The junk drawer experiment

My house has a junk drawer, somewhere for keys and phone chargers and pens and post-its…and whatever other random things seem like they should be around but don’t have an obvious home.

For the last two years, it’s been almost impossible to close the drawer.

For a while I’d grudgingly clean it every few months, painstakingly sorting through what should stay and what I wanted to throw out.  Invariably, two weeks later it would be overflowing again.

Three months ago I tried something different with the drawer.  I took a plastic bag and dropped everything I didn’t absolutely need from the drawer into the bag.  But I didn’t throw the bag out – I just put it aside.  This way I was comfortable putting a lot more stuff in the bag, instead of leaving things in the drawer that I wasn’t ready to throw out.  I was curious to see how long it took for me to look for something in that bag.

Surprise, surprise: I’m at three months and counting, and I have yet to go look for the bag.  Pretty soon, I’m going to have to admit that I’m ready to throw it and the former contents of the drawer out.

I wonder if there’s any application here to philanthropy – to help us all as givers in our own practice of aparigraha, or non-hoarding? (which is something I talked more about here).  Could you create a vehicle for people (everyday people, not just ultra-high net worth individuals who for lots of reasons create private foundations) to set aside money to see how it feels to live without the money for a while?  Some sort of escrow account that’s practice for giving more, where people could put the money aside with a plan to give but the option to get it back?

How would you structure it?  What would the mechanics be?  Who would you want to have involved – financial institutions, 401(k) providers, non-profits, online giving marketplaces? What would you name it?  How would you spread the word?

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On Aparigraha (or, Why do I still have instructions for my old Technics 5-CD changer?)

It’s absurd, really.  One (exciting) night over the Thanksgiving weekend, my wife and I spent a few hours battling with the junk that’s piled up in our oh-so-small basement.  We produced 6 full bags of trash and managed to remove an entire 7-foot tall bookshelf.  Mission accomplished (at least for the next 6 months).

This isn’t because I’m a relentless buyer of junk.  It’s really about the random, totally useless stuff I’ve managed to hang on to: the instruction manuals to appliances (they’re all available online, right?); the extra trays for my oven I haven’t needed in the 5 years since it was installed; the random collection of mounting screws for who-knows-which speaker (or maybe it’s for a telephone); the Ziploc bag with 100+ pens and pencils dating back, literally, to high school.

And this after I started a conscious “throw stuff away if you haven’t used it for a year” program about 4 years ago (though in fairness that’s been mostly about clothes so far).

What’s fascinating is to pay attention to the feeling I have when I throw the pack of unknown-use screws in the trash (“But what if I NEED this someday?!”)  There’s an emotional attachment to this junk, and the sense that I will kick myself if the day arrives when I need to, say, program my VCR after throwing out the instructions or that I’ll have a sudden, pressing need to use the delayed cook settings on my stove.

“What if I need this someday?” is actually quite hard to get over.

“Yamas,” or moral restraints, are a limb of the eight-limbed path of yoga.  (Whatever you think of yoga in particular, I’d argue that all spiritual traditions contain universal truths.  So if you prefer references to the Book of Luke to “Take nothing for your journey, neither staves, nor scrip, neither bread, neither money; neither have two coats apiece” that’s fine with me too).

The last of the Yamas is Aparigraha, or non-hoarding.  A great layman’s description of Aparigraha can be found in the wonderful book Meditations from the Mat by Rolf Gates and Katrina Kenison:

At first glance, aparigraha sounds like a problem of the shop-till-you-drop club.  But upon further examination, I realize that my whole apartment is one big aparigraha violation.  I am not a big spender, and I hardly ever shop.  So how can this be?  I don’t want more; I just don’t want to lose what I already have.  I might miss that shirt I haven’t worn in years.  I might want to read that book again someday.  That chipped bowl is still perfectly usable.  It’s not that I am a hoarder; I am a nonrelinquisher.  I don’t want to grieve the loss of anything.  Aparigraha is an opportunity to learn how to say good-bye.

If you are in the business of raising money or selling in any form, you are asking people to let go of something (an idea, a relationship, money they might need someday for something else), so understanding how you hoard and how natural it is to hang on to things is important.  And if you have any money in the stock market or you own a home, you’ve just had the terribly unpleasant experience of discovering that you have to get by on 30-50% less than you had a couple of months ago.  So you’re in the midst of this whether you like it or not.

This isn’t just about the junk in the basement, it’s about keeping versus sharing.  There are lots of things we hoard because we think that by hanging on to them we’ll have more for ourselves.

Credit, praise, apologies and love are high on my list of things one should give away liberally.  Or if that’s asking too much, start with sharing a smile, an insight, or an idea.

And if giving an old stereo or a faded T-shirt away gets you there more quickly, you might want to start there.

(Full disclosure: the stack of old unused stereo equipment I have to sell is going to the Salvation Army this weekend if I get no takers on Craigslist).