I’ve always been fascinated by hoarders – those who feel compelled to keep
things that most people wouldn’t hesitate to throw away. They come in all shapes
and varieties, collecting items ranging from junk mail and broken electronics to
doll parts and scraps of paper that have no utilitarian value
However, the common denominator among hoarders is that, for
whatever reasons, they have a hard time letting go. Indeed, many cling
futilely to useless material possessions like a safety vest that they think will
keep them afloat in the stormy sea of life.
And while hoarding, in its
most acute forms, is recognized as a disabling clinical condition among those in
the psychiatric field, it also bespeaks a larger universal truth: In our own
respective ways, we’re all hoarders of some kind. Aren’t we?
necessarily need to accumulate copious amounts of physical possessions to
recognize that we often carry unnecessary baggage throughout our lives that we’d
be better served discarding.
While most of us are far less transparent in
our hoarding than those who openly acquire seemingly arbitrary and nonsensical
belongings, in many ways we are no different. To varying degrees, we are all
curators of bizarre museums of our own making that we painstakingly, and
illogically, maintain – usually with self-defeating results.
I bring this
up because a couple years ago I reached a crossroads where existentialism met
materialism in a way I could never have conceived, and I was forced to choose
one path and forgo the other.
A FEW months before moving to Israel, I was
told by the Israeli Consulate in New York City that I would be permitted to
bring exactly two suitcases with me when I flew from JFK to Ben-Gurion Airport
to live on a small kibbutz in the Negev Desert.
For obvious reasons, this
forced me to thoroughly evaluate my life and the inventory I had acquired along
In short, to conduct the most extreme self-audit I have ever
known of that which once defined who I thought I was.
Now, while I have
never been a collector of any kind (unless you include standard Jewish guilt), I
still had more than my share of possessions accumulating dust around my
From state-of-the-art electronics, expensive, sleek
furniture and hundreds of books, to framed diplomas from universities that I
still can’t believe accepted me and dozens of hand-written love letters to and
from women I once adored, I had at least 30 boxes of things that normally I
never would have considered parting with.
However, as I packed my bags it
occurred to me that I was facing a much larger question: Did any of these
belongings truly define who I was? Without them, would I still have the same
Although intellectually I knew that these things were little more than
physical manifestations of my personality and my past, parting with some of them
was still far more difficult than I imagined.
For example, I vividly
remember agonizing over not being able to include the cast-iron menorah my
beloved grandfather left me because it was too big and heavy and would take
space I could have used to pack clothing and shoes that I would need to
Did that mean that I loved it any less?
Then there were my
prized, signed Norman Rockwell prints that comforted me, reminding me of the
America I had always idealized – not to mention the lazy Susan my late
grandmother Irma used to spin me around on when I was an infant.
leaving these things behind somehow mitigate their value?
And of course,
choosing physical items to leave behind doesn’t take into account the emotional
concessions I had to make – cutting ties with the psychological baggage we all
maintain like a force field to protect us from an otherwise unstable and
Would these thoughts serve any purpose in a desert in a
strange new land?
I had to get down to brass tacks, and packed in a manner
largely devoid of sentiment or luxury of any kind, erring to the side of hard
reality. And it hurt like hell.
In the end, the only possessions I packed
in those two suitcases, apart from bare necessities, included Shabbat candle
holders from my maternal grandparents, two framed photos of loved ones, a small
dictionary and a few treasured items bequeathed to me by my late
Everything else was shipped away to a reasonably priced
storage facility off Interstate 95 in the Bronx by men who could never possibly
understand the value of what was in those boxes.
NEARLY TWO years have
passed since I parted with that which I once thought defined me, and I can say
with confidence that I have never been happier. That is because by letting go of
the past, I was able to rediscover what truly matters and what really defines
It’s an ongoing discovery that often surprises me.
example, these days if you were to ask me to choose between the luxuries of my
past and the modesty of my present, I’d choose the latter because I have learned
that I never really needed material comforts to be truly content.
terms of the emotional baggage I left behind, I have found that it is no longer
of any real value here either, and would only slow me down in my new home, where
I needed to start over with an open mind and an open heart.
distinction between hoarding and letting go completely is extreme and taking
such an enormous step is usually reserved for people in perilous
But for me, it turned out to be one of the healthiest
exercises I have ever undertaken.
Life is undeniably a hard slog.
Therefore, it behooves us to lighten our loads wherever possible to help us move
unencumbered by baggage that no longer serves any meaningful purpose, other than
as of a reminder of what once was.
The great James Thurber once said:
“Let us not look back in anger, or forward in fear, but around in awareness.”
The same can be said of compartmentalizing our lives by living in the present,
letting go of the past and taking the future one day at a time.
course, I’m not advocating purging all your possessions and packing a couple
suitcases to go live in the desert. However, intellectually and emotionally, I
believe it can’t hurt to at least contemplate what it is that you truly need,
versus what you are simply hoarding to compensate for something far more
important and meaningful.
If you let it, the world will give you more
baggage than anyone could – or should ever have to – bear. The trick, I believe,
is to determine what’s worth keeping, and what must be let go, and then making
If you do this, you will undoubtedly move with greater speed,
efficiency – and perhaps most importantly, a clearer mind – in this otherwise
In the end, all the happiness I needed fit into two
suitcases. The rest, I learned, is within me.
Maybe you’ll find the same
to be true for you.