I find material things beyond the basics become a burden. What constitutes “basics” depends on everyone’s unique values, but I find the more I get rid of, and the more free I feel as a result, the fewer things I need as basic, which lets me get rid of more. The less “stuff” I have, the more freedom I have, mental and physical. I value few things more than freedom.
I think Thoreau said it well: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”
Getting rid of unnecessary things starts simple. Nearly everyone has junk they already know they want to get rid of. Each piece of junk gotten rid of leaves the remaining possessions more valuable, so getting rid of each next thing becomes more challenging.
What’s the challenge? I find it helps to specify because it helps you learn your values and live by them. The challenge is to balance the freedom I would get from not having a thing, which is intangible, versus the value of using the thing. Books, I’ve found, are almost never worth keeping. While having them allows me to reference them, “putting them back into circulation” (how I describe selling them to bookstores and donating them to the library) improved my life more, which I discovered through experiment.
So the more you get rid of, the greater values you have to consider. If the unexamined life is not worth living, acting on increasingly greater values examines your life more and makes it more worth living.
Last year I found an old box of letters from high school friends I kept in touch with into college and then lost touch with and faced the challenge of what to do with them. Note the 1989 postmark dates:
On the one hand, they are an irreplaceable connection to my youth. If I got rid of them, I would forever lose access to a formative time in my life. On the other hand, they’re teenage scribblings. I delete emails a dozen emails with more valuable content every day. This is why I learned to avoid accepting stuff in the first place.
I put the letters in the recycling a few times, only to take them back out. I kept them on my desk for a long time, but didn’t read them. Over months, I concluded I would never read them.
Oh wait, for three authors of letters, I found them online and sent them scans of the letters they wrote. They were happily surprised to receive them, but the exchange led to only a few mildly interesting emails. One longtime friend remarked how much his writing from then reminded him of his fifteen-year-old’s. Which reinforced my conclusion that any teenager’s letters read similar and it would really just tell me what any teenager would sound like, which devalued holding on to these letters. Imagining reading mine would tell me about myself is a nice fantasy.
So I was left with the letters of friends I hadn’t communicated with since 1989 whom I couldn’t find on the internet. What was the point? Who was I trying to kid that we’d bump into each other and miraculously rekindle a friendship, or that they would be grateful to me for sharing something lost? Actually, one of the friends I contacted—my first girlfriend, who remains one of my most longstanding friends—shared the letters from me that she kept. And they’re still sitting in the box she gave them to me in months ago.
I’m not that interested in my own letters!
From the first love of my life!
I suspect that the me then would be heartbroken at the me now, not being caught up in the romance and passion I so valued. He would consider me today jaded, having lost the greatest spark of life. But me today knows everything that me did, plus two-and-a-half times more experience.
Deciding among close options forces you to mature. You have to say no to a lot of good things to have a great life.
After several months of them lying around unread, I took the picture above and put them in the recycling for the last time. You don’t have to get rid of everything. What unnecessary things you choose to keep—to let weigh you down, to anchor you—is your choice. What you keep are your touchstones, but if you keep random extra stuff, you haven’t matured, chosen, or improved your life. You’re just burying yourself.
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