We filled our storage unit with hundreds of boxes during a family crisis. I couldn’t sort through it all at the time because too many objects triggered memories I didn’t have the capacity to process. Here was the stuffed animal of a grown child I’d give anything to go back and parent differently. The scent of a half-burned candle from our first home. A t-shirt I wore while making a mistake that led to years of pain. A church bulletin with naïve but simple, faith-filled notes I’d scribbled in the margin. An old Christmas card from a beloved friend who ended up not being a friend at all.
There was a time when simply touching these items unleashed waves of fear, guilt, grief, and regret. Because I had young children during the crisis, I didn’t have time or space to tend to my own emotional wounds. So, I threw it all in storage, and I forced myself to look forward instead of back.
I don’t enjoy thinking about all the money we lost renting that storage unit. I also hate remembering the long, slow ache of trying to ignore the existence of those boxes. For years, I felt a clench in my throat every time I thought about opening them. Sifting through all that stuff wouldn’t just throw me into the physical chaos of clutter, it would also involve dealing with relational and spiritual disillusionment, guilt, and shame. I wasn’t sure I had the fortitude to rip open a hundred and eighty Pandora’s boxes.
Stories have a funny way of sticking to objects. The wind-up watch I had when I was six still ticks, and when I hear it, I can somehow see almost every object in my childhood bedroom. The biscuit cutter my grandmother used brings back the smell of fried sausage and potatoes. I can still feel the late summer breeze in backyard snapshots of people who have either died physically or who were swallowed alive by political agendas. I have stacks of old prayer journals—hundreds of pages full of sincere requests for God to save and heal people I love. If He is fulfilling those requests, He must be working on a timeline or in dimensions I could not have begun to imagine in my optimistic twenties, my head bent over those pages, appealing to my Father.
Unpacking meant facing the intensity of those stories. It also risked realizing that I was losing many of them. When I was a child, the old folks would school me in the history of this ceramic soup pot or in that old war relic until it felt like I’d heard the same explanations a hundred times over. I didn’t understand the intensity in their voices—so determined for a past I had never seen to be preserved. Now, I’m the one entrusted, the steward of all those connections. If I donate an object, I forfeit its meaning in our family forever. I feel like the weak link—the one who was asked to pass the torch, but who ultimately quenched it instead. I guess that’s how it’s always been; what’s been lost between generations has always been greater than what’s been preserved. But how do we transfer family history with any sort of balance? How do we make those thousands and thousands of decisions?
Unpacking a box isn’t always just unpacking a box. It can require emotional and spiritual vulnerability, reflection, and repentance. Both the emotions and the responsibilities of simplifying can feel crushing.
Unpacking a box isn’t always just unpacking a box. It can require emotional and spiritual vulnerability, reflection, and repentance. Both the emotions and the responsibilities of simplifying can feel crushing.Rebecca Reynolds
There’s also guilt. I don’t like being reminded that I was the sort of fool who bought too much stuff in the first place. I bought this unnecessary outfit at Goodwill in 1998. I splurged on name-brand peanut butter in 2003. These are micro-irresponsibilities, but certain financial teachings within evangelicalism led me to believe that any measure of waste distinguishes responsible and godly citizens from people who deserve the needs they are facing. There were so many truths I didn’t understand when I was taught to think like this. I didn’t understand large-scale societal or economic conditions that leave some with almost no margin, no matter how frugal they are, and give others all the room in the world to believe they’ve multiplied their savings through only the sweat of their brow. But even though my understanding has grown, I still feel a finger of shame pointing straight at me as I look at every extraneous possession. I bought things I didn’t always need. It’s hard to know how to process that failure.
Then, there’s the lingering pain of wounds I was attempting to medicate through buying things. For example, I’ve always felt too tall, too big, too hideous. When I shopped, therefore, I wasn’t just buying clothes. I was looking for some sort of external magic that might deflect everything I hated about myself. Decades later, I realize those purchases didn’t take away this pain. My insecurity has outlasted everything I bought trying to kill it. So I open those boxes to find futility, shame, and reminders that such wounds don’t easily heal.
