zenhabits : breathe

A Simple Strategy for Simplifying

‘It is preoccupation with possession, more than anything else, that prevents men from living freely and nobly.’ ~Bertrand Russell

Post written by Leo Babauta.

What do you do if you can’t let go of something you own?

How do you deal with the “just in case” syndrome, or the “it has meaning” syndrome?

There’s no easy answer for letting go of the emotional attachments we put into our objects, nor for letting go of the fear of what we might need in the future. But for me, the answer has been to change how I look at ownership.

Ownership, for me, is more fluid and less concrete.

We don’t own something for life — that’s wasteful, because most of our lives we don’t need or use something. We “own” something just for as long as we need it, and then pass it on.

Think of ownership like a public library — we check things out when we need them, and then return them when we’re done, so that others can use them. If we ever need something again, we can always check it out again.

In practice, for me, this has meant passing books and clothes and other things on to friends and relatives when I don’t need them. It means giving things away to Goodwill and other charities. It means getting things from Goodwill, used book stores, thrift shops, Craigslist, Freecycle, friends and family. And yes, sometimes buying things that I owned years before.

This means sometimes spending a little more, but it also means I’m giving away a lot of value, and others benefit from things I think are great. It means things pass through my life, into the lives of others, and I don’t try to hold onto anything. It means no object holds much emotional meaning for me, and so the meaning is instead put into experiences, relationships, conversations, the moment.

Some examples from a reader who is moving and has trouble parting with some possessions:

1. The baby’s things. She (the reader) says, “We don’t know if we want to have another baby in a few years. It’s hard to look at all of our daughter’s outgrown clothes and toys and items and think of selling them/giving them away when there is a chance we might have another baby. Seems wasteful. But then again, it seems stupid to ship a whole huge hoard of stuff simply to safeguard ‘in case’, when the reality is we may go through all that effort and never have another anyway.”

Just In Case is the reason we hold onto a lot of things. The vast majority of the time, we don’t need them. But we’re afraid we might, so we hoard. It wards off insecurities about the future. I beat this by actual facts: I let go and see what happens, and in the six years I’ve been trying this, I’ve never regretted it once. Experience trumps fear.

If you need something, you can get it again. If you aren’t using something, let someone else use it who might need it. And you’ll save yourself a lot of expenses: moving the stuff, storing it, caring for it, mentally remembering everything you have, fixing things that get broken, cleaning things, stressing over how many things you have.

2. My books. She says, “I have an ereader now, and that will be a godsend down south. But I also have a bunch of nice books here, that I’d hate to part with. I have already paired my collection down to: only the novels that I plan to read again multiple times + reference type books + cookbooks. This still makes for a huge pile, and my mum pointed out that most of them will probably mould in the humidity anyway. Do I just leave them all here and replace them in eformat when/if I feel like reading them? Seems like more money down the drain.”

Yes, give them to someone who would like them. You’ve read them, and you won’t read them again (at least for awhile). If you need the info, it’s probably online. If not, you can borrow the book from a library, or find it used online, or swap with someone online. It’s not money down the drain if you enjoyed the books, and if you let someone else enjoy them.

3. Decorative things. She writes, “Picture frames, candle holders, woven baskets, all the little things that sneak up on you over the years… Seems silly to get rid of everything when we don’t know what we’ll need at the new place, and could end up buying some of it all again.”

I’ve found that only a few pictures is all I need for decorating. We used to have a lot of candle holders and other decorative things, but when we got rid of them, it was liberating. Our house became emptier, but I found that I actually liked the emptiness. It means we have space to fill it with conversation, laughter, play, and silence. Whereas when we fill our house with stuff, we are doing it to stave off the void, to avoid having to fill it with experiences and silence.

There is almost nothing in my life that’s irreplaceable, other than people. Sure, I love books, but there are so many others out there in the library and thrift shops and friends’ homes that I will never miss the ones I give away. Sure, I would miss photographs if I lost them, but I put them all online now anyway, and more importantly, my life isn’t in the photos but is happening now. Sure, I would need a laptop and a few clothes if my house burned down, but those things are easily replaceable.

I’d miss my blog if I lost it, but not because of the lost words … I’d miss the readers.

And in the end, you learn that the people and the moment are all that matter. Everything else comes and goes.

‘As long as our civilization is essentially one of property, of fences, of exclusiveness, it will be mocked by delusions.’ ~Ralph Waldo Emerson



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