letting go of sentimental items

By Joshua Fields Millburn · Follow: TwitterFacebookGoogle+

Joshua Millburn looking out at Dayton

My mother died in 2009. It was an incredibly difficult time in my life, it goes without saying.

She lived a thousand miles away and after she passed it was my responsibility to vacate her apartment in Florida. It was a small, one-bedroom place, but it was packed wall-to-wall with her belongings. My mother had great taste—she could have been an interior designer—and none of her stuff was junk. Nevertheless, there was a lot of stuff in her home.

Mom was always shopping, always accumulating more stuff. She had antique furniture throughout her apartment, a stunning oak canopy-bed that consumed almost her entire bedroom, two closets jam packed with clothes, picture frames standing on every flat surface, original artwork hanging on the walls, and tasteful creative decorations in every nook and cranny and crevasse. There was 64 years of accumulation in that apartment.

So I did what any son would do: I rented a large truck from U-Haul. Then I called a storage place back in Ohio to make sure they had big enough storage unit. The cost of the truck was $1600. The storage facility was $120 per month for the size I needed. Financially, I could afford this, but I quickly found out that the emotional cost was much higher.


At first I didn’t want to let go of anything. If you’ve ever lost a parent or a loved one or been through a similarly emotional time, then you understand exactly how hard it was for me to let go of any of those possessions. So instead of letting go, I was going to cram every trinket and figurine and piece of oversized furniture into that Lilliputian storage locker in Ohio. Floor to ceiling. That way I knew that Mom’s stuff was there if I ever wanted it, if I ever needed access to it for some incomprehensible reason. I even planned to put a few pieces of Mom’s furniture in my home as subtle reminders of her.

I started boxing up her belongings. Every picture frame and every little porcelain doll and every white doily on every shelf. I packed every bit of her that remained.

Or so I thought.

And then I looked under her bed”¦

Among the organized chaos that comprised the crawlspace beneath her bed, there were five boxes, each labeled with a number. Each numbered box was sealed with packing tape. I cut through the tape and found old papers from my elementary school days from nearly a quarter of a century ago. Spelling tests, cursive writing lessons, artwork, it was all there, every shred of paper from my first five years of school. It was evident that she hadn’t accessed the sealed boxes in years. And yet Mom had held on to these things because she was trying to hold on to pieces of me, to pieces of the past, much like I was attempting to hold on to pieces of her and her past.

That’s when I realized that my retention efforts were futile. I could hold on to her memories without her stuff, just as she had always remembered me and my childhood and all our memories without ever accesses those sealed boxes under her bed. She didn’t need papers from twenty-five years ago to remember me, just as I didn’t need a storage locker filled with her stuff to remember her.

I called U-Haul and canceled the truck. And then, over the next twelve days, I started donating her stuff to places and people who could actually use it.

Lessons Learned

Of course it was difficult to let go, but I realized quite a few things about our relationship between memories and possessions during the entire experience:

  1. I am not my stuff. We are more than our possessions.
  2. Our memories are not under our beds. Memories are within us, not within our things.
  3. An item that is sentimental for us can be an item that is useful for someone else.
  4. Holding on to stuff weighs on us mentally and emotionally. Letting go is freeing.
  5. You can take pictures of items you want to remember.
  6. Old photographs can be scanned (more on this below).

It is important to note that I don’t think that sentimental items are bad or evil or that holding on to them is wrong. I don’t. Rather, I think the perniciousness of sentimental items—and sentimentality in general—is far more subtle. If you want to get rid of an item but the only reason you are holding on to it is for sentimental reasons—if it is weighing on you—then perhaps it’s time to get rid of it, perhaps it is time to free yourself of the weight. That doesn’t mean that you need to get rid of everything though.

Giant Leap or Baby Steps

When I returned to Ohio, I had four boxes of Mom’s photographs in my trunk, which I would later scan and backup online. I found a scanner that made scanning the photos easy. Those photos are digital now; they can be used in digital picture frames instead of collecting dust in a basement somewhere. I no longer have the clutter of their boxes laying around and weighing me down, and they can never be destroyed in a fire.

I donated everything else. All of it. Literally. I donated every piece of furniture and all her clothes and every decorative item she had strewn throughout her home.

That was a giant leap for me, but I felt as if it needed to be done to remove the weight—the emotional gravitas—of the situation from my shoulders.

You see, I don’t need Mom’s stuff to remind me of her. There are traces of her everywhere. In the way I act, in the way I treat others, even in my smile. She’s still there, and she was never part of her stuff.

Whenever I give advice, I tend to give two options. The first option is usually thegiant leap option, the dive-in-head-first option (e.g., get rid of everything, smash your TV, throw out all your stuff, quickly rip off the band-aid, etc.). This option isn’t for everyone, and it’s often not for me, but in this case, that’s what I did. I donated everything.

The second option is to take baby steps, and it works because it helps you build momentum by taking action. Look at it this way: what sentimental item can you get rid of today that you’ve wanted to get rid of for a while? Start there. Then pick one or two things per week and gradually increase your efforts as you feel more comfortable.

