My dad was a pack rat. Like many of his generation, he kept everything – just in case he might need it some day. And by everything, I mean balls of string, twist ties, glass jars, plastic bags and containers, old electronics, magazines, paint, wire, elastics, paper, nails, screws. . . you get the idea. It was all stored neatly in boxes and drawers on shelves in his basement.
And he did mange to recycle some of it. I remember him refashioning items on his workbench when I was a kid. Gerry-rigging our broken toys and small appliances to make them work again. But when we moved my parents out of their home of over 50 years, it took three garbage bins to remove all of his ‘supplies’.
My generation consumes more and has no trouble disposing of it. That doesn’t mean we don’t collect ‘stuff’. If you’re like most boomers, you’ve probably amassed a lot of things over the years. Raise your hand if you’ve moved boxes from one house to another without looking to see what’s inside. (Our attachment to our ‘stuff’ even spawned a hilarious bit by George Carlin, and more recently, a comical ad campaign by Letgo.com.)
But we don’t seem to be as interested in reusing it as our parents’ generation did. We might try to sell it or give it away to a charity, or pawn it off on our kids when they move out, but then we just go out and buy more. Over the years, most of us have managed to accumulate a lot of stuff that just collects dust in our basements, sheds and even off-site storage lockers, rarely to see the light of day again.
Why do we have so much trouble letting go of our stuff? There is something called the endowment effect, where we give an item more importance just because we own it. Social scientists have long proposed that from an early age our possessions become an extension of ourselves, external receptacles for our memories, relationships and travels – even when no longer in use.
This is why so many boomers struggle with the idea of downsizing. It’s difficult to let go of our things because they represent who we are, want (or wanted) to be, or how we represent ourselves to others. So when we think of getting rid of them, we feel like we’re losing an important part of ourselves.
As with human relationships, the attachments to our things deepen with the passage of time. Elderly people are often surrounded by possessions that have followed them through good times and bad, across continents and back. – Christian Jarrett
But there are milestones in our lives when we do willfully dispose of our things, e.g. when we finish university and enter the workforce, move to a new home or city, when we become empty-nesters, or during a divorce. Those events are often experienced as a chance for a new start. Old belongings are shed in a type of metamorphosis, fostering the emergence of a new identity.
What if we looked at downsizing in later life the same way? Instead of loss, we thought of it as a chance for a new start, a way to say yes to what is really important to us in the here and now? Decluttering can be a great way to find out who you really want to be in this next phase of your life.
What stuff are you holding on to? How is that helping or hindering you from moving into the future you want?
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