Lessons in Simplifying Your Stuff

Longing for a simpler, less cluttered life? The Camino taught me a few tricks for making "simple living" a reality.

simpleliving-2Our new pope decided he preferred a two-room suite to the 12-room apartment his predecessors have occupied since the early 1900s. He cited reasons of simplicity and community. Simplicity is making news, but it’s not a new concept. Jesus inspired his followers to leave everything behind and, “Come, follow me.” But I don’t think Peter walked away from a 4,000-square-foot home with full closets. Are you inspired by Pope Francis’ choice? Or just looking for a way to bring a little more simplicity to your life?

Americans are living in a time of great abundance. “Oh! But look at the economy!” some say. I don’t mean financially. I mean when it comes to buying material goods. Anything we think we may want is available to us, 24/7, every day of the year, and delivered to our door thanks to the Internet. No money? No problem. The Internet takes credit cards.

Last year, I spent 37 days walking the Camino de Santiago through Northern Spain. When I told people along the pilgrimage that I taught classes on decluttering, pilgrims from other countries couldn’t believe that people actually needed such classes. Some societies are not nearly so consuming as ours. One of the big differences? Space. The average home here in the United States? 2,300 square feet. In Spain? Half that: 1,044 square feet.

So, how much space does a person really need? I guess that all depends on the journey you are taking. I started the Camino with a 42-liter pack that weighed 10.2 kilos according to the scale at the airport. That was the first time I weighed my pack. I thought I recalled there were 2.2 pounds in a kilo, but I wasn’t sure and honestly didn’t want to know at that point. I would later learn my conversion factor was correct: I was carrying 22 pounds on my back.

Simplifying your stuff was a hot topic among new pilgrims. The hostel in Roncesvalles, where I spent my second night, had a table of discarded items piled high. There were hiking shoes, fleeces, and even a couple backpacks. I looked at the table and realized a pilgrim could show up in Roncesvalles without a thing and outfit themselves just from this table.

The experienced pilgrims among us offered advice as to what was not needed, but it wasn’t until a full seven days into my trek, when I could no longer shut out my shoulders’ pleas for help, that I left behind a few things: a book, a pair of flip-flops, a pair of shorts. Eventually I let go of my second pair of hiking pants, a scarf, and even the pages of my guidebook that I no longer needed.

The next time my pack hit a scale was at the airport in Vigo, four days after finishing The Way. I hadn’t lost any weight walking the Camino, but my pack surely had — five pounds worth.

I came home and looked into my closet, wondering what all was in there. I genuinely couldn’t imagine a life where I would need a closet full of things. If I could live for nearly 40 days out of a backpack, what did I need all this other stuff for?

The Camino, for me, was the culmination of a one-year self-imposed (and self-funded) sabbatical. Before I started my year of living without a permanent home, I attempted to get rid of or sell most of what I owned.

At this point in my story, people usually say, “Wait — what? You got rid of most of what you owned? How?”

And here’s where the lessons of simplicity come in. You don’t have to go as extreme as I did, but the steps I took are the same steps anyone can take to start simplifying their stuff.

  1. First, pick a room. Where do you want to start? No need for deep analysis here — just pick a place. I chose my living room.
  2. Second, take a minute to think about the purpose that room serves. Dining rooms tend not to be just for eating. Some dining room tables are used as a way station for incoming mail, or as a place for kids to do homework. Take a minute to list all of the activities that happen in the room you chose. My living room was the place I relaxed, the place I did craft projects, the place I entertained company.
  3. Next, create a goal — then think smaller. My initial goal was to pare down to only those things I needed or loved. But that goal was too big — too overwhelming. So I went smaller. I eyed a closet I hadn’t opened in months. What was in there? I could have made my goal to clean out that closet, but that still felt overwhelming. So, I went even smaller. I knew there was a box of yarn in there. So I made my goal to go through that yarn box and package half of it to be given away to the knitting group at the library. That I felt I could do.
  4. Now that you have a goal you feel is attainable, get started. If you come across something you don’t know what to do with, think back to the purposes of that space. If it doesn’t fit one of those, it doesn’t belong in this room.

And so it was that I started, small goal by small goal, to scale down my belongings. Upon my return from the Camino, I reflected on how much our stuff can weigh us down — literally and figuratively — and I made “letting go” a part of my daily life.

Along the lines of simplifying, Fr. Dave and Fr. Steve are taking part in the Busted Halo® Office Clean-Up Challenge. Next week, I’ll be back with some tips for Fr. Dave, Fr. Steve and all of you for decluttering and spring cleaning.