Why is it so hard to let go?

By Kathy Berken

It was time to purge my closets and dresser drawers. I mean, you can’t just keep bringing new things into the house without taking an equal number of things out, right? Or else you become a hoarder. My dad was a “saver.” And, just like those commercials, I fear I have become my father. Mostly, it’s the little things. I can hear my dad saying, “You never know when you might need that!” It’s a Depression-era mentality, and I get it. You never know when you might need that perfectly cut, rounded-edge, thin piece of foam that came in your electronics package. (Yes, I actually did find a perfect use for it.)

But we’re not talking about these random objects tossed in what my dad called his “junk drawer” for some unknown future utilitarian need. We’re talking about clothes that have been living in your closet forever that you can’t part with. But I have very limited space, so I one day grudgingly convinced myself that I just don’t have any more room and, honestly, I have not worn any of that stuff for years. I got out some trash bags and pulled shirts, pants, skirts and shoes from my closet and hauled them out to my car. I drove around with those five bags in my trunk for over a month! Eventually I needed the trunk space, so, like the mother bird, I pushed the birdies out of the nest.

However, I’ve learned a few things since then and I have a theory about why it is so darn hard to get rid of clothing we will never wear again. This fierce attachment is partly due to the feeling of security of having familiar objects around us. They are part of us; they belong with us. But I think there is another reason that can help us let go more easily.

An elderly sister told me that when she moved from her house to the retirement convent, she had much to dispose of. “It’s hard to part with some of those things,” she said, “because everything has a story.” Yes, that’s it. Everything has a story. That line explained everything.

The truth is that our stories become more significant as we grow older. Our short-term memories are fuzzier, but our memories from years and decades ago are fresher. So, I wonder if wanting to hang onto a sweater I wore in the 1980s when I worked on Cursillo weekends was more about wanting to remember the good times those weekends provided than whether I could find a place to actually wear that ratty and faded blue sweater with those orange diamonds.

Every time I saw the sweater in my trunk, it immediately took me back to all the fun, all the new friends and the sense of Christian community that was built in those few long days of honest talks, authentic prayer, great conversations and the seemingly endless poster-making! But the sister who reminded me that everything has a story, inspired me to see these objects taking up space in my closet more as connecting pieces, valuable only for the memories, rather than any intrinsic value.

Letting go of the sweater and other clothes with their sacred memories does not diminish the story woven into each one. As a matter of fact, as much as the memories embedded in the objects can bring me joy, they also can keep me living in the past. Which is the point. There is a healthy spirituality of giving things away that invites me to live more in the present.

Now I have come to believe that what I learned and experienced on Cursillo weekends way back in the 1980s has stayed with me for all these years and I really never needed a sweater to remind me anyway.

(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)

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