Getting Rid of Stuff

This Discardian tip is about letting go of material objects. There are two main reasons for ending up with a bunch of things you don’t really want or need: entropy and guilt.

You know how the entropy ones happen; they just pile up, usually literally. Magazines & newspapers, clothes with missing buttons, mail to read, half-finished projects, obsolete computer parts…

The problem is not that you don’t know how to get rid of these things – you know how trash, recycling and the Goodwill donation box work – it’s making yourself get around to it. Rather than giving yourself a hard time for it, your first Discardian act should be to let go of feeling bad about what you haven’t gotten done by now. You were doing something else; it was a choice; you’re a big kid; it’s okay.

Now that that’s out of the way, I’m not going to tell you to get cracking and clean the house. If you didn’t wanna before you probably don’t wanna now. No, what I’m suggesting is that you take a few small steps to achieve two things: slow down your accumulation of this stuff and make it easier for you to get rid of it in future.

Pick a room in your home (or an area of a room, such as your desk) and look at it with fresh eyes. Don’t pick the area that depresses you most; be nice to yourself and start with something around the middle of your list of annoyances. Now ask yourself some questions about what you see.

Is there a category of stuff that is cluttering up your space and which you want to be rid of?
A common example of this is catalogs. There might be something you want in there – how will you ever know if you don’t read it?! Forget about it. If you need it, you’ll seek it out. If you don’t seek it out, you don’t need it right now. Another good example is old toys that don’t get played with anymore (by you, the kids, the cat, whoever) because they’re broken, old & dirty, or just boring.

Where does this category of stuff come from?
In the case of catalogs, they come in the mail. Some are solicited – the result of you buying from that company or an affiliate of it – and some are just deadtree spam. Old toys come from your own shopping + time; they are digested remnants of past fun.

Where should this category of stuff go?
Catalogs should go into the recycling bin. Old toys that won’t be fun for anyone go in the trash and boring ones can go to A Good Cause (about which more later).

Now you have one or two questions to ask about the category on whose ass you’ve decided to celebrate a little Discardia.

How can you slow the incoming flow of this category of stuff?
In the case of catalogs, the solution involves the telephone. Pick up one of the least interesting looking catalogs, call that 1-800 phone number and tell the operator eagerly awaiting your order that you no longer wish to receive the catalog. Also tell them (and tell anyone you order things from) that you do not want them to sell your name & address to anyone. You don’t have to do all those catalogs at once; just when you have 5 minutes and the energy. For the old toys, the solution might be to buy fewer or buy better ones that will last longer.

How can you make disposal of this category of stuff easier?
For the catalogs, make your recycling process easier. Set up a sack or other receptacle in a convenient spot (ours is in the kitchen) and sort the mail over it; if you never set it down where the piles build up, it can’t contribute to the clutter. For the toys, start a habit of physical motion when your mind moves the item to your “junk” list; when you think “that catnip mouse is a lost cause”, immediately reach down, pick it up and fling it in the trash. The old toys that aren’t really trash – they’re just boring – can be just as easy to deal with. Set up another bag for things to donate to A Good Cause (or sell) and put the rejected items in the bag as soon as you think “I don’t really want that anymore.”

This last point brings us to the other reason for things piling up. Maybe you feel guilty about getting rid of that “perfectly good” toy you don’t like anymore. Stop. It may be perfectly good for someone, but that someone isn’t you. There’s nothing inherently wrong with you getting rid of it. Who are you worried about offending? (As the Ikea ad says “Many of you feel sorry for this lamp. You are crazy. It has no feelings.”)

Guilt is an insidious thing, though, and often not so easily brushed aside. Let’s think about where the guilt comes from. There are four main kinds of guilt which lead you to keep things you no longer want or need. The first of these is that feeling that if you get rid of this object it will mean that you wasted your money. It causes you to behave as if somehow by keeping it around you are improving your chances of compensation for the expense.

How can you avoid the guilt of bad buying decisions?
Think about purchases longer before making them. Also, recognize that you will make some bad decisions.

Chronic remorse, as all the moralists agree, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean – Aldous Huxley, A Brave New World

More about amends in a moment. The second kind of guilt to consider is gift guilt. Someone gave it to you and either you didn’t like it from the start or you’ve outgrown it (in some sense or another). Tell me this: when you visit the homes of your friends and family do you check to see if your past gifts are in use? And if they aren’t, are you really more likely to be hurt and upset with them than you are to think “Hmm, whoops, guess that wasn’t really the right thing; I’ll try a gift certificate next time”? If the answer to both those questions is yes, consider yourself slapped and cut it out; it isn’t doing you or anyone else any good.

