Sheets of kindergarten-ruled writing paper with misshapen letters; a shakily traced hand-turkey; certificates of achievement from dance, gymnastics, and cross country; birthday cards, first communion cards, graduation cards; a newspaper clipping showing a piano performance—these are a few of the souvenirs of my twenty-three years on this planet.
We all have keepsakes like this—that one drawer in our desks that we shove papers into and never clean out until it is overflowing, a box in the back of our closet, the knickknacks cluttering our dresser—and still we save more clippings, cards, and curios. It is overwhelming. I am here to ask: Why do we do this?
There are many reasons. A particular drawing holds value because we liked who we were when we made it. Or an object of no significance to someone else—like a pop tab with glued-on googly eyes—reminds us of an inside joke shared with a high school best friend. Programs, ticket stubs, and amusement park maps stack up on our bookshelves because we enjoyed those experiences. Wistfully, we pack these tokens away, perhaps hoping that we will preserve the past by doing so. What really happens is that we forget about the items, pack them away in some dark closet, and flip through the filing cabinets of our minds when we want to relive a memory.
It is true that from time to time we do need physical reminders of various aspects of our lives. This is why we hang photographs of our family members and friends around our homes or write a grocery list before going to the store. However, it becomes impossible and impractical to keep a material item from every single event in our past, even of all the important events. Keeping all of those papers and trinkets would overwhelm us with clutter.
Saying goodbye to these remnants of our past is healthy, since as we grow in maturity, we put those immature ways behind us. Freeing ourselves from the clutter of the past liberates us to live more fully in the present. We will remember the events of our lives, as they remain in our minds and hearts, but we are less tempted to dwell there. There is also an entirely practical element to decluttering: We have fewer boxes to move if we relocate and valuable storage space becomes available.
Finally, when it comes down to the crux, the whole of our experience is contained within our persons and material items cannot fully express that experience to another. I have seen this in the knickknacks and papers my parents have had to sort through after my grandparents’ deaths. Some are interesting to look at for their historical significance, but others—old grade reports, high school diplomas, snapshots of old friends—lose their meaning in the absence of the person who treasured them. My grandmother’s papers express barely a sliver of who she was.
Should we throw away everything that reminds us of the past then? Not necessarily. But we should think about what to keep and choose only what is most important.* Don’t be afraid to throw away (or recycle) the rest. It's okay to lose the baggage.
*Some questions to ask yourself:
Will I look at that (card, paper, program, map) again?
Does this item remind me of the best version of myself?
Would my grandchild want to keep this?