Another Look: Cleaning Closets

Clutter. Photo by Chris Tolsworthy

Note from CM: This post was written nearly eight years ago, long before we even thought about moving. Well, now we’ve moved, and the birds have come home to roost. So, I thought I’d run it again, for my own motivation as much as anything. We were able to weed out quite a lot of stuff over the past year, but it wasn’t enough. Now I have a new garage that we had hoped to use for, well, a garage. Guess what? It’s filled with piles of stuff to go through and then we’ll have to figure out what to do with it. We’ve set some goals and we’re working on it. But this is going to take a while, folks.

• • •

I came home from a weekend away intent on cleaning out closets.

This urge occasionally strikes, and when it does, I’ve learned to lie down until it goes away.

Ridding home and life of clutter sometimes seems overwhelming, especially now, living in a house and at a time of life when most of it is out of sight. Motivation was easy when I had to look at the mess, and when we were tripping over it all the time.

The nest is now mostly empty, with seasonal lodging for our college students. Only the occasional visit from grandchildren leaves our floors covered with toys. It used to be that way a half dozen times a day. We have plenty of closet space, an attic that is big enough to be a third floor, and basement and garage storage.

And it’s all full.

My wife and I are certainly not hoarders, and though we lean toward the “pack rat” end of the spectrum, we don’t have an extraordinary amount of stuff. However, we have been married for more than three decades, had four children, are sentimental about our family memories, and are admitted book- and music-aholics. Our children live nearby or are in college, so lot of their stuff is still stashed at mom and dad’s.

Plus, we’ve been in school or ministry and traveling ever since we’ve known each other, so we’re always collecting articles, magazines, ministry tools, souvenirs and keepsakes. There are boxes of empty three-ring binders, boxes of stuff from our India trips, boxes filled with items from my desk and files at church, boxes of journals filled with six or seven pages of writing before I lost interest, boxes of old kids clothes, blankets, books, and papers we didn’t want to part with, boxes of stuff we retrieved from boxes of stuff at grandma and grandpa’s home when they cleaned their closets.

I’ve always loved taking pictures, and so we have a gazillion photos, a few photo albums and lots of bulging boxes. We’ve used a personal computer since 1988. What in heaven’s name do you do with all those disks, cords, adapters, manuals, drives, modems, scanners, cds, printers, cameras, and other equipment now collecting dust because they became outdated or replaced by newer stuff? We put it all in boxes and shove it in the back of the closet.

I’m not even sure what’s in all the boxes in the attic and basement. I’m sure I don’t want to know.

In traditional lingo, the metaphor of the “closet” implies that a person is hiding something. “Coming out of the closet” means making a public declaration of something you’ve been trying to avoid revealing. If you have “skeletons” in your closet, you’ve been covering up for a long time.

In the classic devotional story, My Heart Christ’s Home, Robert Munger uses closet imagery to discuss how Christ wants to penetrate every area in our life, even the areas we try to hide from him, in order to cleanse and transform us fully.

One day I found Him waiting for me at the door. An arresting look was in His eye. As I entered, He said to me, “There is a peculiar odor on the house. Something must be dead around here. It’s upstairs. I think it’s in the hall closet.”

As soon as He said this, I know what He was talking about. There was a small closet up there on the hall landing, just a few feet square. In that closet, behind lock and key, I had one or two personal things that I did not want anyone to know about. Certainly, I did not want Christ to see them. I knew they were dead and rotting things left over from the old life. I wanted them so for myself that I was afraid to admit they were there.

That’s a legitimate and, at times, convicting use of the metaphor. But it’s not really what I’m talking about here. We’re not hiding anything in our closets, at least as far as I know. That, in fact, would be self-defeating, since we probably couldn’t find said hidden treasure if we wanted to get our hands on it.

No, our closets and attic and basement and garage and files and drawers are full mostly because I’ve neglected doing anything about them. I’ve ignored them. I’m lazy. Nothing has arrested my attention and compelled me to deal with the situation. This task has moved from the back of my mind to the back burner to somewhere in the outback. So, behind all those closed doors exists a hidden world of neglected remnants from our life.

This doesn’t make a lot of sense, given what I do. I am, after all, a hospice chaplain. I have conversations with patients and families every day about getting their affairs in order. I do bereavement care and hear horror stories of the messes entrusted to those left behind. It hits me regularly — I don’t want to do this to my kids. By the time I get home, the feeling has passed.

My grandparents and parents have set a good example for me. Over the years, they have shown a profound grace in ordering their lives, not only for themselves, but for their children. At times, I’ve thought them a bit OCD, but then I open my closet door and appreciate their ruthless purging.

Furthermore, it always feels so good when an organizing and simplifying task is completed! “It is good,” declared God with each step of bringing order to chaos at creation. Establishing a bit of harmony and symmetry is immensely satisfying. There’s a reason Feng shui has become so popular.