Whichever option you choose, the important part is that you take action. That is to say, never leave the scene of a good idea without taking action. What will you do today to part ways with sentimental items that are weighing you down?

Note: I originally published this essay on Tammy Strobel’s site: Rowdy Kittens.

12 “Other” Life Resolutions/Habits to Consider

Editors Note: This is a guest post by Joshua Becker of Becoming Minimalist


“Change brings opportunity.” —Nido Qubein

The beginning of a new year sparks a natural inclination to re-evaluate our lives and look ahead to the future. It causes us to look back at the decisions that shaped our lives during the past year and gives us opportunity to make adjustments for the next one… or as we call them, resolutions. Some needed adjustments to our life habits are painfully obvious: we need to get in shape, we need to stop smoking, or we need to get our finances in order. Those life changes are typically easy to notice and are often promoted in our society.

But there are other, equally valuable life improvements available to us that fly a bit out of the mainstream. For various reasons, you don’t hear much about them. But in many cases, they are just as valuable. In fact, sometimes, they even help us address the underlying assumptions in our lives that are leading us to the poor decisions in the first place.

To that end, consider these 12 “Other” Life Resolutions/Habits as possible life habits to incorporate.

1. Intentionally laugh everyday. Laughter releases stress, lowers blood pressure, and exercises muscles. More importantly, it changes our outlook on life and brings us joy and hope. It ought to be practiced everyday. Put it on your To-Do List. And give yourself permission to laugh each day… especially during the hopeless days.

2. Practice solitude. Find time alone in quiet on a regular basis. No books, no music, no outside voices. Just you alone with yourself. Your life will never, ever be the same.

3. Make gratitude a discipline. Thank someone or something each day, every day. Gratitude refocuses our attention away from what we don’t have and redirects it towards what we do. As a result, it naturally causes contentment and generosity to spring up in our lives.

4. Stop speeding. You may need to plan in advance or choose to leave a bit earlier. After all, you will be spending more time en route. But slowing down intentionally allows extra opportunity to be with yourself, be present, and enjoy the journey. Life is not a race. Life is not meant to be lived hurriedly rushing from one event to another. It is meant to be enjoyed and savored. And driving slower will remind you of that fact every time.

5. Fast one day each month. There is a reason nearly every religious tradition incorporates the use of fasting (the practice of not eating food for a specific length of time – usually 24 hours or sunrise to sunset). It teaches us self-control, self-denial, and sacrifice. It trains our mind to weather storms and temptation. And it heightens our senses. As a side note: the purpose for practicing fasting may be for spiritual purposes, but it doesn’t have to be… your mind, body, and soul will benefit regardless.

6. Adopt a “Do it Now” mentality. The opposite of procrastination is to simply “do it now” instead. And seeing as how procrastination results in an unnecessary amount of stress in our lives, “doing it now” is an appropriate life habit for many of us to resolve. Make that a new mindset for your life in 2012. Repeat the mantra often. And then, just do it now – whatever “it” may be.

7. Eat more vegetables. Eating more vegetables is a better, simpler, and often times more measurable approach to your weight loss goal than simply deciding to eat less. Eating vegetables at each meal (or as snacks in-between them) naturally reduces the amount of unhealthy food that we put into our bodies. Additionally, it gives us more energy, more self-esteem, and more opportunity to fight off illness and disease.

8. Read classical books from different centuries. Books that have lasted centuries tend to do so for a very good reason: they contain wisdom. They speak to timeless human truths that bind us together. Though our culture and world look entirely different today than they did 200 years ago, the human spirit is still the same. Life still includes sorrow, joy, hope, and trial. And we would benefit greatly from rediscovering how men and women approached life hundreds of years ago.

9. Remove pornography. Pornography limits our capacity to appreciate the real world and the people within it. It clouds our mind with unrealistic and unhealthy assumptions about sexuality and our relationships with others. Because of that, it never fully satisfies its consumer, but always leaves them desiring more. Sacrifice the temporal pleasure of pornography for a life that can better appreciate the simply joys of the people and relationships around you right now.

10. Go to bed earlier. Changing just the first hour of your day changes the remaining 23. And the best way to change the first hour of your day is to get a good night’s sleep. So make a practice this year to move your bedtime up. You may just be surprised at how that small change will naturally benefit other areas of your life.

11. Give to a charity. Pick a cause that you believe in strongly: poverty, education, animals, research, or the environment (just to name a few). And then, write a check. You’ll be glad you did. They’ll be glad you did. The cause they serve will be glad you did. And if you can spread that much joy by filling out a check, just imagine the joy you’ll spread if you volunteer your time and talents.

12. Date your spouse. Take your spouse/partner on a date at least once per month in 2012. You’ll have fun. You’ll reconnect. Your union will be stronger because of it. And if you think it’ll cost a bunch of money, you’re just not being creative enough.

Make no mistake. While I have intentionally tried to develop each of these habits in my life at some point in the past, I don’t intentionally practice each of them today (some still come more naturally than others). And my desire is not that these resolutions would be considered a 12-step secret to solving life.

Instead, my desire is that we would simply consider implementing one of them today… and find a better life because of it.

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