My sister, Laura, says I am the exact opposite of a hoarder. “Do you think maybe you have a problem having things?” she asked as she entered my apartment and noticed that the armoire I had shown her upon her last visit was absent from the room. “No”, I responded, “I just decided that I didn’t really like it, so I sold it and am going to get something else”, I am not sure when it started, but I do remember even as a child I liked to go through drawers, reorganizing and getting rid of anything I didn’t use or like. Perhaps it was something I was born with as the One who made me knew He was going to direct my life through several countries on the journey home. Even if you haven’t made an international move but just packed a suitcase, you understand. When it comes down to it, you can only take so much with you.
I’ll always remember the first big transition in my life and what I learned about the desire to hold on that escapes none of us, not even a purger. I had just decided to accept a position on a team working in Dublin, Ireland. Though this decision was just made, I had a long-term plan that included eventually moving to Africa but as some of those who shared the dream were in medical school and seminary, that move wasn’t to be for a few more years. As I prepared to move, the question came as to what to do with what I wasn’t taking with me. With the uncertainty of how many years might pass before I returned permanently, it seemed silly to think of storing things. The obvious step would be to sell what I wasn’t taking or wasn’t absolutely a sentimental/heirloom type item and use the money for my new life on the other side of the sea. And so at the grand age of 24, all my worldly possessions became something to be considered. The destiny of each piece was decided with one simple question, “Do I like it, need it enough that I would pay to keep it?” It was my first major purge. When I finished and boxes were filled, there were more boxes of things I was letting go of than keeping. The boxes included some prized possessions, like my stereo and speakers that had the wrong electrical outlets for the other side of the pond, as well as things that were in the “I never really liked this” category.
My younger sisters encouraged me and cheered me on as they rented a booth at the flea market for an upcoming Saturday when I would exchange these worldly possessions for something that I could use and would travel lightly-cash. Arriving before dawn to set up, we found our booth and began to empty my boxes and then it happened. My heart rose up and stole the joy of the morning as I experienced a possessiveness I couldn’t remember as it cried, “these are my things!” What? The part that didn’t even make sense is I hadn’t felt even a twinge wanting to hold onto things until this moment. Even more, it happened as I stood looking at a small glass jewelry box with brass edges and an owl etched on the lid that I had never liked, not even the day my dad gave it to me. But there I was, standing in the Dreamland Fleamarket with tears streaming down my face and the desire to throw myself on top of the merchandise laid out and say. “It’s not for sale; it’s mine and I am keeping it al…ll……ll…ll. (The dramatic moment called for deep southern drawl).
Such would have been the end of the story and even perhaps the beginning of hoarding had my sisters not stepped in: Teresa distracting me with that calm voice of hers reminding me of our purpose while Penny quickly pried the small box from my hand only to make it the first sale of the day. They knew whatever was happening, it was just internal and they were committed to the external task of sell and sell fast. They also knew that the first sale would be the hardest for me and they were right. There was something in taking hold of the change from that first sale that turned my focus from what I was letting go of to what I was gaining.
Looking back that was a telling moment in life for it revealed a pattern that I would experience again and again. Right before I let go, I so want to hold on. It’s a moment when I can lose perspective and become tunnel vision about what I have to lose. I know it’s not just me or just international moves (as I can feel the same thing when I purge my closet), but why is it, we seem to struggle with letting go of things? For the hoarders who experience this extremely, it seems (or so one can deduct after watching just 10 minutes of any of the hoarder TV series), the hoarder has attached parts of their identity to the things and lost their ability to let go without experiencing deep emotions and anxiety. For others or most of us, there is just the fact that we attach emotions and memories to things and that letting go seems to feel like losing. Even for one like me that does the external purging, I still don’t seem to escape the process of facing that moment that is asking for release where I find myself wanting to hold on, often not knowing why.
But I had learned something in that early experience in life that would travel with me as I moved back from Ireland to New York City and after that to Guatemala, then Mexico, then Charleston and now Myrtle Beach. That first experience had taught me that though the emotions were real, I don’t have to hold on. When I began to see those boxes of things as that which was keeping me from what was ahead, they lost their value. Though they were things I had needed, I would not need them for where I was going.
I stood over my father during his last hours on this earth. His earthen vessel had not worn out all at the same time but in stages. His mind had forgotten to tell his throat to swallow and that had caused him to aspirate which led to pneumonia. I had always known him as a strong man but I realized anew just how strong he was as I watched his will to breathe battle against the fluid that was not only resisting him but rising up against him. But his heart…..the literal organ of his heart overcame all as it refused to give up but pushed forward towards life when other organs were ready to lay it down.
As I watched him there warring to live, I was aware of how much he had let go of already. His possessions were few. His titles and their power were only memories. His story was on its last lines. And if pneumonia did not overtake him today, he was only one swallow or bite from aspirating again, only to once again receive the diagnosis of pneumonia. I had prayed he would not leave this earth one day earlier than the “days written in His book” (Psalm 139) and that he would not stay one more day than He had purposes for him…..and mostly that when my prayers for him to stay were only inviting him to suffer, that I would be able to let go and let him go. That day had come.
Perhaps I thought or imagined that we would arrive at that moment together and that his departure would be swift. It wasn’t. It was three long days of sitting with him and my siblings who were the only ones besides the nurses to be at his farewell. I didn’t know it then but he was giving me one last lesson. The only thing between the life he had here and the one to come with the One who had made him was his body. That body was formed with him in his mother’s womb. It began to be the moment his life began and had been with him his entire life. But now in those moments, before him, there was one last purge or letting go. It’s the last thing, after the goodbyes, after all, that has been left behind after a lifetime (whether short or long) there is that moment in our last breath when the earthen vessel we have called our body must be left behind.
I don’t think I had ever thought of my body as my possession up to that time. What trust it must take in that moment to let go of that which has always been yours. In one breath, my dad was with me and in the next silence he was gone, but there remained his familiar shell lying in his bed. What courage, I thought. What a comfort to know Jesus and that he cannot lie. He promised to prepare a place for us, one where there is no dying, no tears, no more goodbyes or letting go.
What if there is a truth of life that we can actually gain by losing? What if the letting go is really a preparation to receive, even grow? What if what is true in the intangible is true in the tangible? All I know is this confrontation of letting go to receive, to let go, to receive is a core experience of life both in the spiritual and the natural. It’s innate. It’s palpable. Even in faith, we let go of our lives to receive His life because He let go of his to have ours. For us, all whether in the natural or spiritual, the freedom to let go is enabled by our focus on that which is to come. He endured the cross for the “joy set before him”. There is something in the looking at what is to be gained that dissolves the fear that makes us want to cling even up to that last breath.
It’s strange the things we think of in the moments of grief. For some reason, in my dad’s last hours I found myself thinking about that little owl jewelry box and then all the other things that I have possessed and wanted to cling to. I thought how silly to think we can hold on. For doesn’t everything eventually rust and rot? They have their place and their time but they are set in time and we though set in time are made for eternity. One day, when I have purged all, there will come that moment when this body I have will be only that something I don’t need anymore, something that is holding me back, something I can’t take with me. And though I might pause and cling, even to the parts least favorite just because they are mine, I will be glad for the preparation of all this practice purging and the learning to look ahead, not back. It’s not a loss, but a gain and that moment, all those moments, they were only the transition towards this moment when I will hear His voice of love through the veil saying, “The perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” now “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory." 1 Corinthians 15:54 (NIV)