This doesn’t seem at first to tie in with my original post on uncluttering and being a packrat, but bear with me, I think I tie it in.
“Gift Giving Is Not My Love Language”
We received a copy of The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate by Gary Chapman as a wedding present. And I dutifully read it, thought it made some interesting points but was mostly disappointed because while I thought the idea of love languages (words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, physical touch) was interesting, it wasn’t connected to anything broader or deeper and I really needed it to have some greater connections with my overall worldview for the idea of love languages to be something that clicked for me. (Not to mention the book is never very clear on how you determine what your primary love language is. It’s just here’s the list pick the one that works for you.) I’d love to see someone write a follow-up that connected the idea of love languages to broader categories of personality and temperament like the Meyers-Briggs for example.
Though I initially dismissed the book (perhaps reading self-help books about marriage only months after one is married and while still in the honeymoon phase is also not the best in timing?) still some of the ideas have stuck with me and I keep encountering the book mentioned here and there by various bloggers. Enough so that I don’t discount the categories and have even found them useful in analyzing some of my relationships with various friends and family, even though I’m not always sure how to apply them.
The idea of the five love languages resurfaced again recently when I read Juris Mater’s plea for gift ideas at the Building Cathedrals blog: Gift-Giving is NOT my love language. The title of that post jumped out at me because while I’m still a little vague on which is my primary love language, I’m absolutely certain it is NOT gift-giving. And from the comments to that post, this really resonated with met:
… perhaps you have the same problem that I have in that gift receiving is not my love language! Unless the gift is something that I really want or need it is really hard for me to be appreciative of it! Intellectually I know that this is ungracious and that the thought does count, but so often I just look at gifts for myself and my children as more stuff I have to deal with.
Aha! I thought. That sounds like me exactly. The disconnect that sometimes creeps in between my emotional reaction to a gift and the intellectual understanding and appreciation of the person who is giving the gift.
I’m still working on how to negotiate this sticky issue. And there’s another area where the book isn’t much help. Its focus is on the communication between spouses, it doesn’t apply the idea of love languages to a larger context of extended family and friends. And if I recall it mainly focuses on how to address your spouse’s needs, how to learn to speak their love language, not with how to deal with accepting gestures from someone whose love language is not your own.
Anyhow, this somehow ties in quite well with the uncluttering I’ve been struggling with and trying to write about. It seems many of the really difficult decisions when it comes to getting rid of stuff are over things I originally received as gifts. Usually I knew at the time I received the gift that it wasn’t something I was likely to ever use; but tried to appreciate it as a token of affection from the giver, especially realizing that for many people I know gift-giving is their love language and is necessary for them to be able to demonstrate their affection to me. I have really tried to be gracious and accept all gifts in the spirit they are given. Still, over time I have collected quite a few gifts from loved ones as well as from friends and acquaintances and sometimes they are a part of the clutter that needs to go and parting with them is always such a chore.
No Time Like the Present?
Getting rid of things I’ve bought is one thing, but getting rid of presents is a whole other level of emotional maelstrom.
The second hand board books I bought when Dom was unemployed and I needed more books that Bella wouldn’t rip apart… parting with books is always hard; but these are poorly written and illustrated. Twaddle. I never liked them anyway… Yes, they can go. Phew! A decision made and stuff in a box waiting for me to decide how to actually get rid of it. But what about these other board books, given to Bella by other people, books that I also never really liked? They’re ripped up now and they are painful to read with all those forced rhymes and awkward constructions and gooey sentiment. “They were presents!” the packrat protests. Into the closet they go where I don’t have to read them, but can I actually give them away? Perhaps not.
And what about the glurgy “prayer” book that some friends from church gave us at her baptism? The one with saccharine poems that aren’t really even prayers? Honestly, I’d have no compunctions about passing it on if it weren’t for that inscription my friends wrote in the front cover. I get books all the time for my girls that carry similar inscriptions to other children and wonder how people can have parted with them. Ah, it undoes me!
