I have a mental exercise that I never do. Every single time I’ve suggested it to myself, my response has been to take action in a completely different way, which is fine, because any action has more information to reveal than a state of inaction. At least I can learn from mistakes, whereas the status quo never has anything to teach whatsoever. This exercise that I keep refraining from doing is to take a total and complete inventory of all my personal possessions.
I have this idea that an inventory of my belongings could be revealing in some way. Maybe I’d learn something about myself. Maybe I could publish it. Maybe I could illustrate it and market it as a book for insomniacs, who would surely fall asleep by the fourth sock photo, although considering my sock collection, which includes some profanity, maybe not so much on the socks. Maybe more on the glass baking pans? Really, my ideas of having a stuff inventory come from a mild paranoia that I might need it to Prove Things to our rental insurance provider.
Mmhmm, yes, I definitely owned some towels and a spatula. Can we get on with the compensation part, please? Because I’m finding that a life with no towels and no spatulas is an inconvenient sort of life. How hard is it to do comedy with no towels (see the complete Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) or spatulas (see the classic Weird Al movie UHF)?
There’s a paradox here. What is the point of owning so much stuff that we can’t realistically keep track of it all? We’re so attached to it, we feel so completely saturated with emotions when we even consider releasing any of it, but why? Can we really be so connected with inanimate objects when there are more than we can count or name?
Here’s an exercise for you. First, go to a neutral second location. A coffee shop, the library, the backwoods, your friend’s house, anywhere other than, say, an underground parking lot, because creepy. Sit there with a notebook and a pen. Try to write a list of everything you own. Okay, too hard. Pick one category of things that you own, and try to write a list of just those things. Shirts? Books? Stuff in your purse? Stuff in your medicine cabinet? Stuff in your kitchen utensil drawer? If you’re artistic, make a drawing. I surely would like to see it.
Make this list a numbered list. Quickly start to see how many, many, many objects there are in your world.
Why number and list things? What’s the point? The point is that it’s really hard to get a neutral, objective perspective on our surroundings. We start to take our background wallpaper for granted. This is how clutter blindness develops. It’s also how life blindness develops. Years can pass and we won’t realize that things have Happened to us. That’s where three-foot-high piles of laundry come from - from the Happening. That’s how we’re able to lose our keys. That’s how we’re able to dig deeply into debt, gain disguising* amounts of weight, and discover that somehow, somewhere, we seem to have misplaced our passion and sense of purpose. We have to find a way to puncture our unawareness, to snap ourselves awake, to sit up into alertness. Any kind of metric, a self-imposed metric, can be a way of injecting some rational thought and structure into this dizzy miasma of vagueness.
Touch everything you own. Touch it once and consider it. Where did it come from? Do you remember? How much did it cost? Was it a gift? How long have you had it? Why do you have it? Do you use it? Do you like it? Is it getting shabby? Does it smell weird? Would you buy it again today at full retail price? What is the name of the feeling you feel when you think about not having it anymore? (Grief, loss, anger, panic, confusion, relief, gratitude, disgust, longing, hunger, numbness, a combination of factors, something?)
Ideally, you touch everything you own almost every day. Hopefully, you’re surrounded by comforts, useful things that make your life easier and happier every day. The finer things in life are really pillows, towels, soap, toothbrushes, bowls and spoons, pots of oatmeal, chairs and tables, floors and ceilings and windows. The more time you spend living in a tent and sleeping on the ground, the more aware you are of these truths. It’s the stuff we add on top of the basic comforts that has the potential to pass the threshold of comfort. It’s when we have so many clothes that it’s physically impossible to keep up on the laundry, when we have so many dishes and plastic containers that we can’t use our kitchen counters, so many papers that there’s nowhere to sit and sort through them, it’s at those times that we realize our stuff is not helping.
The exercise I do instead of inventorying my stuff is to just get rid of more of it. This works in the exact way that a food log works. If I don’t want to admit to it by writing it down, I just skip eating it. Never do anything you’re ashamed of, or, putting it more positively, only do things that make you feel proud. We can also say about our stuff that we keep only things we use, things we like, things that reflect our values. Hopefully those values include interacting with people more than interacting with our favorite inanimate objects. Touch everything you own, but first, hug everyone you love.
* I just realized this might look like a typo for ‘disgusting’ but I really did mean ‘disguising.’ As in, looking like one is wearing a disguise, being unrecognizable, or like one’s original appearance has been disguised and hidden.
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.