Now that you have it, what are you going to do with it?
An exit strategy is a plan for what to do in a given situation when the circumstances change. For instance, say I have a job. I'm not going to work there for infinity years. At some point, I know I'm either going to retire, quit, get laid off, get fired, or die with my face planted in my inbox. Even if I get promoted, I still have the same set of options. It's the same thing with my car. At some point, I'm either going to sell it, trade it in, or donate it, or it will get totaled. Same idea with my house. At some point I'm going to move, because I'm a renter and I know we won't retire here. Nothing lasts forever. That includes our stuff.
Most of us never think about exit strategies for most of our possessions. It just doesn't cross our minds. Every brand-new, fluffy sock will one day either lose its mate or become threadbare. How lonely and tragic. Ever gotten a blister from wearing a worn-out sock one too many times? Things are made to be used, and at a certain point, they get used up. We give worn-out socks to our dog as a toy, and it's not long before they're too torn up even for that. Into the trash they go.
Our culture generates more material artifacts than any culture in human history. We number our garments and books and action figures in the hundreds. We have dozens of copies of things that never even existed in the recent past. For instance, my household contains an entire box of power strips, chargers, connector cables, and backup batteries. Remote controls, headphones, splitters, tablets, phones, protective cases, electronic equipment I'd have trouble explaining to a child. What does this do? No idea, honey. I think it has electrons in it. We have all this stuff, and where is it going to go? Into a museum? Maybe not if there exist hundreds of millions of iterations of it, and a new version is coming out this November.
The Beanie Babies alone could make an extremely weird monument if they were all gathered together in one place. A desert pilgrimage site, perhaps. Living wild animals could hop up and curiously take a sniff. Birds could nest in it. Otherwise what are we going to do with them all? Do we really, truly think that people a century from now are going to want millions upon millions of disintegrating stuffed toys?
There are three reasons why the people of antiquity created small midden piles instead of landfills that can be seen from outer space. One is that they used things until they wore out, and then had a secondary market for the broken stuff. There was an entire profession of "rag-pickers" who would repurpose worn-out clothes and linens. Old newspapers, letters, and sheet music were used to wrap fish and meat. The other reason is that people have had an enduring, millennia-old tradition of ritual bonfires. You had a holiday full of revelry and a big fire, with a need for things to stuff in it. That's where you sent your snapped chairs and other dangerous old junk. Of course, by far the most important reason that people of the past did not generate landfills is that they didn't make, own, or waste even a tiny fraction of the stuff that we do.
One day, we'll be able to feed our friable old plastic junk into a 3D printer or a home power generator. We'll mine our landfills for more materials. Hopefully. What else are we going to do with cracked plastic buckets, stained food storage containers with melted lids, and warped lawn furniture that won't support a person's weight? Times a hundred million?
Many of us experience strong feelings of sadness, nostalgia, and regret when we think of the fate of unwanted or useless stuff. Jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces. Worn-out shoes. Scary space heaters with frayed cords. Ugly lamps. Close-up photographs of a million thumbs. Engraved decorations from the weddings of divorced couples. Broken Christmas ornaments. THIS USED TO BE COOL! I think we sometimes project our own feelings of rejection onto misfit material items. Sure, I'm a little funky, but can't you love me anyway? Deep inside, we truly believe that physical objects have souls and emotions, that they suffer when they aren't polished or displayed in some way. We demonstrate that by bringing them home and storing them in mildewed, crumbling old cardboard boxes.
Many of my clients are compulsive accumulators. Some shop as a hobby, whether online or in stores. Others will cheerfully accept limitless amounts of bags and boxes of other people's castoffs, stacking them up and never using them, but resting peacefully in the sense that they have "saved" these items. Books that will never be read again. Torn or stained garments that will never be remade. Fabric scraps that will never be used. We can't accept the fact of ruin. We can't face the pressure of a world of seven billion people that seems to require the manufacture of trillions of small, consumable objects and the waste of 40% of our food production. We never spare a second thought to what will happen to these objects after they come in our front doors.
We probably don't spend enough time sitting around and crying about it. Suppressed grief over our lost loved ones. Suppressed grievances over lost glories of the past. Suppressed disappointment over the way our lives have failed to live up to our dreams. Suppressed sorrow over the state of the world. Wasting today fussing over yesterday, rather than making tomorrow happen the way we'd prefer. Living in a personal landfill rather than accepting that our existence adds to collective landfills.
The only way out is a grand exit strategy. A policy decision to quit buying so much stuff. To put our attention on food and energy waste rather than the fate of a couple hundred pounds of random objects. We waste far more when we throw away spoiled groceries week after week than we do by junking old junk. If we stacked up all our single-use packaging for a year, we'd quickly see that it adds up to far greater volume than any amount of old furniture and knickknacks.
My husband and I are continually divesting stuff from our household. We've realized that there's no point in keeping anything we don't use. It's expensive to rent a bigger house just to provide shelter for more stuff we don't even need. It all tends to get banged up when we move. What really makes our life together is our habits: our inside jokes, our favorite recipes, our conversation, our shared presence. The more we downsize, the smaller the house we rent, the nicer the neighborhood we can suddenly afford. Our bills get smaller and we spend less time cleaning house. In light of all these benefits, the stuff we still have has to justify itself more and more.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.