In the first few chapters of the book Stuff, which I reviewed on Monday, the authors talk in detail about sentimental clutter. We all struggle with this kind of clutter, not just hoarders, and the authors explain why on page 45:
“We can’t help but imagine that some essence of the person or the event symbolized by the objects will magically rub off and become part of us.”
A napkin used by a rock star, a friendship bracelet you made during a wonderful summer at camp, or a ticket stub to a movie you saw with a good friend before he moved away might be examples of objects you’re saving in a box of sentimental keepsakes. But, if you were to look at similar items — a napkin a waitress sets under your drink at dinner, a ratty friendship bracelet on a kid in a playground, or a movie stub you found on the ground in a parking lot — you wouldn’t assign any special value to these objects. You could throw them in the trash without any hesitation.
Objects are just objects, and their value doesn’t magically change just because you have a history with them. The value you’re assigning the object comes from your memories, not the object. Like the authors of Stuff explain, you’re hoping that the person or event the object represents will impact you in the present. You think that you’ll be like the rock star because you have a napkin he used or feel the joy of your summer at camp because you kept the bracelet. But, this doesn’t happen — you can’t be that rock star and you can’t relive the past. Sentimental clutter isn’t magical.
A life void of any sentimental objects, though, might be difficult, especially for people who tend toward sentimentality. If you want some sentimental objects in your home and/or office (and I do), you need to be sure that you’re only keeping the treasures. Here are some ideas for how to keep sentimental items from getting out of control:
- Don’t keep anything you wouldn’t want anyone else to find. If something were to happen to you, your friends and family would sort through your things and you wouldn’t want to cause them any pain or embarrassment or damage their memories of you.
- Only keep items you want to display/use, and then display/use them. If something really matters to you, you should want to share it with others. Putting something you say you “treasure” in a cardboard box in your attic actually means you think the item is junk and not something you want to keep.
- If you insist on keeping a sentimental keepsake chest, limit it to one box and only keep things that can fit inside that box. If your box is full, you’ll need to remove something when adding something new. Be sure the container is sturdy, pest and water resistant, and the items inside are documented (video? photographed?) in case you lose the objects in a fire or other disaster. If you don’t want to exert the energy to document the objects, this is a red flag that you don’t really treasure the items.
- Remind yourself you can’t keep everything and that objects don’t have magical properties. These simple reminders can help you to get rid of things that are actually clutter and not treasures.
- Photograph the objects you wish to remember but don’t want to keep. One digital photograph saved on your computer (and backed up online with Flickr or on DropBox) should be all you need to keep the memory reminder.