How can you part with unwanted gifts without considering it an insult to the giver?
Give everyone permission not to be able to read your mind and give yourself permission to change. The intent of gift giving is to make someone feel good (and/or to repay a social obligation). Recognize the act and the intent. Perhaps keep the gift around for a courteous amount of time, but on no account lie excessively about how much you like things you don’t – you don’t want to set yourself up for a matching bad gift the next time. Once the necessary niceties have been observed enough to communicate your gratitude for the intent, you should part with unwanted gifts without guilt. Disposing of them may require more discretion than with other things – the yard sale which the giver is likely to attend is a bad method, but the bottom of your Goodwill bag covered by that shirt that doesn’t fit anymore is just dandy. Quietly get rid of it and if the giver asks about it later, say something about your appreciation of the occasion and their thoughtfulness, but that it just didn’t fit with your other things.

Note: there are some gifts into which a great deal of hard work was put. For these, it is probably best to come clean and let the giver have the opportunity to take back their artistic efforts rather than sneakily disposing of it. Bite the bullet and say “I really appreciate your making me something so special. I am impressed by your thoughtfulness. Unfortunately, this painting just doesn’t fit with the rest of my decor/I don’t wear the color of this hand-knit sweater/I’m allergic to taxidermied animals…” Whatever. It might be a rough conversation, but it’s better than the “You gave away my masterpiece to Goodwill?!!!” one.

How do you get better gifts?
Tell people what you want, especially if what you want is nothing. Also, for those whose perception of your tastes is consistently dead wrong (or for everyone if you’re really on a Discardian kick or planning a cross-country move), let them know what you really want is an experience, like dinner or some movie tickets, or, even safer, a donation to one of your favorite charities (Heifer Project is a good one for this; everyone likes a goat for Christmas).

So now we come to gifts from yourself. Souvenirs can be very hard to part with because of the memory they represent. It took me almost 8 years to decide to find a new home for the pair of big rubber squeak rats that were the mascots of my bookstore, Inkspot. Their names are Fido & Hepsibah and they now live with a couple of completely twisted friends who will enjoy the way Hepsibah’s squeak is more delicate and feminine and how Fido can be made to breathe heavily in a sinister fashion rather than emit a squeak.

How do you let go of a souvenir without letting go of the good or at least important time it reminds you of?
This one is actually not as tough as it seems. Memories are actually easier to digitize than you might think. Start a web site (TypePad and Blogger are great for this) and write about why the object matters to you and what it reminds you of (…the 2 teenage girls who shrieked and jumped when I squeaked Fido at them). Take digital photos or scan flat things and put the pictures and the stories up on your web site. My friend Lilly did a great project like this for all her old t-shirts. Or if web publishing isn’t quite your style, just get together some friends and tell your stories as a way of bidding things farewell. Often you’ll find it isn’t the souvenir itself that the story is really about.

The last type of object-related guilt I want you to consider is what I term Dream Duty. This is associated with objects you keep because they represent someone you want (or wanted) to become. If I don’t get rid of this guitar/skateboard/ballroom dress, I will eventually get around to using it proficiently, even though I don’t practice. Folks, ya gotta shit or get off the pot. Start making time to work on that dream or let it go. If you want to fit into those pants again, eat less & exercise or get a pair like them in the size you are now.

How do you decide whether or not to keep the dream & its associated objects in your life?
Rather than trying to decide about a particular object, come at it from the other angle; what are your dreams now? Take some time, give yourself permission to imagine anything, and see where your heart is leading you. The book Wishcraft by Barbara Sher is a great guide to this process. Decide what really matters to you, where you really want to be heading, and then look again at the dream duty objects taking up space in your home. If those things aren’t part of your top goals, get them out of your way. Again, as with souvenirs, acknowledge who you were when you dreamed those dreams and allow yourself to be someone different now. Sometimes you’ll find your dreams have changed, that’s the easier situation to deal with. The hard one is when you still have the dream but it just doesn’t seem realistic. You may still want to be a ballerina, but if you’re about to celebrate your 40th birthday, you may have to figure out what part of that dream held the most appeal and how you can get that without having to trade yourself in for a body 20 years younger. Wishcraft is helpful with this dilemma as well.

Whatever the reason for having objects you don’t want or need crowding your life, one of the best gifts you can give yourself is the ability to let things go. Put your energy where it counts: in making your dreams real and in living a less stressful life. There is one more question to ask:
What could you be doing or feeling if all this stuff wasn’t in the way?

Please share your reactions, tips and challenges in the comments below.