On keeping and not keeping things

I’ve been thinking lately about my tendencies to keep stuff.

(This post is just recording some things I’ve been thinking about, and adding some musings as I go. I’m not looking for advice here.)

I have a lot of stuff. A lot of it is stuff that I love and am very happy to have; but some of it is stuff that I have no need or use for or even interest in.

For me, keeping stuff in the former category is good. I have no interest (for myself) in minimalism for its own sake. And so when I see society seeming to suggest that it’s inherently better to get rid of as much stuff as possible, I get annoyed and grumpy and I push back.

But it recently occurred to me, during a discussion with my therapist (and after some recent discussions with various people about Marie Kondo), that the stuff in the latter category is not stuff that I need to keep. Keeping that stuff doesn’t, in general, make my life better in any way.

I tend to hold onto any given item of that sort for any of several reasons:

  • I feel like I might need it someday. (Or I hope to read it someday, or I hope to do a project with it someday, etc.)
  • I don’t want it to go to waste.
  • Getting rid of it in a non-wasteful way (such as taking plastic bags to the plastic-bag-recycling station, or posting things on Freecycle) is a bit of a hassle. (Not much of a hassle, usually; just a small barrier.)
  • For the subcategory of information (on paper or electronic): I hate the idea of information being destroyed. (This morning’s loss of browser tabs made me realize that this is part of what’s going on in my head when I think about getting rid of (for example) old paper documents.) (This is partly because I use recorded information as a kind of adjunct to my (fallible) memory; but also for other reasons that are less rational and less clear to me.)
  • I feel a certain amount of comfort/security/safety from keeping things.

(A few members of my extended family have had hoarder tendencies; I don’t know whether there’s anything genetic about such, but if so, I suspect that I have some of those genes.) (…And I’m immensely grateful for one cousin’s hoarder tendencies, because they’re the reason that I have various photos and videos of my mother.)

But even taking all of that into account, there’s some stuff that I really just don’t need. For example, my therapist gently suggested that I don’t really need to keep fifteen-year-old utility bills.

I know, rationally, that I don’t need to keep those. It’s not like I expect to ever have a use for them; it’s not like I think I’ll need to someday prove that I paid them; it’s not like I’m going to do a data project recording and graphing my energy use and costs over a fifteen-year period. I can imagine future archaeologists finding them mildly interesting—but I suspect that future archaeologists will have plenty to keep them occupied without adding my particular cache of old papers.

I think that I keep those kinds of things out of habit, and a sort of completist tendency, and because of the last two bullet items above: I don’t like to see information destroyed, and I derive a vague sense of comfort from holding onto them.

That last factor is in some sense sufficient for me; as long as there’s some positive value to retaining them, and as long as there isn’t a strong reason to get rid of them, and as long as retaining them causes me no significant problems (I have plenty of filing-cabinet space), there’s no real need to get rid of them.

But I think that the vague sense of comfort in this particular case is such a small positive value that it doesn’t count for much. And it would be one thing if they were already all neatly filed away in my filing cabinets; but instead a lot of them are currently scattered in piles of paper in my bedroom or in the living room; that’s not a huge problem, but it’s not ideal. (And it would be even less ideal if I were to die unexpectedly and someone else had to spend time and energy sorting through those piles of mostly useless paper.)

I could theoretically resolve a fair bit of this issue by scanning the papers and then tossing the physical versions. But that would involve a fair bit of time and/or money, and the result would be electronic copies of fifteen-year-old utility bills, which might have even less value for me than physical ones. :)

I tentatively decided yesterday that, as a first step, I was ready to give up utility bills that are more than ten years old—but then all the folders of utility bills that I found in a quick glance through one stack of file folders turned out to be “only” five to seven years old. :)

Anyway, I think that I’m gradually heading toward being willing to let go of some old papers, but it’s going to take me some time to get there.

In the meantime, for non-paper stuff that I don’t want but that might be of use to someone else, I’ve been cataloguing things and moving them to the same big closet where I keep my giveaway books; at some point relatively soon, I hope to post a bunch of stuff to my giveaway lists, and to local Freecycle-type groups.

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