Last year, Americans spent over $27 billion to rent the 2.5 billion square feet of self-storage that blanket the nation—that’s more cash than the NFL, NBA, and MLB made last year, and enough square footage to cover Downtown Los Angeles 15 times over. But how many of us feel like we have what we need? And need what we have? These are the questions actor-illusionist-inventor Geoff Sobelle poses to audiences in The Object Lesson, which is transforming the Kirk Douglas Theatre into a cavernous storage space (full of over 3,000 boxes!) from September 4 – October 4, 2015. Sobelle’s meditation on the things in our lives we get attached to inspired us to take a look at both our obsession with stuff and our obsession with getting rid of stuff. Why has Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up been on the bestseller lists for months now? Why do people watch TV shows about hoarding? And why, in a digital age, do we still find our desks and filing cabinets stuffed with papers? We talked to two professional organizers and declutterers based here in Los Angeles to find out about how easy it is for stuff to accumulate, how hard it is to throw things away, and why humans get attached to objects in the first place.
Peter Walsh has been organizing people’s homes and lives for 15 years and is the author most recently of Lose the Clutter, Lose the Weight: The Six-Week Total-Life Slim Down. He said that there are a few reasons why people acquire so much stuff. The first is social. “People are taught, through advertising and socialization and through friendships,” he said, “that if you just buy the right thing, you can acquire the life you want.” Walsh calls this “investing in the promise that comes with the product,” and it’s particularly dangerous in this time of cheap and easy credit, when we can purchase anything we want from anywhere in the world at the touch of a button.
But we also get attached to objects because of their meaning—whether it’s a gift, an inheritance, or a souvenir. Standolyn Robertson, a professional organizer who appeared on the TV show Hoarders, said, “For a lot of people, the object becomes their only connection to the memory.” So getting rid of the object also means getting rid of the memory—and getting rid of the person who gave the object to you. “Even if you go to a conference, and you get free stuff that you don’t really like,” she said, “if you got rid of the stuff, it means you didn’t really go to the conference.”
So how do we keep the aspirations and the memories—and ditch the stuff? “There’s nothing wrong with remembering the past, and there’s nothing wrong with preparing for the future,” said Walsh. But keepsakes packed away in boxes don’t do that, nor do items of clothing that no longer fit.
Robertson said that she counsels her clients—many of whom have hoarding disorders—“not to keep all the stuff but to keep the best of the best.”
Walsh recalled a woman who had put all her beloved grandmother’s things in storage, then left them there for 26 years; she couldn’t bear to throw anything away. After Walsh found out that her favorite memories of her grandmother were of baking together, they decided to build a shadowbox in the woman’s kitchen to display some of her grandmother’s cookie cutters, rolling pin, and handwritten recipes. “Every time she walks into the kitchen and looks at it, her heart sings,” said Walsh. Putting items on display conjures up memories; keeping things in boxes does not.
Sometimes, letting go can be as simple as telling a story about an object, said Walsh. He advises people who have to clean out an entire house to “grab some friends, a few bottles of great wine, and just sit and tell the story of the objects.” Walsh said another strategy he frequently advises people to employ is to take photos of things—like childhood toys or inherited furniture—before selling them or disposing of them.
Which brings us to the next frontier: digital organizing. “It’s so easy now just to take pictures that people never take it a step forward and figure out how to save the best of the best and share those photos with loved ones,” said Robertson. We don’t put our photos on display; they live in our phones. As a result, she predicts that the next generation will grow up saying, “‘My mother lost her phone, so I have no childhood photos.’” Robertson said that there will be a lot more work for organizers as people grow as overwhelmed by digital clutter as they do with physical clutter.
Walsh said that it’s also interesting to consider how we talk about that overwhelming feeling clutter gives us. “When we talk about clutter, we use words that we don’t use anywhere else,” he said. “‘I went into that room and I felt like I was suffocated.’ ‘You go into that garage and feel like you’re buried.’ ‘There’s so much stuff you just can’t breathe.’” Objects have the power to suck the life out of us, he said. “We think of our things as inanimate objects, and in some ways they are, but the truth is, stuff has incredible power over us,” he said. Organizing for him isn’t ultimately about the stuff, he added. “It’s about helping people redefine their relationship to their stuff.” And then he inserted a reference to Fight Club: “Instead of their stuff owning them, they own their stuff.”