Why then the hesitancy? Why the perpetual procrastination? Why the inability to toe the line, to begin the task?

A long time ago, I read these words and knew that they were right:

Ultimately there is only one impediment [to spiritual growth], and that is laziness. If we overcome laziness, all the other impediments will be overcome. If we do not overcome laziness, none of the others will be hurdled.

• M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled, p. 271

Peck points out that laziness is love’s opposite. For to love is to extend oneself to and for another. Unwillingness to do so is nonlove of the most serious kind. In her fine book of meditations on the deadly sin of acedia, Kathleen Norris reminds us that this word, usually referred to as “sloth,” means literally, “the absence of care”. The person who is ruled by this deadly sin is incapable or undesirous of caring.

When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.

• Acedia & Me, p. 3

One of the classic writers on this deadly state of mind, John Cassian, teaches that acedia:

  • Makes us disgusted with our current surroundings and circumstances,
  • Causes us to disdain others who are close to us,
  • Renders us immobile in the face of the work to be done in our lives,
  • Makes it impossible for us to concentrate and think clearly,
  • Makes us of little or no help to others because we’re always lamenting and complaining,
  • Prompts us to imagine that other places or situations would be far better,
  • Causes us to feel exhausted and wanting to take comfort in food and sleep,
  • Encourages us to take up other (easier) tasks and neglect our true duties,

Open dictionary, insert my picture. In front of an open closet door.

When Elisabeth Elliot went back to the mission field after the death of her husband Jim, she was faced with many confusing circumstances and uncertainties. She took solace and instruction from an old Saxon legend that had been written into a poem. In old English, each stanza of the poem ended with the simple words, “Doe the next thynge.” The verses speak about trusting God, fearing not the future, being prayerful, reliant, reverent, resting in Jesus’ faithfulness. But above all, act on your faith and “doe the next thynge,” and do it immediately, leaving the results to him. In Elliot’s words, she tried to take this counsel to heart, and “take each duty quietly as the will of God for the moment.”

Some people struggle more with trying to do too much for God, running ahead of him, substituting their ideas, plans, strategies, resources, and strength for the Spirit’s enabling energy and the Word’s quickening power. They produce impressive works but are lacking in fruit. They fulfill their agenda. Tasks get accomplished. Sometimes at the expense of people or other, more profoundly important matters.

Some people struggle more with a spirit of lethargy, sloth, acedia. They can’t find the moxie to simply “do the next thing.” They might find other things to do, and may indeed look busy. It’s a cover. They are neglecting the true thing, the important thing, the next thing. The loving thing. The thing that requires them to extend themselves for the good of others. What little they get done is ephemeral. And they remain alone.

In our weakness, we swing from pole to pole. We find it difficult to live in that place where we are “walking in newness of life,” (Romans 6:4), “bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience” (Colossians 1:10-11), devoting ourselves to to God’s purposes and laboring to fulfill them, “striving according to His power, which mightily works within” us (Colossians 1:29).

Simply doing the next thing — in him, his way, by his Spirit, for his glory, for the good of others.

I hear a closet garage calling.

33 thoughts on “Another Look: Cleaning Closets

  1. That’s so interesting, “the solution is fortitude”, because that is exactly what I feel when I finally tackle whatever the task is at hand. I wonder why do I need to be brave to go thru the stack of papers on my desk? And I realize, it’s because this is my devil. It’s the enemy that is keeping me from the peace that God is trying to share with me. The enemy tells me that I’m going to fail, I’ll look like a fool from my confusion, I’ll be told again that I did it all wrong. He tells me, once I complete this task, only harder things will come next. He shames me. The dialogue in my mind is endless and exhausting. This is why I need to be brave. Because I’m fighting the devil himself. And why prayer for courage is needed to keep the enemy at bay.


  2. I have no sympathy for you my friend. From what you detailed in the post it sounds like you have a lot of crap that, God forbid anything happened to you and Gail, your kids would have to throw away. Next time the kids are over ask them what they want. Let them know that you’re clearing house. If they don’t want it and you haven’t looked at it, used it or thought something significant about it in more than a year, (or two, max), it’s trash. No matter how much you pine for the memory of it or think you will use it, if it fits the criteria of ‘I haven’t looked at it in 12 months’ and/or ‘the kids express no interest’ then it is a burden in waiting (for them) and nothing more. Set yourself free. Once you break the ice you will see books, magazines and modems flying in every direction and you will feel very light. You have too much crap! 🙂


  3. Try
    You never know, your relatives may live just down the street.
    We are a multicultural district.


  4. You know, I have relatives somewhere in Australia. My father immigrated to the U.S. from Italy, but some of his cousins went Down Under. But I have no idea where, or even what their names are.


