So there it sits, buried under crumpled Frosty the Snowman wrapping paper and pine needles: The gargoyle ashtray from Aunt Mimma (you haven’t smoked for 43 years). Not to mention the deviled eggs glaring back at you from the dark recesses of the refrigerator. But the little voice in your head cautions: “It’s wrong to be wasteful! Waste not; want not! Blah, blah, blah!” The guilt simmers, even as the eggs congeal and the ash-gargoyle’s eyes inexplicably follow you around the room. What to do with this post-holiday excess, as the disapproving rants of long-gone sixth-grade teachers echo in your head?
Let’s be honest. “Wasteful” means to discard something even though it still has potential use. It also means to dispose of your property in a way you see fit. To claim that this is morally wrong suggests that it harms others to throw something out — as opposed to, say, giving it away or allowing it to gather dust in the attic. This mistaken view of morality rests upon the “zero-sum” premise.
Zero-sum suggests that you’re harming somebody else by having “too much” of something, or by not using what 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 twisted premise behind the schoolmarms’ carping, “Don’t throw that sandwich away. Children are starving in Russia!” Really? 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. 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 other than 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 will somehow help somebody else. It just causes stress.
Look at all the holiday clutter you picked up so far. You HAVE to hold on to it, right? 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 agreed with that, but then he blathered on to say that it was “wrong to be wasteful.” It annoyed me as his moralistic prattle was instilling 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 an 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. 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 happy to think that someone might enjoy them. If I had reason to believe that nobody wanted them, I would have tossed them out 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 never throws any of them out — EVER. He doesn’t use them, either. So why keep them? “Because it’s perfectly good soap and shampoo!” The flawed premise behind it? “Waste not; want not.” Ridiculous. By the way, this same friend spends hundreds monthly on storage units — far more than his stuff was ever worth.
So enjoy the holidays and don’t buy into the guilt. Regift with wild abandon while clearing your shelves and your mind. A psychologically healthy life is not a zero-sum game.
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