It’s becoming clear why simplifying was difficult, right? Opening a simple cardboard box can entail:
- “I am not strong enough to revisit all that raw pain.”
- “People close to me betrayed me. I don’t want to remember this in detail.”
- “I would give anything to go back and change this year of my life. How could I have failed so deeply?”
- “I cannot understand why a God who loves me didn’t fulfill my most selfless and critical requests. He disappointed me so deeply, I’m not sure what to do with that pain.”
- “I am going to fail at stewarding the family stories. Then they will be lost forever.”
- “I was foolish, selfish, and wasteful in buying what had no value. Every struggle we face now is my fault, and here is the evidence.”
In light of all that, no wonder I’ve been paralyzed. No wonder I decided to keep those boxes locked up for so long and to just keep going forward. And to avoid looking back.
Several months ago, my parents decided to downsize, and they asked me to walk through their place and pick out any furniture that I wanted. Mom and Dad are organized and tidy people, but even in their meticulously clean house, I caught a glimpse of the colossal task it was going to be to let go of a lifetime of collected possessions. I don’t know why it had never struck me that every tiny bit we take in must also go out, used or unused, no matter if the object has proven worth the investment or declared a waste. How would they manage this? And how would I manage my own stuff in twenty years when I’m even more tired than I am now? My great Uncle Jessie Lee said, “If you own too many things, your things start to own you.” I felt that threat in high-def.
I returned to our home with new eyes and asked my husband to crack open the time capsule. We committed to spending twenty minutes every weeknight sorting papers and photos, and several hours every weekend sorting larger objects. Setting an actual timer for the weeknight tasks is essential for me. Initially, I made the mistake of attempting this deeply emotional work five hours at a time, and that wasn’t good for me. A twenty-minute limit sets a boundary on what the past can do to my heart on any given day, and I need that limit.
While searching and sifting, I opened many boxes feeling ashamed and broken, then quickly began to feel more validated than condemned. Re-reading helped me realize why I had been so shocked and so deeply hurt. It helped me realize why I’ve put distance in certain relationships. But other boxes corrected and humbled me. The number of personal letters from people who cared about me is breathtaking. I’m grieved to think of how many I never answered. And I’ve been astonished to find the complex, caring comments that teachers and professors wrote on my papers. I hadn’t remembered being loved on that scale during years when I felt so alone.
I don’t have room here to share how all this purging and sorting has impacted what we bring into our home. Maybe in a few weeks, I’ll find time to write that side down as well. For now, though, I wanted to reach out to those of you who have a stack of long-packed boxes of your own. The fear of digging too deep in the Mines of Moria while going back to touch your own past is real. You’re not just lazy. This is complicated. I’m sorry it’s such scary work to do—and also such scary work to postpone.
Now might not be the right time for you to tackle your boxes, but when that season does come, I hope your guilt is lightened a bit by knowing that you’re not the only one heading back into such a mess. Even though it’s painful at times, I am feeling lighter as loads leave our house. I’m slowly learning to give past iterations of myself more grace—I don’t know when I’ve ever engaged with the gospel so practically as I have while surveying my broken past. I’m gaining an understanding of my triggers and reactions. And while I’m still not sure why certain hard things happened, or why other good things have not happened yet—this is my life. I carry the impressions of it within me. I survived my past once, and now I’m learning what that survival meant. Twenty minutes at a time, I’m swimming in those waters. So far, I’m not drowning. So far, the progress feels good.
Rebecca K. Reynolds is the editorial director of Oasis Family Media and Sky Turtle Press. She is the author of a text-faithful modern prose rendering of Edmund Spenser’s 1590’s epic poem, The Faerie Queene and of Courage, Dear Heart by Nav Press. Rebecca is a longtime member of the Rabbit Room, and she has spoken at Hutchmoot both in the US and the UK. She taught high school literature for seven years and has written lyrics for Ron Block of Alison Krauss, Union Station.