Sentimental Items

As I continue downsizing my material possessions to those items providing me a mix of high functionality, frequent use, and deep satisfaction, I discovered one category of great difficulty. While minor in volume, my sentimental items proved difficult to relinquish. A flurry of emotions and memories were deeply tied to these objects occupying the shoe box under my bed, bin in my closet, and folder in my drawer. You may know what I’m talking about–that box of old love letters, ticket stubs, award certificates, or machine stamped medallions with a red, white, and blue lanyard. I’ll go as far to admit finding a molar tucked away in a small envelope labeled “for braces”. The CSI-like nature of my bin prompted an immediate review. 

Every so often–typically before moving residences–I crack open these repositories and recall the baseball game, high school dance, or accomplishments of days gone by. They were transported from my childhood home to college, and then to my first apartment, and subsequent accommodations thereafter. These objects have a way of entering my physical possession freeway without finding an exit.

When an object moves beyond its utilitarian purpose and into the realm of emotional attachment, we find the items of sentiment. These can be otherwise everyday items (perhaps not even very useful) that we just can’t seem to part with. My dining room chair serves the purpose of keeping me off the floor, but evokes very little emotion. To lose this chair would not be parting with who I am, what I’ve done, or how I wish others to perceive me. Now take the engineering diploma hanging upon my bedroom wall. Much like paper currency, this finely embellished diploma holds very little intrinsic value. Yet seeing it precipitates a much deeper significance in relation to how I perceive myself. I recall the four years of university, financial provisions I made, and experience I had. It represents my knowledge of the subject matter emblazoned across its center. In fact, it “declares” it to all who come upon it! There is a flood of emotions in which transcend these physical items, for I believe it represents my identity, the life I crafted, and how others think of me.

On the other hand, sentimental items are not always “everyday” objects like photos, pieces of paper, or currency. Here we find an additional layer of complexity rooted in its irreplaceability. I had my fair share of items in which all reality cannot be easily replaced. These were autographed baseballs, unique travel souvenirs, and certificates of past achievements. Yet despite their appearance, I challenged myself to evaluate them in a similar fashion to my other material possessions. I wanted to view them through the prism of functionality, frequency of use, and significance on my long-term happiness and satisfaction. I discovered sound profound insights that both helped me part with my current belongings and also filter new things approaching my possession.

While some sentimental items are displayed proudly, I often find others (just like myself) maintaining these items in an “out of sight, out of mind” fashion. Why if we cherish them so deeply, do we delegate them to the darkest corners of our physical space? It seems a little ironic to have placed a lot of my identify in objects I only see a few times a year. I realized I should either develop more functionality out of the item (even if that means displaying it) or simply part with it.

Raised in a first-world culture thriving on materialism and physical abundance, I’ve associated the arc of my life with these physical milestones. And in doing so, it becomes difficult to decouple an event or meaningful time in my life from this external manifestation. In essence, parting with sentimental items feels as if we are relinquishing part of who we are, what we’ve accomplished, or how we’ll be remembered. Perhaps we feel that parting with some of our most cherished and meaningful items will evaporate all memory of our relative, past lover, or time of great joy in our life.

As with all questions of mindfulness, I ask only one thing: am I making this choice consciously? Just as I believe in intentional consumption, so too do I believe we can maintain sentimental items with intent. However this should always be weighed against the dangers of attachment, coveting, or placing our self-worth or self-identity in physical objects. I quickly realized I fell into the latter camp. In decluttering my boxes, I deeply contemplated my emotional attachments. What is the harm in keeping these items? Would I actually be parting with who I am and what I stand for?

Through these flurries of thoughts, I always come back to this incredibly profound truth: the more superfluous time, possessions, and energy I remove, the more space I make for meaningful elements in my life. Those elements which ignite me, inspire me, drive me, and help me craft the future I want. I would never write these words if I didn’t believe in my heart of hearts that this approach works. These items were of low functionality, very infrequent use, and a source of high satisfaction (at times). My goal was to maintain the satisfaction, but ditch the physical anchor.

I soon began the process of confronting, digitizing, and dealing with these objects. I challenged my attachments, beliefs, and what direction my life is heading. Slowly this exercise–one which started in sorting old letters and awards–begins to carry a deeper significance. I no longer stand behind the possessions in my life, but behind the philosophy in which I live and preach. This was hard; crafting my values and what really matters in life is a trying exercise. Furthermore, it is an iterative process and one that you grow into. Recognize and embrace that as healthy change. I routinely part with things of little value, yet a year ago I could not have lived without it.

I came to recognize another important aspect of this decluttering: the emotions are contained in the memory, but generally have little to do with physical item. The words in the letters, the faces in the photos, the grades on a transcript have very little to do with the paper and film itself. Leveraging my somewhat fancy digital camera, I was able to photograph and categorize a large majority of these sentimental items. In post-production, I enhanced handwritten items for legibility and return discolored black and white photos to their original quality. Most smart phones and basic editing software can achieve excellent, high-resolution results. I almost feel as if the digital copies I now maintain are of higher quality than their recycled counterpart.

In dealing with 3-dimensional items, we need to take a slightly different approach. Some of these larger possessions were returned to family upon my most recent visit home. Other possessions such as trophies, autographed baseballs, or patches were evaluated for functionality, frequency of use, and added value to my life. While I undoubtedly hold those experiences in my mind, the physical reminders served little purpose locked away in a box. There was an interesting paradox between why I was keeping these items and who was actually interacting with them. Almost as if not to forget who I was, I maintained these items as a record of my past. They represented who I was to the outside world, yet very few people from that world would ever interact with them. In essence, their purpose had already been served. I had been shaped by these previous experiences and that was enough for me.

I scanned notes from my friends, exchanged foreign currency, took photos of photos, and recycled yearbooks. Those physical items are now converted to stories I share with friends and family over beers. I don’t need a city map of Florence to recall the aroma of Italian pizza. Nor do I require ticket stubs to the baseball game I attended with my brother last Memorial Day. We’ll always be able to share that memory without a physical representation in my sock drawer. I am happy to say that despite reducing these items, I don’t miss anything. Nor do I feel less comfortable in my own shoes. My physical space is clearer and I can always review those digitized photos when the time is right. Developing my values and life philosophy undoubtedly solidified my ability to stand apart from those items. And if this exercise sounds trivial or meaning less (I mean, does anyone really care what’s under my bed?), I think there is a deeper principle at work. I believe the way in which I relate to these items now directly impacts my evaluation of future sentimental objects. As long as I hold dear to and find identity in my current possessions, the more likely I am to repeat in the future. Yet I think this works in reverse as well. After developing a deeper appreciation for my habits, I now recognize times in which I don’t really need to pocket a pin, save that program, scurry away a ticket, or purchase a seemingly once-in-a-lifetime branded drinking mug. It keeps me lighter, mobile, and more in-tune with what I really value. The aforementioned approach boiled down bins of sentimental items to the following (half containing more legal implication than anything else):

  • passport
  • social security card
  • vehicle title
  • a journal from my first trip to Europe
  • my engineering diploma
  • a vase from my trip to China
  • a frame watercolor from Florence

As you continue your journey to simplicity, I invite you to dust off that shoe box and evaluate these sentimental objects. Try to identify their importance in your life, why you continue to own them, and what makes it difficult to let go. Digitize the important ones, but use discretion. Save a few things for your children, but realize they won’t miss it. Experience an old memory though writing, but let that come to pass too. You will gain a greater understanding for the objects you interact with on a daily basis and reflect on what items you invite into your life.

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