We went on a journey this last year. It started around October 2014. It started bit-by-bit and gained momentum as time went on. It started room by room, cupboard by cupboard: every space on four floors of a much-loved Victorian house in Sheffield.
There was stuff. Not just a little bit of stuff. But a lot of stuff.
More stuff than I could have imagined.
I didn’t think we were particularly spend-aholics – we’ve never had oodles of spare cash. But we’d spent bits here and there and been offered furniture, clothes, books, toys.., and we never said ‘no’ to any offer. And the thing is our house was big enough to embrace it, and so ever so subtly we ended up with stuff.
A lot of it.
So when we knew we were moving to Edinburgh I began the process of decluttering. Over weeks and months I gradually found homes for all the stuff we no longer needed. You see, we knew we would be down-sizing, and so it was easier to just have a thorough cleansing, rather than just a little sort-through. I had three filters, or three questions as I sorted through the stuff.
- Is it useful?
- Is it beautiful?
- Do I love it?
The process started out of necessity, but as often He does, God began to speak through it all. Firstly, I began to feel repulsed by the stuff. Repulsed that consumption had taken hold of us to the degree that it had, and without us even realising.
I joked on Twitter about becoming a minimalist:
But there was some half-truth in there. One of our values is simplicity, but how was that actually being lived out in real life, in our attitude to physical goods? I think somehow we had bought into the lie that as long as it was cheap or free, it was ok. It was ok to buy a few more tops from Primark. They only cost a few pounds and if they didn’t last… well, we’d just throw them away. It was ok for the kids to have loads of toys; they had all been presents. It was ok…
We barely considered the environmental impact, aside from anything else.
All the stuff had become overwhelming, and was making life more complicated than it needed to be. I was spending more time clearing up the house than I wanted to. The kids had so many toys that they either didn’t know what to play with, or they were making a lot more mess than they needed to. It was taking me too long to decide what to wear each morning because my wardrobe was a mess with too many clothes in that I never wore.
Yes, we had become well and truly embroiled in that horrible, ultimate first-world phenomenon of having too much stuff.
I guess the real revelation came when we were in-between houses. We had sold our house in Sheffield but our flat wasn’t yet ready in Edinburgh. All our stuff was in storage, except for the absolute essentials. We were in camping mode, and though in some senses I didn’t like the disorder, in many ways it was liberating.
The strange thing about having “stuff”, is that you can always want more “stuff”. I think for me this was most played out with clothes. There was always that extra item I “really, really” needed, which once bought was only to be followed by another item of clothing I “really, really” needed.
In order to try to actively stop this perpetual cycle I decided to follow Caroline Joy Rector’s “unfancy” (un-fancy.com) example of a 37 piece wardrobe, and had packed just that amount in our inbetween transition stage. I have continued to do that since we moved. In my wardrobe I simply have 37 pieces of clothing that I love, and that I feel comfortable in. I just wear those clothes more frequently, because I have less clothes to rotate.
It takes time for our hearts and minds to adapt to a different way of thinking. I have to confess I hit the charity shops here in Edinburgh to stock up on jumpers and cardigans, and we’ve bought some extra bits of furniture for our new home. I still like nice “stuff”. And I don’t think that’s a problem in itself, but sometimes “stuff” takes more importance in our lives than it should, to the detriment of other more important things. I know that external actions don’t necessarily bring about an internal change of mind, but I guess I’m trying to start where I can, in response to the conviction I believe God gently brought to me.
I’m not saying here we’ve become fully-fledged minimalists. You would see that straight away if you walked into our flat. And the point here for me is not so much about saying no to stuff for the sake of saying no.
I’m saying no to stuff so that I can say yes to the stuff that really matters.
For me, it’s about living a life of simplicity so that what really matters come to the forefront. So the decluttering and simplifying hasn’t just been limited to stuff. I’ve tried to simplify meal planning, using a monthly meal plan, and having shopping-list check-lists, because I don’t want planning meals, and food shopping to take more time than it needs to. I want the mundane, routine things of life to be as organised as possible so that space is created for spending time with friends and family; for loving, and spending time with the poor; for discipleship; for mission; for alone-time with God; for fun; for writing; for creativity…for the stuff that really matters. I’m saying yes to spending more time with the kids, because I’m spending less time tidying the house. I’m saying yes to the kids tidying up their own stuff because we’ve said no to having so many toys; each thing has its place, and there’s less to tidy away. I’m saying yes to being more generous with our finances, because our money isn’t being frittered away on clothes, or toys, or anything else that we don’t need.
At some stage in this decluttering journey I had a very simple image that came into my mind. I imagined us putting things out in our new flat in Edinburgh, piece by piece; putting things on shelves – things that were beautiful and we loved, and things that were useful. And I knew that rebuilding our life here in Edinburgh needed to take on the same pattern.
Life in Sheffield had become busy. Busy, busy, busy. If people asked us how we were, our default answer was ‘Busy. But good.’
Life will get busier here, I’m certain of that. But I’m also certain that we have a responsibility to not get so busy, but instead to fill it with the most important things. As Greg McKeown says, “If we don’t prioritise our life, someone else will.”
I guess I feel a renewed sense of urgency. Life is short. And we have one shot. One opportunity. There are so many things we could do, and could get involved in. But what are the one or two things that it’s our responsibility to run after?
And the starting place is always found in Him.
Maybe, I’m throwing out more questions than I have answers. But this is a journey I want to keep walking on, and working through. This is my journey, and it will look different for everyone. Any response we make needs to come from grace and conviction, rather than law and condemnation. That’s always God’s way.
There’s so much more I could write. But this is a blog post, and blog posts are supposed to be kept short, and snappy and simple, and … ahem… decluttered.
What do we need say ‘no’ to so that we can say ‘yes’ to something better?
Suggested further reading, if you’re interested…
Un-fancy.com – Caroline Joy’s 37 pieces of clothing blog
Essentialism: the disciplined pursuit of less – Greg McKeown
Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger – Ronald J. Sider