After I closed on the sale of my condo in Chicago I no longer owned anything of value. I was renting an apartment and leasing a car. That little bit of real estate was the last valuable thing I owned and finished the process I had begun of unburdening myself of 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 205 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, 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, scavenged from dumpsters, or received as gifts.
All 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 those things and was reminded of all these people I had known and the full life I had lived.
One day it just 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 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 concern. 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, 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 owned any property. Did I feel freer? Yes. Was I now more focused on living in the present? Yes. Was 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, something which can at times be really painful. 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 God’s 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.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION OR DISCUSSION
- What is your relationship to your possessions?
- Do they add to your joy and your ability to live life fully?
- If not, why not?
- Are you ready to give up some of your things?
Please leave a comment below or ask a question. If you want to share this reflection use one of the tabs found below.
7 thoughts on “As if to Die”
Interesting. I think it is nice that you gave out items that were going to be part of your will. Yes, I agree that packing and unpacking and moving make it seem like one has too much but often, in a place there is clearly space for more. Drastically unlike yourself, I was ditched out of shared home ownership with marital type set up twice, lost another option to get a house even though I want one. I gave up at least half of what I owned twice voluntarily and lost it because I had no choice another two times. Because of that, I don’t see all of this the same way that you do. I read most of the article, but not every bit of it.
Miriam, you’re is a tough story. To involuntarily loose one’s home and possessions is difficult. I think of people who lose absolutely everything in a house fire or a tornado. They didn’t have the luxury and privilege that I had in reviewing my life and making decisions about what I wanted to keep and what I was ready to let go of.
Thanks for your comment. Peace and blessings.
Thanks, Stephen. Beautifully said.
This sounds good. Just started with “Japanese Art of Tiding” by Marie Kondo, who advocates keeping only things that bring you joy and beauty, letting everything else go; also a deliberate process, which I think could bring one to this state of radical ownership of little or nothing. Sudden illness can give one perspective on who much is unnecessary in one’s life, and altho may be a hedge, I think starting by keeping only what one has genuine relationship of joy and appreciation is good way to start.
Sounds like a great book by Marie Kondo. I wonder if there is any research on people who lose everything in a house fire, tornado or a war and what puts them through emotionally, psychologically, and most of all spiritually. I would think that one would be forced to feel what possessions had been important, even necessary, and those that had been extraneous to one’s well-being or even a hindrance to living. Peace to you!
I wonder, too. Couple thoughts: from personal experience, of course: Things that I lost or were stolen are mourned very differently from things that I chose to give away or not have. In the same way, pain that was caused from an outside source is much more painful, involves more ‘suffering’, than pain that is self-imposed by choices or risks that I made.
[NOT saying that these things are similar to those catastrophes of losing everything.]
I agree completely. I had a hat stolen from my unlocked car over 25 years ago. I still mourn it’s loss! And something so mundane. I can only imagine what it would be like to be a Syrian now being displaced from her home and only taking what can be carried. Thanks for your comments. Peace