“Whenever you set out to do something, something else must be done first.” -Murphy’s Law
As I sit here, I am ten days into my New Year’s Resolutions. They are:
- Lose 25 pounds (I could deal with 15. Ten would be nice, even).
- Follow a strict household budget.
- De-clutter the house and get rid of all unnecessary, life-sucking items (excluding husband, of course).
- Oh, and get a book published, which preferably will become a bestseller.
It is perhaps important to note that these are roughly the same goals I have had for the past 15 years or so except that the number of pounds I want to lose seems to keep climbing (seriously, what the hell is it about turning 40? I feel like my body is becoming a retirement community for fat cells). At first glance, these four items appear to have nothing in common. However, upon closer inspection, all of them are about excess. Excess weight, excess spending, excess clutter and excess time-wasted that could be spent writing. I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way I went from believing that there would never be enough to realizing that there was, in fact, too much. Clearly, control of my life had somehow slipped into the hands of Target Corporation. I faced two choices: completely give up or do something about it.
My dark night of the soul was not one in which I suddenly realized that I was unloved and unlovable. On the contrary, I think I am quite lovable (even scary, my husband might add, kind of like an adorable kitten that might scratch your eyes out without warning). The darkness overcame me in the realization that if I didn’t take control soon, I might spend the rest of my life stuck in a chaotic world where the only means of escape would be to go out and buy more stuff, culminating in the life-ending tragic event of being buried by my own belongings.
But alas! You will not find yourself in a clearance rack. Believe me, I’ve spent a lot of time there, and in those Zen like moments of finding Perfect Tommy Hilfiger jeans in my size for $7.00, I believe I’ve come close. I have come home with bargains galore, bags full of things I didn’t need and in some cases didn’t even like. But I bought them because if I didn’t buy them, someone else might get the steal, and no self respecting shopaholic would stand for such a thing. Unfortunately, those same conquests are inevitably followed by the harsh realization that I am no happier that I was before I gave in to the compulsion. On the contrary, such sprees often end with the nagging voice again telling me that I lost control once again. Then I spend half the night lying to myself about why I really needed those jeans, why it’s no big deal, and how I’ll be stronger next time. Sound familiar? Before we know it, the things we do to numb our pain morph into things that cause us pain.
Overwhelmed by our pasts, our presents, our futures, and in some cases, broken, we become adept at numbing the things that cause us pain. Some people eat; others drink. Some people shop; others save obsessively. Some people hoard things while some give it all away, but the goal is the same- to calm our inner twitches. A clean house or the appearance of having it together is not a panacea, which is why addressing our outer chaos is not enough. Inner chaos must be dealt with as well.
You know the drill. Monday through Friday, work at top speed to earn enough money to buy all of the things your ego desires but your heart has no need for. Saturdays (pre or post the four gazillion errands, kid events, and general schlepping around that must be done), you are rewarded for your hard work by spending your free time cleaning the house while conveniently ignoring all of the things you can’t stuff into already full closets and cabinets. Despite that knowledge, shopping suddenly seems like a good idea. So you buy more stuff. Then you come home and try to figure out where to put all the stuff you just bought just minutes before realizing that you’re too tired to put it all away. Instead, you order a pizza because you’re too tired to cook any of the groceries you bought this morning. Then it’s time to feel fat. Fat and guilty. Might as well have a glass of wine. Or a bottle. Whatever. Go to bed. Get up on Sunday, and the house is somehow a mess again, filled with pizza boxes, wine glasses, and the dishes you didn’t feel like doing for the twelfth time in a day. So you go to church and ask God to help you to make sense of your life, win the lottery, find some peace.
Most of us are too busy to truly contemplate why we do things this way; we are simply stuck in the pattern, going through the routines that make us feel as though we have some measure of control in our too-hectic lives.Errands need to be run, appointments made and children, cared for. The burden of responsibility wears on us, and reaching for something that will ease the burden can make it seem more bearable. To top it off, introspection scares us because we might reveal our inner scatterbrain for all to see and presumably, judge. Regardless, we must confront this irrational fear and face the tornado spiraling within if we are to have any success in truly freeing ourselves from the forces that have taken over our lives. Those who want to fall back on the whole “Jesus has a plan for my life” argument, go right ahead, but realize that wearing your Jesus boots can only be so helpful if you’re not willing to step into the muck of your life.
Hmmm, Jesus boots, now there’s a million dollar idea. People would buy them. They totally would.
