The Potential Tragedy of Clutter

And now for a more serious discussion about stuff and the accumulation thereof.

Recently, Dominique Browning wrote a poetic article for the New York Times style section on the importance of collections, memorabilia, and stuff in general: Let’s Celebrate the Art of Clutter.

 The first part of the article reads like a lyrical ode to a life well lived.  Her point about each person having a different set point for the amount of stuff they can tolerate in their life is spot on – one person’s minimalism is another person’s overwhelming overflow.

However, she loses me completely when she insists that her children make room in their lives for all the stuff that she has collected, and keep it long after she is gone.

A realization has emerged for me out of the work that I’ve done with clients: one person’s trash may be another person’s treasure, but the reverse is also true.  Stuff is only worth keeping if it means something to its owner.  There will always be things worth passing down in families: valuable china or silver, important documentation of life events, photographs.  But the kind of stuff Dominique Brown is talking about, collected by one individual for her own pleasure?  That’s not necessarily the kind of thing that future generations will truly value.

Moreover, many of us in the organizing field see a common phenomenon: many, many people overestimate the market value of old things.  Yes, that furniture from your great aunt might be a valuable antique, but chances are decent that it’s just old and pretty and would net very little money in a sale.  In that case, if you don’t personally love and use it, is there really any reason to hold on to it?

Furthermore, let’s talk about what Dominique Browning is glossing over in her beautifully worded description of her personal collections.

Have you ever had to clean out the home of a recently deceased elderly relative? 

I helped with this process after my grandfather’s death and my grandmother’s subsequent significant downsize.  It was a wrenchingly difficult day, full of innumerable decisions with no right answer, dirt and dust and spiders, and the occasional bright moment when we came across an object that triggered a memory for one of the children or grandchildren present.  And I was lucky – we had plenty of hands to help, my family members generally get along so there was little bickering over who got what, and my grandparents had always kept their clutter to a relatively reasonable amount given that they had spent over 30 years in that home.

It is appalling to me, and even cruel, that Dominique Browning would wish this incredibly overwhelming amount of work, pain, and potential conflict on her a children at a time when they will be coping with significant loss and all the already unpleasant arrangements that come with it.  Her children will be mid-career, with children of their own – they won’t have TIME to organize the belongings she leaves behind, even if they had the desire.

So yes, collect things that are meaningful to you, that add beauty to your home and bring your memories into your daily life.  Do it for yourself!  But please, stay organized, and don’t pass on an unnecessary burden.  I promise that your children and grandchildren will thank you.