For Nostalgia’s Sake

I’ve worked with many clients who aren’t sentimental. They have little attachment to memory-infused possessions or family history in general. They only have these objects because sorting through, organizing, and managing their stuff is overwhelming. But they’re not particularly attached to the past. That makes the downsizing process quicker, less emotional, and often ends with less stuff being kept.

Most clients, however, tend toward the more sentimental. They may believe photos are precious, that family heirlooms are sacrosanct, or that anything that evokes a memory is worth keeping. As a result, they find it difficult to let go of anything connected to their past. Usually, guilt arises when considering letting go of items given to them or that may be family-related, including kids’ childhood stuff (ex. art projects, baby clothes, trinkets). Other emotions come up, too: feelings of responsibility to carry a family torch or allow items with historical relevance to persist, or resistance to letting go of one’s past identity. Of course, holding on to a family heirloom that you use on special occasions is special and sweet. But you don’t need a lot of these; pick your favorites.

I’ve worked with clients who have kept old family photos for decades that had been passed on to them from an older relative. They keep these photos for decades, never looking at them and shuffling them from one closet corner to another. Often, they don’t know most of the people in the photos. They could pull out the few they recognize, but the process feels overwhelming. So the default is to keep. But it doesn’t need to be. The truth is, they can throw out the whole box in a single moment, and nothing in their life would change except for a small weight lifted. But it feels uncomfortable because printed photos are considered precious, as they capture a moment in time.

Sentimentality can be misplaced when we feel the need to become a family historian or even when we feel uncomfortable letting go of something that is really old. We place a particular value on some items simply because of their age. This is reinforced by programs like Antiques Roadshow that highlight the hidden treasures stashed in our homes. If selling items you believe are valuable interests you, take the time to do it. But if you’re holding onto these items thinking they are worth top dollar, but you haven’t taken action, consider whether you’re willing to put the time into pursuing your belief. It’s decision time.

Being nostalgic can provoke moments of sweet longing, and deep memory. Such reactions to nostalgic objects are perfectly human. However, it becomes a problem when we hold on to stuff purely because it elicits nostalgia. Nostalgia pulls us in, but it doesn’t have to. Nostalgia, for nostalgia’s sake, keeps too much of our past in our present, especially when there is nothing more profound underneath it. Nostalgia doesn’t carry with it its own intrinsic meaning. It may seem at first glance to be meaningful. But it’s not the kind of meaning we’re trying to build in our minimalist lifestyle. We want the core of our lives to be built on who we are today.

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