This winter I did something that I’ve been meaning to do for about two years now. I cleaned out my filing cabinet. (Yes, yes, calm down everyone, I know it sounds so thrilling you want to stop reading this and go do that yourself right now, but bear with me for a minute.) For some insane reason I’ve been hanging on to bills, random slips of paper and receipts – some of them more than 10 years old! It was high time to clear it all out.
I spent an entire afternoon last month digging my way through the drawers, and finally came up for air with a massive box of papers to be shredded. But my poor new Fellowes shredder, while sturdy (and highly recommended… 5 stars) could only take so much. It worked nervously in ten-minute spurts before it would overheat, curse at me, and shut down. So long story short, it took forever to actually get the job done.
However, as I shredded my way through the box, it was a bit like a trip down memory lane. There went one of my first checking account statements, when I had only a few dollars to my name. Awww. And then there was the rental agreement for my first apartment after college. Ah yes, and here’s that SBC phone bill with all my notes on it after I spent an afternoon yelling at their customer service agent on the phone. Oh, the sweet, sweet memories.
But the greatest thing about shredding a giant box of paper? I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t the giant bags of squiggly confetti it produced (although that was downright fun, I have to admit). It was simply that it FELT REALLY GOOD. I will never have to see or look at any of those papers again. They don’t exist! In fact, it made me want to make a party of it and make a pass through my closet to see if there were any things in there that needed to go to get donated as well. Perhaps as an afterthought about a week ago, I cut off most of my hair and also deleted my Facebook account. Maybe this was just my kind of new year’s resolution. Instead of going on a diet or getting a gym membership, I went on a “stuff” detox.It made me think of a performance artist I ran across recently, Michael Landy, who systematically shredded everything he owned as part of his 2001 installation called “Break Down.” He strategically chose a recently vacated department store off of Oxford street (a main shopping district) in London, and he and his assistants literally shredded EVERYTHING– from his artworks to his couch to his car. The stuff would go round and round on conveyor belts and he would choose the things to shred during the day. He’s on record as saying that it turned into a kind of job that he would do every day for over a month… and that he realized that there were things he was reluctant to shred, like his art. It stayed going around the belt until the very last few days. At the end of the process, he had no money from the exhibition or sale of scraps, and no possessions.
It sounds insane… and I guess that most artists are, in a way. But it’s fascinating and mesmerizing, because we can relate. In a way, we are jealous. We wonder what it would feel like to have complete freedom from “stuff.” I’m sure it feels freeing and alive, but at the same time exposed and frightening – like a man without any anchors to the world. Humans seem to have this fascinating idea that not having any stuff at all to hang onto in some way might feel a lot like standing in the middle of a crowd completely naked with no sort of identity. In that way, I don’t think Landy was making a “statement about materialism” as much as he was doing his own kind of social study on our feelings about stuff.
Stuff (and well, money) is a tricky thing. I may not consider myself a materialistic person, but there is certainly some stuff that I couldn’t destroy. Mostly I couldn’t get rid of things that I myself created (hmm… there’s probably a completely separate blog post lurking in that statement!). However, when I look at a really big bill or run across an unexpected expense, I do feel deeply angry about it. This situation happened to me last week. I had to spend a couple of days thinking through that response in my heart. If everything I have has been a gift – literally everything – my breath, my family, my possessions, my money – why do I hold onto it so tightly as if it were mine? My anger and frustration about my “stuff” reveals my mistrust in God and that he will ultimately take care of me. If I trusted him more, perhaps I would feel more freedom to breathe easier and hold onto the “stuff” in my life with a loose, open hand.
But what is it about “stuff” that’s so bad? Is it the stuff itself? Not usually. Which brought me to a new revelation… maybe I don’t care so much about collecting stuff, but I care A LOT about collecting intangibles. I collect experiences, friendships, conversations, etc. It seems silly, but I have to ask myself… how badly do I want those things? The revealing question is always this one: “If this (thing) was taken away from me completely, would I fall apart?” My answer there is an immediate yes. It made me realize: a materialist may collect stuff or money… I collect experiences, which is an addiction that is typically much easier to hide. The tangibles and intangibles themselves are not necessarily evil – but when they come too close to my heart and my identity, they are in danger of mastering me. Could I lose myself within them?
Which brings me to my epiphany here… It’s not enough to go on a “stuff” detox through my house with a shredder and donation bag. I must go through my heart with an even finer-toothed comb. What stuff am I hanging onto in there that has too strong a hold on me? What clutter simply needs to go?