe to share it with company that I thought might visit.

I knew it was getting ridiculous when I moved and the boxes of books became overly cumbersome; when I had to start investing in cheap storage racks to hold all of them; when I had to move some of those books into storage elsewhere (attic AND basement) because I had run out of room on the racks.

When your possessions start compelling you to change your life for them, you have to start asking yourself who’s owning who.

But over time, I began to realize that those DVDs weren’t getting watched; the books were rarely referenced. Most importantly — I noticed that when I did experience that need, however rare it was, I wasn’t even turning to those things I had accumulated! Instead of my DVDs, I’d just watch it on Netflix or the Internet; Instead of the books, I’d just consult Google.

Ownership of something just isn’t necessary anymore.

“I am going to use / do it someday”

We all know someone that buys a weight set, or fitness DVD, or gym membership, thinking that by having it they will develop the impetus needed to start making change in their life.

This excuse not only prevented me from getting rid of books, but also compelled me to keep acquiring new ones.

I had a very substantial collection of books to learn Japanese. I know a few choice phrases and can read some kanji and the hiragana syllabary. But I never carved out any time to do anything further. If I had spent even 30 minutes a day studying Japanese, I bet I would be able to converse comfortably in it by now.

The same thing goes with my chemistry textbooks, my gambling strategy guides, physics references, math books (I technically still have those.. this is one dream I haven’t given up on yet), computer programming books. Creating a “to-read” list has been somewhat helpful, but again, if I’m not carving out time to invest in these endeavors, they are never going to progress.

It took a long time to let go of this one. Ultimately, I just needed to accept the reality that years had passed and these things were not getting done. If I decide to try doing any of these things in the future, I can always get new books, right?

Personal change isn’t the product of purchases, no matter what commercials tell us. Tools can help us accomplish our goals, but I’ve learned to start small; small steps, small bites, small books. Apply Occam’s razor to purchases.

Possession  fetishism / sentimentality

things2This is a tricky one because my feelings of guilt play into it.

I would hold onto books because they were gifts. Or because they reminded me of something / someone. Or worst of all, and this is particularly easy to fall into: because  I felt like it was part of my identity.

Getting over the guilt of giving away a gift was tough. When my friend Jon visited, he and I were talking about this and he had a good justification: when people buy you the book or item, it is typically that they are wanting to share that positive experience of using the gift (eg. reading the book) — the experience is the gift, not the material itself; possessing the item only means you can re-experience it whenever you want.

When I accepted that, I was now free to share those experiences with others. Books that I particularly loved could be given away to friends so that they too could have that experience. It felt good to do this, and in retrospect, I realized it was selfish of me to hold on to those books for so long – every day they sat on my shelves was a day that they were not being enjoyed by someone. I hope that the people who received those books will pass them on to others after they have finished them.

There are still things that I hang on to because they remind me of something. I have a whole collection of trinkets I’ve inherited from relatives that have passed away. I have a large collection of glowsticks from back in the party days. I have about a dozen or so drumsticks from when I used to play drums. I have been trying to liberate these things through scrapbooking; collating these tokens and memories into one single place. But really, the bigger question is why am I hanging on to these memories so tightly?

Defining myself through my possessions was by far the hardest thing to let go of. It’s so easy to keep a DVD or a book because you feel that it resonates with how you view yourself (or how you want to be viewed by others); and this sentiment is reinforced through interactions with others, where questions like “what are your favorite books or movies?” get tossed around. (I have nothing against those questions, I find them very interesting, but it’s easy to conflate them with questions about who we are as people).

I found that I was using my things as way to let people get to know me by proxy – I could present these collections and I would be able to get out of having to present me myself. It also served as a way for me to get around having to really explore who I am, introspectively.

What it means to own something

Possession is an illusion, aside from those things which you hold in your hand. But it is an illusion that works two ways; establishing possession of something means that we must persist that illusion through our acts; meaning that, in a way, those things create a compulsion as long as we maintain our attachment. (ie. My copy of “Napoleon Dynamite” is only mine as long as I do things consistent with the idea of ownership). But compulsions like these inhibit our ability to be free.

Seeing someone wrestle with a full-blown hoarding problem makes the problem seem so obvious, but also so distant. It’s easy to overlook the seemingly innocuous inventory build-up that happens through “normal” consumerism; acquiring what society tells us is a “reasonable” number of items. Since most people tend to try and “stay in place” and not move around constantly, the weight of these items is carried by their homes, rather than themselves, and goes unnoticed.

Ownership, in itself, is not the problem; it’s the idea of permanence, that we can, or even should, possess something indefinitely. Possessions should not be little lumps we fixate to our person, slowly growing into giant goiters. Our arms and legs consume energy and add weight to our bodies, but also perform a useful purpose; so too should our the things we accumulate also add useful purpose to our lives.