The first step to organizing your life is to be open and honest about where you are. Look closely at your habits. Where do you get your “stuff”? Do you buy it? Get it in trade? Get it for free? Why do you take it into your life? Are you bored? Lonely? Unfulfilled? What do you save? Why? How long do you save it? Where do you put it? What can you part with? Are your cabinets and closets full or overflowing? What about your basement? Your garage? Not all of us are full blown hoarders. Many of us simply have too much stuff, and even though we know we have too much, we continue to buy more, to replace what isn’t broken, to fill the spaces that don’t need filling. And so the question we all must face is this: What are the voids that we are trying to fill?
My parents’ garage is part treasure trove, part precariously hazardous danger space. There are things in that space that have been buried for so long that I would not be surprised if a long lost sibling were to suddenly wander out from the pile, wondering why no one came to rescue him. The inside of the house, comparatively speaking, is not quite as bad but not exactly what I would call livable. There are a series of narrow walking paths throughout the house that one can navigate if one ever wants to know how mice feel. My mother has mostly given up trying to sort it all out. Sometimes I think it’s my dad’s way of trying to stay thin. Maybe he thinks that if he keeps narrowing the path more and more it will motivate him to eat less. Maybe he thinks that if he puts enough stuff around it will insulate the place entirely, and heat will not be necessary. Or maybe he’s convinced himself that if death were to stroll in the door tomorrow, the grim reaper would turn his hide around and run the other way, or at the very least, there would be plenty of places for my dad to hide. Whatever the reason, the term “unfinished business” is apropos here.
And therein lies the crux of most of our problems. Unfinished business is what compels us to buy, eat, drink, wash, starve, or engage in any number of compulsive behaviors. Add this to the hyper consumerism that is enmeshed in our culture, the one that tells us that we will finally be happy once we have this, and we have a recipe for compulsive closet stuffing or whatever other kind of stuffing makes sense to us.
Looking within – opening the Pandora’s Box of our past and knowing that once it has been unleashed, we will not be able to stuff it all back in -is a painful process. Even those of us who manage to stuff our feelings far, far beneath do not escape the consequences. Heart disease, obesity, abusive relationships, codependency, neurosis – you name it. These states of disease of the body and mind are just manifestations of our inner worlds. If the world inside is narrow and limiting, then the life we live becomes the same. We are limited by our compulsions, by our diseases and by our fears of what life would suddenly become without them. These burdens soon become our crutches, and we are no longer as afraid to live with them as we are to live without them.
Who would I be if I suddenly got organized or stopped buying things? I couldn’t be the girl who forgets her keys every morning. Would my children still know me? What would I do if I quit shopping? Would I still change my outfits four times a day? If I’m not cleaning, shopping, or changing my clothes, what the hell would I do with all of my free time? I might actually have to take a risk and start doing the thing I have been avoiding all these years – writing. And what if no one wants to read what I’ve written? What if it’s not good enough? What if I fail? And suddenly it’s overwhelming, and I feel the need to go buy something to put all of these silly thoughts back into the dark corners of my subconscious. For many of us, this is a daily battle. The details might be different, but the internal message is the same.
The problem is that we look for ourselves in all the wrong places. And truth be told, I’m not convinced that “ourselves” is really who we are even trying to find. I think that what most of us spend our time, money and habits seeking is acceptance from others. What most of don’t realize is that A: The people who love us already accept us. B: The people who don’t accept us probably never will. C: Whether or not people love or accept us is of little consequence because D: Most of us fail to accept or love ourselves. This is who I am. I am a soul walking around in a body, as is everyone around me. I am not my stuff.
We are all adorned with trappings of the world around us that we have deemed somehow necessary. These trappings come in the form of personality, material possessions, beliefs, and compulsions. But if I were to remove these trappings, if I were to come clean, so to speak, I would realize that by ridding myself of every thing, I would find the everything I was looking for. This is not a new idea, of course. It is a very Buddhist idea. But since we as a society don’t make a habit of walking around in the nude, squatting on others’ property and abstaining from everything unclean, we are left with the quandary of how to release ourselves from our self-imposed traps while still living our respective lives.
My own mantra is “I am not my stuff,”and “stuff” can be anything. There is physical stuff (my soft pillow of a belly, my gray hair, my Kardashianesque butt). There is material stuff (my computer, my favorite jeans, my house). There is emotional stuff (my fears, my failures, my regrets). There is so much to deal with that sometimes our lives feel as though we, too, are navigating a very narrow path that only gets smaller with time. Instead of our lives expanding, we feel as though they are contracting, limited by our refusal to tend to the accumulation of baggage, both material and immaterial, that burdens us. And sometimes, like in my dad’s house, that contraction of life manifests itself in very constricting ways.
But it’s just stuff. And it can be dealt with. Not all at once, by little by little we can unburden ourselves of the things that hold us back and begin living the life that is waiting beneath it all.