"Oh! You haven't unpacked yet," I commented as I walked into my friend's new apartment.
The bedroom furniture was in place, but the dresser was bare except for a clock radio and a set of keys. In the kitchen, nothing whatsoever was visible on the countertops, walls, or floor.
"Actually, I'm all done," my friend responded.
Inwardly, I shook my head, thinking that "barren" was the only word that could describe this space.
My friend went on to explain, "My mother's kitchen counter was completely overflowing with piles of secondhand cottage-cheese containers, cereal boxes, and bags of beans and pasta. I hated it and was determined that I'd never live that way on my own."
Whether we rebel against our parents' style of organization, end up mirroring their behavior, or develop our own unique habits, the issue of managing our possessions often taxes our energies and complicates our relationships with those closest to us.
Battle of the wills
"I love my husband a lot, but his messiness really, really frustrates me," says Karen.* "I've tried to clean up after him, but it makes no difference, and eventually I'm too tired."
Karen acknowledges that she and her husband were raised quite differently. "I came from a house with eight kids, and my mother kept it so neat that people could visit anytime and look in our drawers without embarrassing us," she explains. "We all had chores and had to keep our rooms clean. If Mom had to come in your room and organize it, well, everything went flying!"
Her husband, on the other hand, was an only child. Both of his parents worked, and they had a weekly maid for basic cleaning. "He just never learned maintenance: If you take care of something every day and put it back in place, you won't have a big cleanup job," she says.
Once her husband's clutter began seeping out of his study and taking over their whole house, Karen hired a professional organizer. "She helped him sort his papers and clothes and took him shopping for closet shelving and organizers," Karen recalls, "but a week after she left, you couldn't even tell she?d been there!"
Karen recognizes some of the mentality behind her husband's habits, explaining, "He worked at home as a freelance writer for many years, so to this day he still saves every receipt. In fairness, when we've visited other journalists, I've noticed that they all seem to have rooms that look like bombs exploded. They don't like to throw things away because it could be something they could use for inspiration or reference one day."
Karen adds, "But you know, when you look at the number of storage lockers in every community, everybody in America must have this problem! It used to be that you had to take your stuff to the lockers, but now the pods even come to your door."
Karen concludes, "I like the whole concept of 'Less is more,' and I think I overcompensate for my husband's clutter by not keeping sentimental items myself. But the best way to control clutter is to restrict the person to the smallest amount of space possible. Do not give a clutterer a bigger space!"
Zoe, who is married to an avid collector, would agree. Her husband, Gerry, admits, "I have fossils and meteorites, about 1,000 baseball caps, and 25,000 Matchbox cars. They're stored in part of the basement and in the attic over the garage, and we also have two sheds in the backyard. I collect full-size cars, too; we currently have two Mustangs, a '63 Valiant, and a '63 Porsche. Actually, we haven't driven the Porsche in several years; it's in the garage, but you can't see it because of all the boxes stacked around"
Gerry hopes that some of his collections will turn out to be good investments down the road. But he admits, "I also think a large part of my tendency to collect is that secure feeling of just knowing the things are there."
Zoe, on the other hand, says, "If I don't have room for an item now, I don't buy it."
But she has learned to make concessions. "Nagging doesn't do any good, because he digs his heels in. What I've had to do is claim certain spaces that I can keep neat and clean and go to for relaxation," she says. "The living room has a fireplace, and I can chill out there and mentally relax."
Zoe recalls that Gerry wasn't like this when they got married, so she didn't know what she was getting into. "Somehow his collections have developed through the years, and I have to go with the flow," she explains. "I'm living with it because he's my husband and I love him, and I stop to appreciate what I do have. He is who he is, and it's one of those concessions you make in a marriage."
Shedding the burden
Most people couldn't unburden themselves of possessions as abruptly and thoroughly as Isabel did a few years ago.
She and her husband had inherited a number of good quality objects from relatives, and they had just kept filling their house until they had to sell it and buy a bigger one. She recalls, "I felt as though I was living in other people's choices."
