Holding On and Letting Go

Today I went to the funeral of a woman who made an impact in my life through her little acts of kindness and big personality. For me and others who knew her, it was a time for letting go, sending her off, or as the pastor said today, “celebrating her homecoming” as she returned to the Lord.

And indeed, letting go seemed to be the theme for me today.

When I returned home from the funeral weary and somber, J. Miguel, who also took the day off from work but stayed home to fix things around the apartment, reminded me that we had to drop off at Goodwill our bags of unwanted items since we both finally had the time to do so. The pile had been sitting in the the corner of our living room hidden behind a Japanese rice paper screen like an embarrassing birth mark. With schedules as exhausting as ours have been, it’s been difficult to find time to drop them off.

So we loaded up his car and drove to the closest Goodwill. It must have put J. Miguel into a contemplative mood, this experience of letting go of items, because he began to tell me how his uncle and father — both who are naturalized Americans like him — tend to hold onto their things so much to the point that they have become pack rats and mild hoarders.

“It’s an old school mentality,” he told me about the mindsets of the men in his family. “Back in the day in Peru, it didn’t matter if you were rich or poor. When the government messes up your country, one of the first things to go is the economy,” he said. 

As a result, he told me, people began to hang onto things they might normally quickly  discard. Slightly worn clothes or shoes that might otherwise have been replaced with new ones before falling completely apart were worn to the bare threads. If someone found a surplus of anything, they would stock up as much as they could because one never knew back then when they’d find supplies again.

Poverty and economic hardship soon followed. Hyper-inflation spiraled out of control during the Alan García administration in the 1980s when J. Miguel was a young child, and as a result, going without eventually became the norm. Everyone was affected, including those who were well off before the economic crisis.

“Families who owned houses started renting out their rooms in order to make more money to buy the essentials, and those who had no rooms to rent out were forced to make sacrifices in other areas.

“As a kid, my grandmother used to throw a big birthday party for me every year. We’d invite all the kids in the neighborhood to come and there would be cake and ice cream and gifts. But then one year my grandma told me we couldn’t have parties anymore. I was a kid back then, and I couldn’t understand why, but it was because supplies were dwindling throughout Peru, and the money normally spent on a birthday party had to be used to buy basic necessitates like eggs, milk, bread and meat. I remember those days,” he told me, “even though I couldn’t understand them back then.

“My uncle and father, they won’t admit it, but that’s where they get it from,” J. Miguel said of their mild issues with hoarding. “They remember those days in Peru and can’t seem to break the habit of letting go of things they don’t need anymore. That’s why you should feel good about giving away our items to Goodwill, baby,” he told me. “It’s a luxury to be able to do that.”

And indeed it is. To have enough to be able to replace things before they fall apart, to be able to “throw out” items one doesn’t want anymore, to have the means to own nice things at all — it’s the American dream, for better or for worse, and it’s not below me to admit that I live a life like that. Not excessively, mind you, but I am guilty of doing all those things and even finding some satisfaction in being able to do them.

But J. Miguel also reminded me is that it’s a luxury to have the mental and psychological health to be able to discard things I don’t need. It’s like his father and uncle have experienced a sort of post-traumatic stress episode — they remember a time when things were so bad that it’s difficult for them to accept that they are no longer living a life that would require them to stockpile items. They are struggling to let go, not only of the belongings they don’t need, but also of their bad memories of the past.

I get it. I really do. And it’s not an easy thing to do whether it means letting go of items or people in your life. Sometimes we want to hold onto things, but in some cases, it really is better for us if we can learn to let go.



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