I have a very strong aversion to clutter. I frequently assess everything I own and chuck large portions of it into a charity bin. Why I do this I couldn’t tell you; I admit that it is indeed a bizarre habit especially in an American culture where things define who you are and having more always seems to be better. If I had to guess, I would say this proclivity is rooted in the notion that I like to be ready to flee the country or make a major life change at any given moment, and having to choose which things to bring would slow me down immensely. I mean seriously, I have my passport with me at all times and if you say “let’s go to Ecuador right now” I would not hesitate to get on the next plane out of Newark- I’ve done it before and I wouldn’t think twice before doing it again.
But I digress.
Today, I was enlisted by my mum to assist with de-cluttering on a massive scale in our attic. She had attempted this before but could never decide what to get rid of- however after about an hour I had torn through half the place leaving about a dozen big black rubbish bags in my wake. Clearly, it is not difficult for me to throw away things that “have memories.”
Think about that. “Things that have memories.” Isn’t that a strange concept? Of course things don’t have memories. People have memories, but because our minds are so full of other mundane nonsense, we forget them. To try to avoid forgetting our experiences, we trap them inside things. A ticket stub from a concert reminds us of great music; a dried corsage brings memories of prom weekend.
Three thoughts on this: First, if something was that memorable, how could you possibly forget it? Perhaps it wouldn’t be in the front of your mind often, but the memory of an amazing experience should be burned into your mind. Second, how often do you dig through your stuff to go through mementos and reminisce, and lastly does it make you happy? Obviously I speak only for myself, but when I used to go through boxes of old stuff, it usually made me sad to think of times gone by rather than happy to think of good things that happened. After I realised this, I went through my then-sizable collection of random stuff that evoked memories and instantly weeded out any that didn’t make me remember something positively delightful. All I was left with were some old student IDs that showed the amusing progression of the enormous amount of hair I’ve cultivated on my head, a dog chain that I used to wear all throughout high school, and one of my dad’s old shirts. I kept them because it seemed right, but I can honestly say that even these items I don’t think I would miss.
It may seem foolish to try to forget anything negative that happened, but we’re not really defined by them, are we? We’re defined by how things that transpired resulted in our developing as humans. We can’t control what happens, but we control how we process it- and going back to dwell on and re-process events will rarely change anything. I find that happy memories stick with me regardless of whether or not I have physical evidence of them. And even better, they get evoked unexpectedly by random events- it’s more common for me to hear a song that reminds me of a really fun night I had or to smell something that reminds me of a special person than for me to go digging through a box yearning for memories of days gone by.
To me, the ideal human condition involves total lack of attachment to physical things and the ability to navigate the world without any baggage. Our concrete past doesn’t have nearly as much bearing on who we are as people as what we learned from it does. Memories are nice, but they’re little more than an animal instinct- simply put, even a dog can remember being fed and associate its food bowl with mealtime. Our true advantage as humans is our ability to remember that we liked Indian food last time we tried it, and to find a new restaurant with similar cuisine; to process the past in a way that allows us to gain a greater understanding of the world we live in- why waste time re-learning things you’ve already done through a box of old junk?