Eisenbud’s Odyssey: Two suitcases

Existentialism, materialism and the power of letting go.

Two suitcases (photo credit: Courtesy )
Two suitcases
(photo credit: Courtesy )
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 whatsoever.
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?
We don’t 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 the way.
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 Manhattan apartment.
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 identity?
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 survive.
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.
Did 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 intrusive world.
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 grandparents.
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 me.
It’s an ongoing discovery that often surprises me.
For 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.
In 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.
Clearly, the distinction between hoarding and letting go completely is extreme and taking such an enormous step is usually reserved for people in perilous situations.
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.
Of 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 the change.
If you do this, you will undoubtedly move with greater speed, efficiency – and perhaps most importantly, a clearer mind – in this otherwise cluttered life.
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.
Pack wisely.
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