How long do you have to keep unneeded and unwanted presents, anyway? I’ve never found a satisfactory rule of thumb in Miss Manners or Emily Post. It would be one thing if we had a basement or an attic to cache them in. But all we have is a shed with limited space and an overflowing utility room. Every time I sit to sew I’m surrounded by boxes and boxes of stuff that needs to be sorted, that probably needs to be passed on or given away or just tossed into the trash—but I find it hard to be that ruthless.
And while I’m at it, how do you smile graciously and say “Thank you” when you’re wondering where you’ll stash the gifts that you know will never be used? And how do you train your inner packrat to let go of all the stuff when the rules of engagement seem to say that the proper thing is to give in to that packrat urge and keep the gifts to avoid conflict and hurt feelings? I know I’m overthinking this. It’s probably the hormones.
It can feel overwhelming. In my most pessimistic moments, faced with these decisions, I find myself tempted to throw up my hands and yell, “Halt! No more birthdays, no more Christmases, no more presents! No more purchasing anything new except to replace something that is old and being thrown out! No more stuff! We already have more than I can handle!”
I don’t really mean it, of course. Not exactly. There is a time and place for the giving and receiving of gifts. I like picking out gifts when there’s no pressure. Sometimes not so much when it feels like one of those things you have to do for social conventions. I like receiving gifts too, especially those gifts that really fill a need or fit my taste. And I do think it is too much to expect that every gift somehow should be some perfect reflection of who I am in my deepest self. Sometimes it really is the thought that counts.
But it does raise questions and not only about evaluating the kinds of presents I myself give to others. It raises questions about what we need, really need versus what is merely nice to have around versus what is truly extraneous and just plain clutter. I’ve been reading Kathleen Norris about Benedictines recently and I find myself envying the monastics with their vows of poverty. I want a convenient excuse to throw everything out and live with nothing but the real necessities. I want to be able to tell the difference between a need and a desire, between a necessity and something that’s just nice to have around.
After posting my first blog entry on the subject, I stumbled across this beautiful piece by blogger Mrs. Anna T at Domestic Felicity on simplicity and homemaking and oh how it pulled on my heartstrings. She writes:
I always attempt to have as little unnecessary possessions as possible. Having too much stuff makes me feel suffocated; stuff leads to clutter, and living amidst clutter makes my mind disorganized. In a small home, it’s better to seek beauty in functional things. You don’t need to have many ornaments. A mixing bowl, a collection of wooden spoons, an apron, can be inspiring in their simple beauty.
I can’t help but wonder about how the people like the lovely blogger Mrs. Anna T who manage to maintain simplicity in their homes navigate these minefields that have got me stumped. Are they just ruthless about getting rid of gifts if they don’t fit into their categories of necessary? Or do they not have anyone in their lives who gives them unnecessary stuff?
But at the same time I know it isn’t fair to blame others for unnecessary objects cluttering my house. For that I only have to look as far as my own packrat nature. See I want to be able to say I attempt to have as little unnecessary possessions as possible. Somewhere I truly believe that is my ideal. But looking around my home I know I could never say that truthfully. I am torn between wanting to ditch it all and knowing I never will be able to conquer my inner packrat.
My freshman year at college my roommate was one of these people who can realize this dream. She’d been living overseas for a year and then spent the summer with her parents in California and when she moved in to the dorm all of her possessions in the world fit into a suitcase and a box. And at the end of the year she gave away stuff until again she could get everything into a suitcase and a box. I envied her simplicity and yet a good look in the mirror verified I just couldn’t do it myself. My parents pulled up in the van and we hauled away boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff.
Again I seem to always come back to this question of how to simplify when it seems like friends and family are in collusion to bring ever more stuff into my life? And when they don’t believe me when I ask them not to give me presents or don’t take hints about just giving one present to the girls instead of a pile of them. And how to be gracious and thankful when I feel like my wishes are being thwarted? And how not to be resentful when I really do appreciate the thought behind the gift?
