Photo: Avaskeg

“I don’t like to throw them away. What if my grandchildren want to look at them one day?”

A client said this to me recently in relation to a heap of envelopes of photographs ‘inherited’ from her mother. Now, had these been a selection of beautifully composed shots of her ancestors, clearly labelled to show who was who, that would have been one thing. But they weren’t. They were a mass of poor quality prints, blurry, unidentified – unidentifiable in some cases (though there may have been some gems among them).

My client was hanging onto them out of a sense that they were a record of the past that would be valued by people in the future. This got me thinking about Terror Management Theory.

Terror Management Theory is the psychological theory that we make all our decisions in response to our subconcious terror that eventually we’re going to die. We’re subconsciously afraid all the time of ceasing to exist, so we try to leave a legacy to mitigate it. We hold onto things telling ourselves that our grandchildren or great-grandchildren might like them, whereas in reality they probably won’t! In fact, we’re probably creating a headache for them: a huge clearing task to be taken on after we’ve gone. In fact, if Terror Management Theory is right, and they are also motivated by a subconsious fear of death, the likelihood is that they too will struggle to let the stuff go, and perhaps feel burdened by the decisions they have to take.

Now I’m not saying this means you ‘should’ get rid of everything you don’t want or need in the present. Your grandchildren might want to look through a carefully labelled album containing photographs of their ancestors.

In my own clutter-clearing, I aim to be realistic. Faced with an unordered pile of photographs, I would create a diary slot to go through them. I would sort them: discarding the fuzzy/blurry ones, keeping those where people could be identified; discarding similar shots, keeping a selection showing each person; discarding random landscapes, keeping those that showed something of signifiance to my family. If necessary, I would enlist the help of older relatives to identify the subjects. Then I would store just the ones I felt were worth keeping, perhaps in a labelled album.

In our affluent societies, we are acquiring stuff all the time. We can’t hold onto everything – we simply don’t have the space. The key is to be mindful. To notice the decisions we make and the drivers behind those decisions. And then choose whether or not to take the action. There’s no right or wrong choice. But choosing mindfully gives you power over your life. Instead of unthinkingly holding onto unnecessary stuff out of an unacknowledged desire to ‘leave something behind’, we can be realistic about what we want and need, and what our ancestors might actually value.

So yes, you’re going to die. And right now, you’re alive! And that’s fantastic. Live your life to the full now. Make sure that your life is everything you want it to be right now, starting with your base – your home. And don’t tolerate for one second longer anything that gets in the way of that.

What are you holding onto out of an unconcious attempt to leave a legacy? Comment below.

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