Learning to live better

From time to time, I am asked “if the parish could use…” and what follows is a litany of things old and beloved, unusual and familiar, new and used, useful and whimsical, and the occasional, “I don’t know what it is, but it seems like it is holy.” The conversation is hardly ever (perhaps never?) with a person from the millennial demographic. At this point in their lives, they live minimally and do not have the same emotional connection to things as did the generations before. They are a mobile group and thus don’t want a lot of stuff when moving house or moving to a new city. IKEA will do just fine until things settle.

It is not just the younger folks. We who identify with the Baby Boomer generation are not accumulating stuff, rather many of us are in the downsizing mode – or at least we try to be. When my mom passed away in 2016, one of my sisters inherited the house. My other sister and I took some things that mom had designated for us (as indicated by the sticky label on the bottom or back of the item) and perhaps one or two other items. But mostly, we left stuff in place – leaving it for our sister to figure out.

It is the dilemma of Boomers having to settle estates and households of parents even as they are trying to downsize their own lives. You discover it is really hard to give away your stuff at the same time trying to fend off taking on more stuff from your parents. There is the china service for 12, a suite of living room furniture that bespeaks of an age long past, a collection of “this was your great-grandmother’s” items; the rubber-banded assemblage of every birthday, Christmas, and “thinking of you” card you ever sent; newspaper clippings of your high school exploits; the complete Mary Tyler Moore Show on VHS; a painting mom loved that you can’t imagine hanging in your house; and the list goes on. At this point in your ruminations, one of your kids holds up a box of “what are these?” Are you really going to explain floppy disks? All the above and we haven’t even gotten to the attic or garage.

We have this radical impulse to junk it all and live in a 600 sq.ft. “tiny house.” It is the desire to simplify. Very few of us are so radical, but we want to be more radical than we are. We want to get rid of stuff and at the same time realize such things mark our lives and keep our memories alive. We are caught in the midst of “you can’t take it with you” and that’s easy to accept. What tugs at the heart is that we can’t seem to pass it on; that’s harder to accept.

In Sweden this milieu give rise to the process called “dostadning” or “death-cleaning.” While its original context is taking responsibility for your items and not leaving them as a burden for family and friends, they have made a cottage industry around on downsizing, unburdening, and letting go.

And here we are in Lent. In its own way Lent is a dostadning. A seasonal reminder that we will indeed pass from this mortal coil into new life – and we can’t take it with us. We are dust and to dust we shall return – as will most of our stuff. Maybe this year we can think about Lent as “death cleaning” at least in the sense of unburdening, letting go, and downsizing. It is a familiar biblical scene:

“Now someone approached him and said, ‘Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?’… Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.” (Mt 19:16, 21-22)

Could this be a part of your Lenten plan? To strip down your life a little, work at breaking the hold the world and its things have on you. To unburden yourself and become a little freer to love God and man.

Could this part of your Lenten dostadning? Perhaps give away one thing each week. One thing you value but don’t need. One thing you want to keep. For this purpose, don’t choose things that let you think, “Oh yeah, this can go.” Choose things you don’t feel like giving away.

Most things you can just give to a thrift store or to people you know. If you have something you can sell, give the money to a charity. And whatever feelings of loss you have, those can lead you to pray for those who always feel that loss and for better reasons.

You will have other things to give away, other ways of stripping down your lives in response to Jesus’s invitation. Make Lent the season of dostadning. Which is to say, make Lent the season of learning a little better how to live.

2 thoughts on “Learning to live better

  1. Love the phrase “death cleaning.” As I get older, I think more and more about my own death, not depressingly but with a great deal of interest and growing trust that ‘it will be all right. In fact, fabulous.” I can’t take anything concrete with me, but I hope to take the emotions and spirit that my books, my journals, my music, my pictures, my cat, the trees, the insects, the miracle of water . . . on and on engender in me: love, curiosity, amazement, plain old joy. Meanwhile, I struggle to let go of the smallest scrap of beautiful fabric or an ancient paperback book of British detective stories. Never mind the anthology of Victorian poetry. It will be a long Lent.

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