Do I Own My Stuff Or Does My Stuff Own Me?
And I keep coming back to the same questions: What are our obligations to our possessions? When and how do they come to rule us instead of serving us? How long is one obliged to keep an object that is not useful or desired? A month? A year? Five years? Forever? When is it ok to decide that something isn’t me? That it is taking up space my family needs for other purposes? That it has outlived its usefulness? That it may not have been the best idea in the first place or may have been perfect when we first got it but something better has taken its place? It isn’t played with, isn’t loved, is taking up space that could better be used for something else?
Hard enough for things I’ve bought. All those memories inhering to things. If it is something that was given, though, the calculus begins to feel impossible. There is the web of sentiment and the fear of hurt feelings. I start to feel I can never get rid of anything. I’ve got to get these feelings under control. If I don’t I might even begin to resent getting gifts instead of feeling gratitude.
Obviously that would be a major overreaction. So what’s the happy medium? There is no hard rule, just the dance of discernment and the ongoing battle of detachment. Learning to cherish the memories and let go of the things. I suppose writing is one path to take. If I record the details do I still need the object to keep things fresh? Pictures too might be a path to freedom. One can store so many photos now that they are all digitized. No more boxes and boxes of photos waiting to be sorted into albums. (Though, actually, I still have those boxes and boxes. They are part of the backlog of clutter in the utility room, taking up space under my sewing table. I need to go through them, scan what I want to keep and toss the rest.) And yet, and yet….
The long campaign against clutter and the packrat nature.
One resolution going forward, though. I can’t control what presents other people give our children but for our own family’s gifts I think I’d like to stick with something close to a rule I saw once on someone’s blog but can’t remember the source now: “something they want, something they need, something to wear, something to read.” Cap gift giving at four presents per child. With a little flexibility, of course. Something to read might be a couple of books, a boxed set. Something to wear might be pajamas and socks and a pretty dress. Still, it’s an ideal to shoot for. Simplicity.
And I like another idea I’ve seen elsewhere many times: for every new toy added another must be given away. A good chance to give things to children who don’t have. When they get old enough to notice stuff going, it will be time to bring that out.
In the meantime I need to learn how to purge. Just get rid of half the toys, half the clothes. Give it away and let it clutter up someone else’s house. (Another tangent I’m not going to follow now but might come back to later: where does stuff go when you declutter? How do you decide to resell or give away, Craigslist or Freecycle or charity? Who gets it?)
I am already making baby steps in the direction of limiting consumption. I’ve decided that at the end of the Easter season the Easter toys will go away along with the Easter baskets. We did this last year and the Easter bunnies were new and fresh as far as the girls were concerned and didn’t cost a thing. Of course they did get some new toys as well. But those will get packed away and will still have the shine of the new next Easter. Even when the kids do get old enough to remember the toys from one year to the next, I still think it is a valuable traditions. They will greet them as old friends, here for the yearly visitation.
Making Peace with the Present?
So, gentle readers, help me out here. Does anyone else struggle with this issue? Have you found a solution? What do you do? Do you have a rule of thumb about presents and how long to keep them or what to do with things your children receive that you don’t particularly want to keep? Or do you just close your eyes to things’ origins when you make a decluttering sweep and hope that both gift recipients and gift givers won’t notice the absence of stuff that was given? I know I am over-thinking this, I have a fatal tendency to do that. So I welcome some input about how you balance the desire for simplicity and the complex web of relationships that stuff and people create. Then perhaps I can work towards making peace with my inner packrat.
I’m not done with thinking about uncluttering and the battle to make my home a snug nest and a peaceful tidy place. Look for more thoughts on nesting and uncluttering and for my attempt to reach some kind of conclusion in the next post in the series, coming up soon. I’ve got some more links to other pieces on the topic and a few other lines of thought I want to follow.