U3.1 Why do it? – Why do we keep things?

Marie Kondo, the author of ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying’, has some very clear answers to this question. She says we that we keep things because either we become too attached to the past or we have a fear of the unknown future; and that we fail to get to grips with clutter as an instinctive reflex to avoid thinking about the other issues in our lives. That we may become too attached to the past seems a valid point, however the other two assertions may be a little speculative, and, in any case are made with respect to one’s general household possessions. If we consider something rather more specific such as photos, people seem to keep them a) as a reminder of the past, and b) to share their experiences with others. There are many aspects to the first reason including:

Most of these reasons could also be said to apply to keeping letters sent from someone you were close to. However, there are two other important reasons for keeping letters – to be able to find out facts about the sender at a later date; and also to act as a focal point for reflection – reflection about the relationships one has had and about the value of friendship.

We keep our personal writings, diaries and poetry for similar reasons, though, in this case, the reflection we may wish to do is about how we feel about things, what we have done and how we have conducted ourselves. Interestingly, the ability to find out something you had forgotten from personal writings includes the ability to find out the true facts about something you had remembered wrongly. One’s own published work is rather different. Such material is probably kept because it represents the individual and the work he/she has done. There’s an element of pride involved. If the material was lost or destroyed then somehow the individual would feel a part of their being was missing.

Many of the reasons already discussed also apply to mementos – documents and artefacts that people acquire in the course of things they are doing or experiencing. However, to try and understand keeping rationale further and to provide an aid which would help people decide what to keep and what to discard, an analysis of a work memento collection was undertaken. Out of that exercise emerged a so-called Wish Table with the following categories of reasons for keeping (the percentages indicate the relative numbers of approximately 500 personal mementos that the Wish Table was subsequently applied to):

  • Not forget (1%)
  • To be reminded of (28%)
  • Reference (42%)
  • Feel pride (7%)
  • Pass on to family (9%)
  • Too special to get rid of (20%)
  • Unusual (5%)

The ‘pass on to family’ reason is particularly important as most people seem to have an interest in where they came from and in the history of their forebears. As people grow older, some perhaps realise that it is incumbent upon them to pass on their knowledge and artefacts safely to the following generation – otherwise the knowledge about the family will get lost and forgotten in the passage of time.

The types of objects already mentioned – photos, letters, personal writings, published work, mementos – are all very intimately related to the individual. We might imagine that other objects may be kept for rather more mundane reasons. For example, people may keep books simply because they like the touch and feel of them and like having them around. However, books also make a statement about an individual and their personal interests and what information and ideas they have been subjected to. The same goes for record collections.

One of the more unusual types of objects explored in this site is a collection of T-shirts with logos or legends. These were kept because they were evidence of being somewhere or doing something; or because they were a reminder of an experience or a person.

Collections in the more formal sense of the word (such as stamp collections) tend to have less of an intimate relationship to oneself. They are usually started because a person has an interest in the particular type of object that is being collected, and because there is a desire to complete the collection – or at least to expand it to be significant in size and comprehensive in content. People find it fun to collect things, and see it as an interesting hobby with which they can fill some of their spare time, or which provides a diversion from the other parts of their lives.

In summary, the experiences of this site suggest that people keep things because they like to be reminded of the past and to be able to reflect on it. They perceive some objects to define them in some way and therefore would feel less whole without them; and they see the importance of maintaining a history of the family. These all seem perfectly good and healthy reasons for keeping things – provided they don’t become all-consuming or disruptive to day-to-day life.

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