Decluttering and Death: Dismantling the Ego’s Nest

Swedish Death Cleaning explicitly evokes mortality as a motivator for ridding oneself of clutter. The core idea is to act now so as to ease the burden on loved ones of having to deal with one’s stuff. Many of the other usual benefits of decluttering are also promised, including a greater sense of freedom and peace, and less stress and overwhelm. In the “Death Cleaning” process, the reminder of death helps create a time limit, a motivator to help folks do on behalf of their future grieving loved ones what they might not do for themselves.

Whether this approach actually works well as a decluttering strategy, I cannot say, but surely part of its intuitive appeal is its connection to fears, hopes, and truisms about death that condition so many Western lives. “You can’t take it with you,” it is often said, and we have humor to underscore the triviality of stuff as well: “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” Still, how many of us remain deeply attached to our “mountains o’ things” (Tracy Chapman’s locution) well into our 70s, 80s, and beyond? We may intellectually “know” that our stuff isn’t really important to our quality of life or sense of self but still cling like the dickens to our possessions.

Anyone reading this has probably already thought a fair bit about how consumerism helps keep us rooted in an identity focused on the acquisition and maintenance of stuff. I “know,” of course, that my material trappings are not “I,” but, at a level beyond the intellectual, I may still feel these items as my safety, my protection, even as an extended “house” for my “soul.” The clothing and furniture, the cameras and car, may come to be felt, not as mere objects on or around me, but as an extension of my body, that is, of my my most intimately felt sense of self. Can it be any wonder, then, if I come to love and fetishize these things similarly to how I may obsess over my body, attentive to each bruise, ache, wrinkle, and gray hair?

It should also come as no surprise, then, that, although many folks move into old age with an eye to simplifying and streamlining, some become more attached than ever to the items that have defined them over the years. The kids’ toys from the 70s, the discarded end tables, and the dusty boxes of Christmas ornaments can come to function like a mirror for all that one has been and done. In an ambivalently hellish fashion, these objects may come to feel simultaneously like a burden and a protective fortress. In fact, in some cases, the closer death comes, the more urgent it can feel to both cast off one’s things while also maintaining a buffer of stuff around oneself, a thick nest around one’s distantly experienced, fragile sense of inner being.

While there are surely differences of personality with respect to how much stuff one prefers to have, it is also entirely clear that whole societies, indeed much of the world, have been organized around the production and distribution of stuff for profit. Much of the planet toils and suffers, bearing the brunt of devastating environmental, bodily, and cultural consequences, so that privileged others might amass still more stuff, including countless “luxury” items meant to evoke greater prestige. It is sobering to add to the list of capitalist injustice that so many beings, indeed so much of the earth itself, are sacrificed largely to help others of us maintain our complicated state of death denial.

Of course, as death draws ever nearer, it is the body itself to which most of us will cling most tightly, a body that will inevitably fail to shield us, however privileged and entitled we may be. Maybe the great opportunity of “death cleaning” is simply its invitation to begin now to gradually strip away the layers of physical bulwark that we have constructed and maintained to try to hide from the nakedness of our actual being. Maybe one of the greatest gifts of existing as a human being in this rampantly consumerist society is to be presented with the opportunity to recognize this stark contrast between self and stuff, self and object. Maybe it is never too early to begin dismantling the ego’s nest, to begin moving now into the lightness of being.

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