Many years ago, while clearing out a storage space I shared with my first husband, I took one look at “my” things, turned my back, and walked away. It was a dark time, and I simply didn’t have the emotional strength to separate the wheat from the chaff. That memory, a still shot from a long-ago chapter, evokes one prevailing emotion: sadness. Gone was my wedding album, my high school yearbook, my college literature texts, and who knows what else. I would have tossed most of it, eventually, but that’s not the point. By leaving everything behind, it was as if I was invalidating my life and a good part of myself – to freeze the pain.
Fast forward to the present: I don’t hoard. I do manage clutter. And yes, I hold onto things.
There’s a secret, hidden spot in my home where I keep “the treasures of myself.” A humble 1940s cake tin, seemingly “trash-worthy,” is a capsule of varied experience and sentiment – faded Polaroid photos, a line of script from a grade school play, a braided bracelet from a junior high school “boyfriend.” There are also the letters – cathartic and never mailed. These treasures, which somehow escaped the ill-fated storage space, go back decades, and thereby tell my story in a way that only I can understand. It’s amazing how a mere cake tin can only hold so little, and yet, hold so much. I reach for the memories with a sense of peace, revisiting the journey I’ve been on and making sense of its later chapters through the lens of the girl, the teenager, the daughter, the young professional, the young wife, that I have been. It is a healthy “holding on.”
Over the years, I’ve selectively held onto other things: cards, letters, notes, and small, symbolic gifts from my sister, close friends, co-workers, and employees who reported to me. When my self-esteem takes a hit, or I’m simply feeling off-center, I go there. It’s a mirror, and most of what I see there reminds me of what is best and true about me. I read words of gratitude, smile at over-the-top adjectives, and appreciate the outpouring of love. But because it’s a mirror, an accurate reflection, there is more to see. A hand-written note says, “I know you’re busy. Please let me know when you’ll have time…” reminding me that I sometimes put “the practical” ahead of “the important.”
Writer and culture commentator Maria Popova observes that, “Friends hold a mirror up to each other; through that mirror they can see each other in ways that would not otherwise be accessible to them, and it is this mirroring that helps them improve themselves as persons.”
I like how Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a distinguished professor of psychology, talks about “things”: “the object is simply a bridge to another person or to another feeling.” That “bridge” is accessible to me at all times because I have held on to the things that reflect who I am and who I have been. Culturally, we tend to minimize the significance of “things” because they are often associated with materialism and status-seeking. Or, we talk about things having mere “sentimental value.” Let’s not oversimplify. Those select, relatively few things that you hold onto can serve you by helping you to:
- Connect with a positive memory or relationship
- Stand up to your inner critic
- Remember who you really are
- Strengthen your sense of self and purpose
- Tap the courage to be who you are
The next time your self- esteem takes a hit, or you have that gnawing feeling that you’ve lost your way, resist the lure of a quick-fix distraction. Instead, seek out the things you hold onto. Let them work with you and for you. Then, just as a mirror has two sides, the other side of holding on is knowing when to let go. Every year, right after the holidays, I engage in a ritual of sending-off, deciding what stays a while longer, and what goes. With a smile or even a hug, I thank the latter for reminding me of who I am, and then, with a peaceful heart, I let them go.