This morning I closed on the sale of my condo in Chicago. I now no longer own anything valuable. I rent an apartment and lease an automobile. That little bit of real estate was the last thing of real value that I owned and finishes, at least for now, the process of unburdening myself of my worldly possessions.
Even though I’m not a materialistic person and have never liked having “a lot of stuff,” I found that things somehow just accumulated around me. In New York I lived in a 200 sq. ft. studio apartment so one would think that what I owned would have been kept to a minimum, but such was not the case. High ceilings allowed for ample shelving on the walls and overhead cabinets in the hallway and bathroom.
Since leaving New York eleven years ago I’ve lived in multi-room apartments as well as a number of houses. I’ve moved ten or twelve times. That’d wear anyone out—packing and unpacking all that stuff.
Much of it was the usual things one accumulates over the years: keepsakes from trips and vacations; the odd family heirloom; jewelry; mementos given to me by friends before they died or by one of their family members; found treasures; and lots of artwork, often created by artist friends, or scavenged from dumpsters or off the street, and sometimes received as gifts.
All of my things had a story and reminded me of loved ones who had died, relationships that had come to an end, adventures I had taken, times that were happy and times that were sad. Wherever I would be in my house I saw these things and was reminded of all these people I had known and the full life I had lived.
One day it all got to be too much. Having these things constantly reminding me of my past started to weigh me down. I felt burdened by my own narrative. My life story had become an encumbrance. It was like being caught in a web of memories. I was entangled in the past and couldn’t move forward.
So I decided to give away all of my valuables and as many possessions as possible leaving only those things that were necessary for my day-to-day life and for my work. I didn’t want to be attached to anything that held me back or needed safeguarding. I didn’t want to have to be concerned about what would happen to my precious things if I were to die unexpectedly.
So I began to live “as if to die.” I spent the next year and a half sorting through my possessions and then thinking of the persons whom I would want to have them if I were to die. But instead of waiting to die, I actually shipped them to those people or gave them away in person. I was told I was crazy to give away my valuables when I could sell them and invest the money. Of course that makes sense, but that’s not what I wanted to do. It was important that I give them away.
As I sorted through my things I would look at an item and remember how it came into my possession, recall how receiving it had made me feel, recollect how I had used or displayed it over the years, and then bless the persons associated with it before l let go of it.
As you can imagine this process took time. When I told my therapist that I was living “as if to die” he became concerned that I might be planning to end my life. And more than a few friends and family members to whom I gave things also expressed this. For most people, having possessions, especially things of value, is a sign of success or, at the very least, evidence of having lived. For me to no longer want my things was cause for alarm.
So, today, nearly two years after having given away my jewelry, paintings, photographs, oriental rugs, furniture, porcelain, silverware, and thrown away or burned boxes full of ephemera and keepsakes, I also no longer own any property.
Do I feel freer? Yes. Am I now more focused on living in the present? Yes. Is my life simpler? Yes!
No longer having all those possessions that were imbued with so many memories and emotions I am not as easily taken out of the present moment, which then allows me (or forces me) to have to deal with reality, which can be really painful at times. I’m more present. My life story is no longer my yesterday, but my today. And that can be really uncomfortable. Of course, I sometimes need to reenter the past in order to figure out something about the present, but I no longer hold onto it, grasping at either the pain or the joy as an excuse for not living in the now.
By letting go of my narrative and the physical objects that constantly reminded me of it, I have the space and clarity to allow the Divine One—God—to fill the void and to spread his presence throughout the physical space I inhabit. The less there is to distract me the easier it is to set my gaze upon the Beloved.
None of this happened overnight or without a great deal of effort. I am so grateful that the material things that once burdened me by continually reminding me of my story have found homes in the dwelling places of my loved ones and no longer keep me from living fully. It is my hope that this process will continue so that when the end of my life does come, I will have nothing.
Until then, I will continue to live “as if to die.”