Posted on September 24, 2009 by Colin

Sentimentality is the Enemy of Evolution

The Conversation

I was having a conversation over orange juice with one of the handful of English expats I’ve met since I moved to Buenos Aires, and the topic of sentimentality came up. It went something like this:

Me: “…so that’s why I’m traveling from country to country.”
English Expat: “So you sold everything? But haven’t you anything left at home?”
Me: “Well no, actually. My girlfriend and I had a shredding party before we left LA, so all those old photos and journal entries are gone.”
English Expat: “Oh my, how DREADFUL!”

And so on and so forth.

It should be noted that up until that point in the conversation she was totally on board with everything I was saying, even the usual points of contention. Pulling up my roots and moving on? Just fine. Breakup party with girlfriend? How interesting! Getting rid of old mementos? DREADFUL!

The Why

The trouble is that memories tend to get stuck to things. We might only remember a loved one because of the car they left us in their will, or a particular summer with friends because of the sand dollars we are still holding on to from the beach. And it’s great to hold on to memories: there are some periods in my life where the great memories I’ve been fortunate enough to acquire have been almost all that’s kept me going. But as soon as we attach significance to a thing instead of the memory itself, we’re on a downward slope.

This is something I avoid pretty well, but I still find myself falling into it from time to time. An old article of clothing that I was wearing when this or that happened that no longer fits well. The buttons given to me by a famous designer I met back in the day. Silly things that have lost their practicality and so have become clutter, taking up space that I could be using to hold, oh I don’t know, a toaster oven. Something useful.

Don’t Hate Me

I know it sounds cold and callous; trust me, I’ve gotten that response to this aspect of minimalism enough to recognize how it seems to anyone who doesn’t adhere to the same practices. But I want to make it clear that ‘out with the old’ does not mean ‘out with the memories.’ It simply means clearing out the physical baggage you’re carrying around so that you can more comfortably live life. The good stuff is still there, and in fact it’s there whenever you want, not just when you happen to stumble upon that old knick-knack.

In some ways, I imagine it’s probably easier to tuck memories away into an old toy or rocking chair or coffee cup. By imbuing SOMETHING with those memories, you don’t have to deal with them except when you’re in visual or physical contact with those items, and that can free you from the responsibility of carrying around that extra mental weight.

Get a Mental Workout

Unfortunately, though, mental muscles are a lot like any other muscle in that if you don’t exercise them regularly, they can atrophy. I’m not saying you’ll get stupid if you rid yourself of the weight of your memories, but I am saying that not dealing with and accepting old memories can lead to some serious psychoses, and keeping those happy memories separate from your day-to-day thought process can limit the amount of joy you’re able to experience in every day life. You might not be able to appreciate the comedic value of an awkward situation because you aren’t able to drum up the memory of that one time that one thing happened that was similar…too bad you don’t have the dress you were wearing that day with you. It would have been a gas.

Along those same lines, it can be more difficult to learn new things when your memories are kept at arm’s length. Making connections between new things and old things is a big part of forming new long-term memories. The more old things you have stored in that biological hard drive in your skull the more new things you’ll be able to grasp and maintain immediately.

The Most Practical Argument

Lastly, it can just be really physically burdensome to keep so much extra STUFF around. That expat I mentioned at the beginning told me that her room is always a mess and that her friends comment that her place looks like ‘a little girl’s dream,’ full of origami gum wrappers made by friends, old ceramics projects and magazine clippings from years before. Moving, she told me, is a ghastly experience, requiring an inordinate amount of transportation to haul it all. She admitted that traveling here to Buenos Aires was actually a big relief, in part because she didn’t have to deal with all that baggage (literally and figuratively).

It is, of course, everyone’s personal decision how they deal with their past, and some people will always be more willing to have it constantly lingering around the back of their mind than others. Minimalism isn’t for everyone, but if you give it a shot – get rid of something you’ve been holding onto forever ‘just because’ – I guarantee at the very least you’ll have more room for that toaster oven.