Then her husband passed away. At first she tried to keep everything the way it was, but then, she says, "I realized that it would never be that way again. I had a new life, and the question was: How did I want that life to look?"
Isabel met several other widows, who all seemed to be making steps to take ownership of their new lives. Five months after her husband died, Isabel made the decision to sell everything. She found a personal organizer who took a commission for finding buyers for Isabel's items and holding a garage sale. Isabel sold her house and moved into an apartment with a roommate.
"I went from a 4,200-square-foot home to a 10- by 10-foot room," she explains. "It was a very freeing experience, like a physical weight was lifted. I had used those possessions, but I was done, and if someone else could use them, that was great."
Isabel is now happily remarried, but she has kept her new minimalist style. "These days, I don't feel obliged to keep something just because someone gave it to me," she shares. "I've devised ways to get around that, such as "finding a good home" for the item."
She says that it's been five years since her decluttering, and she still hasn't missed any of those possessions. "A large part of my decluttering was due to the grief process, but it's also an exercise that's worth doing," she explains. "I have held on to certain items, but to be really honest, if I had to walk away, there wouldn't be a whole lot that I would miss. It's only stuff."
Luckily for Isabel, her husband had his own journey toward a decluttered life. Ken says, "My father kept everything, and our home was incredibly cluttered. When he passed away, we hauled away something like 182 gallon-size cans of paint and 75 quart cans! As a kid, it was a pet peeve of mine that it took so much energy to find things. A former girlfriend taught me how to organize: how to file papers, how to keep similar things in one spot, how to have structure (such as a bookcase), and how to keep it accessible (don't pile stuff in front of the bookcase). I thought, This is cool; I don't have to spend my time searching all over.
Ken adds, "I don't view decluttering as a static process anymore. It's on‑going, but I'm not so rigid that I say, 'This is the shirt I wear every Monday.' If I overorganize, that sucks energy too."
Isabel agrees that decluttering is an ongoing process. "Often when I come in the door of our apartment, I look around and say, 'What can I get rid of today?' That's when Ken starts to look a little nervous! But if you get rid of two pieces of clothing every time you bring home one new piece, it cleans out your place pretty quickly. Books are easy to do that with too."
She concludes, "I don't want my life to amount to a bunch of possessions. My focus is to make a positive difference in someone else's life every day. Rather than leaving a pile of things for people to clean up or inherit, I want to live a life that's memorable while I'm alive and also afterward."
Help for letting go
"It's hard to let go of possessions!" Sofia testifies. "Sometimes I have to ask God daily to give me the desire."
Sofia grew up in a country in Eastern Europe where the practice was to keep everything just in case it could be used one day. But after studying the book Disciplines of the Beautiful Woman, by Anne Ortlund, she developed the philosophy of "Eliminate and concentrate!"
"The idea is to eliminate the things you don't use and concentrate on what you use," Sofia says. "For instance, instead of preserving a nice blouse by never wearing it, I've learned to enjoy life more and go ahead and use it. And I look for ways to bless other people by giving away, or eliminating, the things I don't use."
Sofia is also trying to teach that principle to her 4-year-old daughter. "It's a joy to see what our gifts can do for others," she says. "If you can sell some of your unused things, you can use the money for things you do need or for missions, and nothing is wasted."
Another inspiring book Sofia studied was A Woman After God?s Own Heart, by Elizabeth George. "We used it for our Bible study group," she says. "One of our neighbors was a clutterer, but after that book, she felt compelled by God and started taking big loads of stuff to the Salvation Army and the dump!"
"When God gave Moses the vision of what the sanctuary looked like, everything was in perfect order," Sofia says. "We are called to be imitators of God, and when you look at His universe, everything is in order."
Sofia has discovered a fulfilling way to eliminate clutter. "God loves a cheerful giver," she explains. "When you look at the world, there are people who are so needy, and if you ask God, He will bring a person to you who could use what you have to share."
* All names have been changed.
Shelley Nolan Freesland is the communication director for Adventist World Radio in Silver Spring, Maryland. She accepted this assignment after miserably failing "The Mess Test," particularly the question: "Does every item in your closet fit you now?"