Does anyone out there remember the “Peanuts” comic strip? One of my favorites is the classic where the perpetually grumpy Lucy Van Pelt suffered from “Post-Christmas Letdown” over gifts she didn’t get. But what about gifts you got, but for which you simply have no use? Of course, it’s the thought that counts, and little voices in our heads caution: “It’s wrong to be wasteful! Waste not; want not! Blah, blah, blah!” The guilt simmers as we agonize over what to do with this post-holiday excess, as the disapproving rants of long-gone fifth-grade teachers echo in our minds.
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 the 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 erroneous view of morality rests upon the mistaken “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 – something crafty politicians invoke when they want something from you.
Don’t misunderstand. Guilt is a healthy emotion when applied to things that are actually wrong. An absence of guilt can lead to problems individually and in the social order. But feeling guilty for things over which you have no control accomplishes nothing other than to degrade 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 not disposing of things you don’t need will somehow help somebody else. It just causes stress.
Look at all the holiday clutter you’ve picked up over the years. 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 that his moralistic prattle might instill unnecessary guilt into his more gullible 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 here many 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 is glaringly obvious: “Waste not; want not.” By the way, this same friend spends hundreds on storage units — far more than his stuff was ever worth.
So enjoy the new year 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.