One of the most painful things we can do in life is sort through past emotions. Big emotions do not “go away” with time. They only go away with attention. They have a life cycle, like the weather. Emotions evaporate when we feel them. Children do this instinctually – they cry as long (and as hard) as they need to to feel the feeling, then they are done.

This post is not about emotions – not directly. This post is about clutter. It’s about “stuff.” One of the most painful things I have ever done is sorting through past stuff. In my childhood, I saw a lot of people crippled by the inability to throw things away, give them away, make them useful, or get rid of them. My adult life has been a slow, painful, process of unclenching my fist and getting rid of things: artwork, clothes, batteries, papers, bills, knick-knacks, picture frames, books, notes from college, journals, shoes, hats, food, boxes, computer files, videos, CDs.

These two – sorting through feelings and sorting through stuff – are related.

“Clutter is unmade decisions.” (paraphrasing Christina Scalize*) I would add that clutter is unprocessed emotion.

A stubborn pile that refused to be organized, put away, thrown away represents a pile of emotion that has to be felt. The same probably goes for stubborn pounds that refuse to go away. Extra weight on the body and extra stuff around the house are spiritually identical.

Health comes from eating what you need (no more) and eating what is good for you (less junk) and burning it all off with healthy and enjoyable activity. Similarly, cleanliness comes from taking into your life what you use (no more) and what is actually good to have around (no junk), while consistently “burning it all off” by decluttering, getting rid, making decisions, and processing emotions.

The state of the art

I am almost there. As of right now, I have one “inbox” with a bunch of un-made decisions. Most of these are from the last month or two, but some stretch back years. They are the last, stubborn kernel of unprocessed emotion physically manifested in my house.

How simple is simplicity? How de-cluttered does living a de-cluttered life have to be? I don’t know. But I am almost to the point where I do not feel weighed down by my clothing, piles, and unmade decisions

A couple of maxims have motivated my journey. First, Fr. Josiah Trenham says “the possession is justified by use.” If you don’t use it, you may not be justified in owning it. Second, St. John Chrysostem says that “whatever you don’t use belongs to the poor.” By thinking this way, I have slimmed down… slowly but surely, for the last 8 years.

A bit of history

I have had a massive “inbox”, several bankers boxes full, for many years. David Allen helped me to even put it all into one place and label it as an “inbox.” I got through small percentages of it over the years.

A big change came in 2012 when I had to pack up and move across country. This required an exhausting inventory of all our things. We sorted them into “keep – take with us”, “keep – store” and “get rid.” The get rid pile divided into throw away and give away piles.

A lot made it into the get rid pile. My wife and I got rid of a lot of stuff. We stored some stuff at our parents house (two or three closets worth). Amazingly, we only brought a SINGLE MINIVAN’s worth of stuff to Kentucky. (We bought furniture there once we arrived.)

While in Kentucky, we lived light for 5 years. Even so we accumulated stuff that had to be garage-sale sold. We moved back with a minivan and two truck pallets shipped by freight.

Once we arrived back in CA, we got a small apartment. I had time, so I decided it was time to go nuclear. I threw almost everything away. I cried a lot. I felt a lot of nostalgia, fear, anxiety, sadness, anger. It was a crazy washing-machine of emotions. But over two or three months, I gathered all of our stuff from storage, parents houses, childhood homes, and put it in one place and slowly went through it. I even went through the old file cabinet (again) and got rid of about 50% of papers, including some photos and journals.

During that time, I did the unthinkable. It almost killed me. But I gave away about 20% of my books. As a lifelong reader and book collector, I can’t express how painful this was. But it felt great after! I got rid of those books I could admit to myself that I would probably never open them again (or that I could re-purchase if need be.)

Present day

My “decision box” (or inbox) is now one pile. There is nothing in storage. There is nothing in my car. My file cabinet is two banker’s boxes worth of files I am ready, willing, and able to store and refer to until I die.

It feels incredible to live light. I am nimble now. I can take in new stuff, and trust myself to process it quickly and either use it or eject it. I am trying to maintain a strict purity of vision, a focus on my priorities

It’s ongoing. I still let my email inbox pile up twice a year, and clean it out twice a year. A normal week is busy, and doesn’t allow for much decluttering. But a little regular check in is now more effective than a big once a year push.

Thank God for progress! Here’s to living clutter free.

*“Clutter is the physical manifestation of unmade decisions fueled by procrastination.”