Material Simplification, Part 1

I’m midway through a series of posts on simplification in late life. The idea for the series came from twentieth-century theologian Lewis Joseph Sherrill, who proposed that the most important psychological task of late adulthood is simplification, by which he means “distinguishing the more important from the less important, getting rid of the less important or relegating it to the margin; and elevating the more important to the focus of feeling, thought, and action (from The Struggle of the Soul, p. 130).” This post is on material simplification.

How do we deal with the material things we’ve accumulated through the years? According to Sherrill, simplification in this area of life “consists in relegating things further and further out toward the margin of selfhood as age advances.” In other words, how we think of ourselves becomes less and less dependent on what we have. Sherrill imagines the older adult who has come to occupy not a whole house but a single room. Here’s what that adult’s space will be like if he or she has simplified well:

“If the pattern of relegation comes natural to him, the place is not cluttered like a refugee’s cart, with everything he could bring with him. Instead he has been able to give a hard and healthy pruning to the material extensions of the self; and now, even though his things have shrunken to what a single small room can hold, the place seems spacious, not cluttered but, as it were , open and roomy for the aging self still to grow in.”

Many of us older adults will have difficulty pruning our possessions to that point! I’ve lived by myself in my current house for 9 years and have way more stuff than I need. I’m planning to downsize in the next year, and have been going through file cabinets, closets, and bookcases getting rid of things. I get stuck at times. Some things may be of use to me sometime in the future, though probably not. If I pitch them, I worry that I’ll eventually think, “I used to have one of those, why didn’t I keep it?” It’s also hard to get rid of things that I acquired at some point but haven’t used. That’s particularly the case for books I haven’t read. For example, I have Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. I don’t want to read it right now, and there are probably 50 books on my shelves I would read before that one, but I would kind of like to read it someday, so shouldn’t I keep it? This sort of mental clutter interferes with ditching my material clutter.

garbage_can-600x600I’m heartened by a recent conversation with my sister Mary. She and her husband lived in the same house for 32 years, beginning around the time their youngest son was born. They retired a couple years ago, with the intent of downsizing and moving to a Lake Michigan cottage that they have owned for a number of years. They went through three decades worth of accumulated possessions, selling or giving away more than they kept.

Mary indicates that during the process her mind was preoccupied with stuff–what to keep, what to do with the rest. Finally, they put the house on the market and, when it sold quickly, they went through the equivalent of a sprint at the end of a marathon, having just over a month to complete the process of disposing of some things and moving the rest. They relocated to the cottage at the end of June. Mary says that she feels free now, as if a burden has been lifted.

I hope to follow Mary and Jim’s footsteps. The process reminds me of a ship foundering in a storm so that the crew has to toss the cargo overboard in an effort to save themselves and the passengers. I won’t make it to the “shore” of a peaceful old age unless I toss away quite a bit of the cargo I’ve carried with me until this point. One way or another, I’m determined to simplify!

About Bob Ritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to . Michigan to help family, and, in 2023, I started again with a move to Milwaukee to be near my children. I maintain a part-time therapy practice. I can be reached at
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