Lose the clutter!

There’s no escaping it. Spring cleaning time is here, and the perennial question again presents itself: Do you haul even more stuff to the attic or basement — or toss it? Nothing should ‘go to waste,’ right? Wrong!

“Wasteful” means to discard something even though it still has potential use. It also means to dispose of your property in whatever way you see fit. To claim that this is morally wrong implies that it harms others to throw something out, as opposed to, say, giving it away or letting it gather dust. This popular but thoroughly mistaken view of morality rests upon the notion of the “zero sum premise.’

The zero sum premise suggests that you somehow harm somebody else by having ‘too much’ of something, or by not using something you have. For example, by having lots of money, or, let’s say, cars, you are somehow denying money or cars to others. It’s the premise behind the old-style schoolmarms’ carping, “Don’t throw that sandwich away. Children are starving in Russia!” Really? The children in Russia are in no way affected by my eating — or not eating — that sandwich. It’s nothing more than neurotic guilt.

Don’t misunderstand. Guilt is a healthy emotion when applied to things that are actually wrong and over which you have control. Studies of criminals have revealed that those who impose violence on others often lack the emotions that most people feel when anticipating doing something wrong. An absence of guilt can lead to problems, both individually and in the social order.

But feeling guilty for things over which you have no control accomplishes nothing except to gnaw away at your mental and physical health. To feel guilty just because you have more than somebody else doesn’t change the fact that you still have more than somebody else. If you really want them to have what you have, then simply give it to them. Generosity is great. But don’t pretend that refusing to dispose of things you don’t need or want will somehow help somebody else. All that does is cause stress.

Look around at all the clutter you picked up over the winter. You might feel that you don’t need or want some of this stuff. But you HAVE to hold on to it, right? Wouldn’t it be ‘wrong’ to give things away or dispose of them? I recently heard an etiquette expert on TV say that there’s nothing wrong with ‘regifting’ (i.e., giving a present, originally from someone else, to a different person). According to the expert, as long as the person who originally gave you the gift doesn’t find out, this is perfectly fine. I agree with that, but I didn’t agree with his further rationalization that it was ‘wrong to be wasteful.’ It annoyed me as his moralistic blathering instilled unnecessary guilt into his viewers.

The point of regifting isn’t to avoid being wasteful. It’s simply to leave more space for the things you value. Is giving the item to someone you’re certain will enjoy it better than throwing it out? Sure it is, but only because it makes you happy to make that other person happy. Giving has a selfish component, and that’s OK! When I moved a few years ago, I discovered clothes I no longer needed. I made a trip to the charity bin because it made me personally happy to think that someone would enjoy them. If I had reason to believe that nobody wanted them, I would have thrown them away in a heartbeat. I’d never sacrifice my personal space to mindless platitudes like, ‘Waste not; want not.’

I have a friend who refuses to throw out hotel soaps and shampoos he carts home from vacations. He doesn’t throw any of them out — EVER. He doesn’t use any of them, either. So why keep them? ‘Because it’s perfectly good soap and shampoo!’ But what if you don’t need them? ‘No matter,’ he replies. Alas, he’s a pack rat. And the flawed premise behind it? ‘Waste not; want not.’ Ridiculous.

The more you keep just for the sake of keeping, the more you become a slave to your things. Over the years I have counseled people who spend hundreds monthly on storage units — far more than their stuff was ever worth.

So enjoy the springtime and don’t buy into the guilt. Clear your shelves AND your mind. A psychologically healthy life is not a zero-sum game.