My wife Diane and I are just finishing up a kitchen remodel.
The construction is all done now, and we’re on to the “putting things back where they belong” phase. It’s a great chance to assess what we really need, and how to organize it such that it enhances our daily lives, rather than burdens them with clutter and waste. We’ve been in this house for over 25 years, so there’s an astounding amount of stuff around. Frankly, I’m sick of it all. “It’s just stuff” has become our daily mantra. We still have stuff from when the kids were actual kids. Much of it has been easy to dispose of. And I mean “easy” emotionally rather than mechanically. (Sure, there are some mechanics to getting rid of stuff, but at this point it mostly involves putting a post on Next Door and letting a neighbor come by and pick it up.)
The tough part
The tough part comes when there is an emotional connection to the stuff. I have a trunk of memorabilia, for example. “Memorabilia” by definition is stuff that means something to you. The trunk contains newspaper clippings, theatrical programs, paper photos, and other assorted gewgaws that relate to my early career. As soon as I open the trunk, however, I am overcome with a kind of heaviness. I become incapable of making rational decisions about any one item. I lose all perspective about the importance of keeping whatever thing is in my hand. It’s like opening the ark at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I am assaulted by the ghosts of people long gone and experiences long forgotten. I can hear Harrison Ford yelling at me to look away. Invariably I just close the trunk after a minute or two with a heavy sigh and walk away.
What makes letting go of these objects so tough is my attachment to them. I don’t feel the same way about, say, most of the furniture in the house, so decisions about those things are easy. In fact, getting rid of things that don’t mean much is a liberating experience. I love seeing the clutter disappear. I love seeing someone else get something that fills a need in their life. But most of all, I just love the letting go.
That’s right—letting go of things feels good. But it’s more than that. There are a few major lessons I’ve learned in the decades I’ve been roaming this Earth. But if you ask me—maybe not why we’re here, but—how do we make it through this life in one piece, then my answer would be, “by learning to let go.”
It’s the ultimate lesson in life, after all. We all know you can’t take it with you when you depart. So if we work backwards from that knowledge, it becomes obvious that, to be happy at the end, we must let everything go by then. But we all know that’s not easy to do. So we must learn to let go a little bit at a time. We start with the easy things like furniture that’s taking up too much room. And then maybe we can move on to letting go of the habits that aren’t doing us any favors, or the idle time that could be better put to use with exercise, perhaps. And we will all, at some point, need to let go of some of the people in our lives.
Sometimes we need to learn to let go of ourselves, or at least who we used to be. When industries change, for instance, and you find yourself out of a job that you identified with, you can either let go of that attachment or remain bitter over a future that will never come to be. I went through this myself during a period of about ten years when I wasn’t being hired by the Muppets. As a puppeteer, I identified strongly as a Muppet performer—among other things—and all I could think about was jobs I was NOT getting. Very unhealthy. It was only when I decided to disinvest in that part of my life—by beginning a new career as a teacher—that I felt better. I had to let go of the person I thought I was—the person I was attached to, that I identified with.
We are all on our own journeys, and in our own ways learning to let go. We all know deep down that this is a lesson that must be learned. We are all on borrowed time. In the apocryphal words of Chief Seattle, “The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh.” The sooner we learn to let go, the happier we will be at that moment.