He opened the box. He closed it again. He opened it. He closed it.
This went on, from time to time, for nearly ten years.
I barely gave it any thought. When the box turned up in our lives, we had tons of storage. Not only did we have a walk-in closet, we had an office and a two-car garage with a loft. I doubt I even knew where this box was kept.
It wasn’t until we downsized for the fourth or fifth time that the box had nowhere to go. It sat in our bedroom for months. I had to move it over and over again just to clean the floor. Time to do something.
Normally I wouldn’t interfere. Someone else’s box of memories is their business, not mine (unless they ask me for help). Sometimes this stuff takes time to process. In this case, though, I knew the box was full of medals and ribbons and other marks of achievement. I truly couldn’t understand why anyone would hesitate to “deal with” what looked very much like a box full of success.
I asked him about it.
“It feels like a moral hazard,” he said.
What, to acknowledge that you worked really hard for several years? That participating in these things built you into the person you are today? That the values that earned you these trophies are values you still hold forty years later?
It’s okay to admit that you worked hard and you did a good job!
This whole situation was hilarious to me. I work with chronically disorganized people, and almost always their situation stems from accumulated trauma. They have trouble sorting their stuff, partly for cognitive reasons, partly because it physically wears them out, but mostly because it’s sad.
I share some of this to help people see their issue from a more clinically removed perspective. Putting things in the third person or giving some other type of emotional distance can often help them to make decisions. It can be easier if you see yourself as Someone, a generic person facing a slightly more abstract dilemma. Hmm. What should Person X do about Box Y and Box Z?
I also like to try to help my people see themselves as the endearing characters they so often are.
Here before you is a grown man, afraid that admitting he was once pretty good at swimming might turn him arrogant or vain.
Usually, when I start probing into how someone feels about a particular box of clutter, I’ll venture a version that doesn’t quite fit. I might share how I think I might feel in that situation, or I might mention a different client’s situation. The reason I do that is that it helps the person in front of me right now to get more specific. No, what I said isn’t how they feel at all. It’s actually...
Something quite unique, as it turns out!
The reason someone keeps a fork or a pencil or a set of keys is pretty consistent. “I need it.” If we get rid of these utilitarian objects, we’ll just have to replace them. We don’t have to explain why we have towels, unless we have like a thousand towels.
It’s much more interesting when someone explains why they have something that nobody else has, or why their emotional reaction is different than anyone else’s.
Do other people have boxes full of trophies or medals or ribbons or newspaper clippings of all the times local reporters interviewed them? I sure don’t! I only won my first trophy a little over a year ago.
It turns out that the reason the box was so hard to open was because of where it came from. My mother-in-law presented it to my husband a few years before her death, when her cancer came back. It was impossible to detach the contents of the box from their archivist.
She was so proud of you, I said. She must have shown all of this stuff to all her friends.
I was wrong about this box and its contents. It wasn’t entirely full of ribbons and medals. There were also quite a lot of photos, some of them framed. And? Homework and artwork from first grade on.
A lot is happening during the sorting of an archive like this. There are the rushes of various emotions, with the knowledge that at least some of them will be surprise sneaker waves. There are policy decisions: what to keep, what not to keep, and what do we do with it all? Where does it go?
What do we do with the stuff we want to keep? Frame or display it? Scan it? If we digitize it, do we also keep the originals?
Is there anything we should send to someone else? (Example: a funny newspaper photo attributing my husband’s name to another boy).
What do we do with the stuff that’s going away? Recycle it? Throw it in the trash? Shred it? Burn it?
The main thing I recommend, after sorting it all, is to set it aside until the next day, when all the emotions that have been stirred up have time to settle a bit.
My position on my husband’s box of stuff was that he should keep most of it, at least long enough to show his interns. They would really get a kick out of the pictures of him with a mullet! I also recused myself, because I had sorted, scanned, and burned my own stuff several years prior.
(That’s the problem: the two of us did that ritual together, going through stuff from our divorces, but this box wasn’t around at the time).
This is what he actually did. He kept the photos and the ribbons and medals. He elected to throw out the homework, with one exception.
Apparently, at some time back in the 1970s, my man had set aside a brain teaser and never finished it. Never mind that he has a master’s degree. He wasn’t going to let this incomplete homework assignment hang on as an open loop. He sat back and figured out the puzzle.
It took him ten minutes, which to me legitimated how challenging the question was. It seemed fair to me that a child would struggle if an adult aerospace engineer did.
“You know you’re allowed to have been a kid, right? You can’t blame yourself for not being grown up yet.”
I get it, though. Few of us can forgive ourselves for being young and making a young person’s mistakes. We judge our child-selves for not being adults yet, for not knowing how to make the decisions we would make today.
This is why it’s so hard to let go, because we can’t forgive ourselves even for being little children. We can’t be proud of ourselves even when we win.
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.
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