In preparation for the beginning of the new year (as defined by the Gregorian calendar and long, ingrained habit), my wife and went through our apartment re-organizing and attempting to unclutter the place. Not that it’s really such a huge job; this isn’t the Taj Mahal we’re talking about here—it’s only three rooms and a tiny foyer. But it’s because the place is relatively small that it needs this thinning out.
We both like as much simplicity as possible in our surroundings, but, inevitably, just in the normal course of living, you seem to gather and collect so much stuff; papers, books, pictures, cards, knick-knacks, bottles, containers, boxes, and who-know-what-else, that, after a while, things disappear in plain sight and become like buried geological strata—the latest stuff forming the new top layer. Let it go long enough and you’d have to hire a drilling rig to get down to the bottom of it.
This sorting through and thinning out has to be done, but I confess that this activity caused me a lot of anxiety. There were times in my life, especially when I was younger and things were going relatively well, when I didn’t mind it so much. After all, I had a long life ahead of me—I might even be immortal—so whatever I tossed away could easily be replaced, right? (Some things I tossed away back then were more important than I ever could have known, but that’s another story).
Yeah, well, I was younger then but now that I’m older and life has gotten more difficult (and more finite), I’m having trouble with this process of discarding old things. After all, one of the things that might soon be discarded is me.
I know that there are people who save stuff for years and find it almost impossible to get rid anything.
I once knew a man who saved parts of the Sunday New York Times that he didn’t get to read—intending to get to them during the week. But he never did get to them, they were just placed on a pile of previously saved sections of the paper. Ultimately he had four foot high stacks (a few on the verge of toppling over) of old, yellowing sections of the Times that went back years. They lined all four walls of one room in his apartment. Any suggestion that he just throw them out and use the room for something else was met by an apprehensive look and an insistence that he was going to get them soon.
Why do some people hold on to things past the point where they have any real, current need for them? The act (even the very idea) of parting with anything at all causes these people a lot of anxiety. Maybe it’s part of the general fear of life moving away from them or from some precious time in the past they want to preserve—so they imagine that, by saving everything, they’re freezing life in place; they’re holding back the inevitable snatching away of days, months and years. They attempt to deny the inescapable reality of change, which—no matter what they might gain along the way—inevitably involves loss, and eventually, of course, the final loss.
Look at Miss Havisham from Dickens’ Great Expectations: She couldn’t accept the pain and loss she sustained on her wedding day, so she spent the rest of her life in a delusional state—keeping the cavernous dining room in her gloomy mansion exactly the way it was on that day—everything decaying and crumbling to dust around her.
After she dies (was this just in the movie or the book as well?), the young protagonist, Pip, rips away the heavy, old rotting curtains and lets the sunlight stream in. This reminds me of so many vampire stories; the unnatural, artificially preserved body of the vampire, who only thrives at night, in the dark, when delusions take on apparent form and substance, crumbles away to dust when exposed to the light of the sun and fresh air of the new day.
…I understand the feeling of apprehension at getting rid of the old and welcoming the new. I have a strong tendency to want to keep things exactly where they are (both internally and externally); not discard them or assign them to memory where they belong. It’s as though (like Miss Havisham) I imagine that keeping things unchanged will enable—in some magical way—long ago events and people to reanimate themselves, but this time around they’d have a different, more benevolent outcome or personality.
But now and then (and occasionally with prodding from other people) I wake up to the reality of life and see that I’m just holding onto things merely for the sake of holding onto them. Then I manage to go through old things—save some, give some away, and throw the rest out.
And every time I do manage to accomplish this, I experience a sense of having freed myself from a form of bondage. Sometimes the feeling is mixed with sadness—but still there’s a definite sense of relief.
So these preparations for the New Year are a way of acknowledging that the past is the past—time to uncouple yourself from it (and the inevitable losses that occur along the way) and move on; just as time and the world around you are moving on. You try to free yourself from being stuck to (or in) things.
I’m not a qualified student of the practice but I think what I’m talking about here is the Buddhist concept of “attachment”; attachment to an object, a place, a person, a belief—even a long-held concept of self—being the cause of suffering. I think that most of life is informed by this fundamental truth of attachment. I’m told that the secret (which is no secret at all) is that you don’t engage in a mighty struggle with what possesses but that you just open your hand and let it go.
This way of living—acceptance and letting go—sounds like the closest thing to true peace an everyday mortal could aspire to. When it comes to the awareness and practice of this way of life, I think we’re all on a continuum; some, just by their natures, have had less trouble achieving this state although I think the majority have come by this knowledge the hard way. Most people I know who are older (old) have, sooner or later, understood all this and live their lives accordingly.
And then there’s the other end of the continuum—and that’s where I have often found myself. Maybe you’ve been there or maybe you’re still there. You spend most of your life struggling (internally and externally) and that becomes the only way you know. Life is, you are—struggle. To withdraw from the old familiar wrestling match, to break these lifelong patterns of thought and behavior—to open your hand and heart… that requires a great leap into the unknown.
Each day—sometimes several times a day—I find that I have to learn and re-learn these venerable truths. To paraphrase Calamity Jane in Deadwood: “Every day takes figuring out how to live all over again.” Yes indeed.