We Americans are consumers, surrounded by products. Therefore, each of us has to make a choice that defines our lives: whether to hoard useless things or to discard them. I’ve been always inclined toward the second option.
In 2013, The New York Times reported that up to 5% of Americans demonstrate hoarding behaviors, which are recognized as psychiatric symptoms in the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
I suffer from the opposite condition. When I wander around the house, I pick up everything that is in the way, is superfluous or hasn’t been used in more than a year, and carry it to the dumpster. Wednesdays are joyful days: That’s when the garbage truck picks up all the objects too big to fit in a plastic bag. Sometimes, I watch with glee as all the unwanted stuff is dumped into the truck’s belly and mercilessly crushed.
The U.S. economy is based on domestic consumption, which means the stuff its citizens buy and sell. The entire society is structured around the frenzied activity of acquiring – and discarding. On average, every American throws away 4 pounds of garbage each day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, but we tend to keep more than we toss.
Discarding things is an art form. First you have to identify the object you may want to discard; next, assess whether it serves a purpose or has emotional value for you; and if not, throw it away immediately. We keep a lot of stuff simply because it’s easier to leave things where they are rather than get rid of them.
I wish I could dispose of many more things, but I don’t dare. In my last move from one house to another, I found a couple of voice recorders with cassettes that are no longer manufactured; CDs of my reporting in obsolete software formats; and bits of memorabilia – postcards, pictures, gifts, relics, African masks, chunks of the Berlin Wall and even some puppets from Chiapas, Mexico – that lost their meaning a long time ago. These are the hardest objects to throw away: at some point they meant something, but time has transformed them into rubbish. When exactly did that happen?
In her best-seller “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” the Japanese author Marie Kondo suggests cleaning up the entire house in a single day; discarding according to categories, rather than room by room; and keeping only those things that make us happy. “Does it generate joy? If it does, keep it,” she writes. “Otherwise, throw it away.” Her tidying-up philosophy is simple: Cleaning up your house will declutter your mind and set you free. But it’s not that easy.
For the past five years, my accountant has been emailing my tax returns to me; I duly print out and file each and every one of those documents. Every American resident has a justifiable fear of the IRS, and so I have boxes upon boxes of receipts, expenditures and bills going all the way back to 1983. What should I do with those papers? Should I throw them away?
And then there’s all the paraphernalia we tend to collect. The speed at which technology is improving has accelerated the pace at which our purchases become useless. From the moment you buy it, almost anything that has a cable is already, or is about to become, obsolete, from computers and telephones to TV sets.
We also have cyber garbage. Every night I delete my emails before I leave the office. I only keep those that I will answer the next day. But I have workmates who have thousands of emails in their inboxes – they don’t dare to delete them “just in case I need them some day.” They’ve been hoarding their emails for years and don’t dare hit the liberating “delete” key (I won’t name names).
My worst nightmare was the Pink House. That’s what my friends and I called the house we lived in as students during the early ’80s, close to University of California, Los Angeles. Its owner devoted decades to hoarding everything from newspapers to avocado pits – a true hoarder. He died atop a mountain of garbage, protected by the dark and smelly world he created piece by piece.
I recently saw his opposites at the airport in Varanasi, India: barefoot monks boarding the plane. Their only earthly possessions were their long robes. I’ll go out on a limb here and say they looked happy and free. But I doubt the Buddhist principle of renouncing desires (to avoid suffering) would be easy to apply in Western society.
Ultimately, sociologists tell us that it’s all about balance – not too much, not too little. But our problem is unprecedented since we produce and own so many things that, if we don’t discard them fast enough, we’ll die buried under them.
Please, throw away this column. Don’t keep it. Let it go.
Jorge Ramos, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, is the host of Fusion’s new television news show, “America With Jorge Ramos,” and is a news anchor on the Univision Network. Originally from Mexico and now based in Florida, Ramos is the author of nine best-selling books, most recently, “A Country for All: An Immigrant Manifesto.”