  5. If you NEVER attempt anything, you can’t catch hell for doing it wrong (i.e. making ANY mistake), can you?

    By, can I relate. My personal profile is different from yours, but I learned the same lesson for different reasons, and made it “work” for me through most of my life. It became my default setting, my strategy for getting by. But now as I get older and morality approacheth, the strategy is working less and less, and I’m able to see that it has led me to a place I don’t really want to be, a place where I’m more and more exposed and vulnerable.


  6. If anyone cares to weigh in: why would acedia, a vice that had the Abbott’s full attention in the third and fourth centuries so totally fall off the radar ?? Subsumed as depression? The category of “sin” seen as too harsh, too premedieval ??
    Just wondering..


  7. My wife and I have a twice a year purge, which includes my domain, the garage. A couple of things…. if its broke, toss it. If its sentimental, pass it by my wife since I may find another place for it. If its hardware, hide it from me or I’ll put it in one of my cubby’s.

    I am convinced that when the lights go out clutter reproduces or multiplies in some way. Nevertheless, Lent is a time to purge the garbage we carry around within ourselves. Its that garbage that keeps us angry, or lazy, or depressed, so the purging of that is like a renewal.

    My 2 cents anyway.


  8. Yes, all good..what shows on my phone doesn’t show on the work computer….you don’t think WORK might be THATTHING..????


  9. Well if you’re interested in the intent of the poster – I graduated with a double major in English literature and Philosophy. I’m not sure how bankable this education path was but it did ensure that I have quotes for all occasions. My post was simply a riff on the idea of “Doe the next thynge.”.


  10. Why then the hesitancy? Why the perpetual procrastination? Why the inability to toe the line, to begin the task?

    Because as a Cold War Kid Genius, I was expected to Master Everything Perfectly on the first attempt, with everything nitpicked under an electron microscope for any imperfection whatsoever — “How Could You! You’re Supposed To Be a GENIUS!”

    Lesson learned: If you NEVER attempt anything, you can’t catch hell for doing it wrong (i.e. making ANY mistake), can you?

    To this day it takes a LOT of energy to motivate myself to do anything.

    And my current job doesn’t help, with work orders (all of them due Yesterday At The Latest) pouring in faster than I can work them. It’s like bailing the Titanic with only a teaspoon and no help except “MORE! MORE! MORE! MORE!FASTER! FASTER! FASTER! FASTER!” And every time I approach the finish line, it gets pulled away as fast as I can approach it. “FASTER! FASTER! FASTER! FASTER!”

    So Why Bother?


  11. “….it restrains one from prayer.”
    If I understand correctly, this is why acedia made it to the 8 deadly thoughts. Prayerlessness leading to despair/hopelessness leading to more prayerlessness…..

    All is not lost: (real) baseball in a month


  12. This is certainly a problem I know too. There are a couple of verses towards the very end of Chaucer’s Canterbury tales in the Parson’s tale and sermon (which deals with the 7 deadly sins) – that deal with accidie (or acedia). The sermon is in prose and the modern English translation I have only gives a brief summary of it, but here is the relevant bit:

    “Accidie does all tasks with vexation, slackly and without joy and is encumbered by doing good. It restrains one from prayer. It is the rotten-hearted sin of Sloth. It leads to despair. The remedy is Fortitude.”

    When I read that a couple of years ago the “solution” of fortitude reminded me of the verses throughout the bible where God says “be strong, don’t be afraid”.


  13. There is something very freeing in dealing with our “stuff” the clutter we accumulate. The books, boxes, paper that fills drawers and closets also fills our hearts and minds. I did a thorough cleaning out when our last child left home and determined to be pretty ruthless in my decision making as to what stayed and what went.

    The local Multicultural Association received furniture, and household items. An inner city mission got the good used clothing. I found a place that would take books and bibles no longer used, documents were shredded and much garbage was simply removed. The job took a while but room by room I went. I have to say it was not an easy process as I sat in the middle of a room holding some item that brought back a memory, some good some not. Deliberately putting that item in the remove box though set something free in me and the job got easier as the days went by.

    There is something deeply wrong in our western society as we fill up basements, garages and storage units with our stuff and I do believe it is a spiritual problem. Letting go is a spiritual discipline very appropriate for the season.


  14. What Then?

    by William Butler Yeats

    His chosen comrades thought at school
    He must grow a famous man;
    He thought the same and lived by rule,
    All his twenties crammed with toil;
    ‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘What then?’

    Everything he wrote was read,
    After certain years he won
    Sufficient money for his need,
    Friends that have been friends indeed;
    ‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘ What then?’

    All his happier dreams came true –
    A small old house, wife, daughter, son,
    Grounds where plum and cabbage grew,
    poets and Wits about him drew;
    ‘What then.?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘What then?’

    The work is done,’ grown old he thought,
    ‘According to my boyish plan;
    Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,
    Something to perfection brought’;
    But louder sang that ghost, ‘What then?’


  15. There is a willfullness to acedia, at least mine, that is not there for simple ( mere) depression. Passivity is there, but selectively so. I don’t want to do THAT thing…..but I will meet you at O’neill’s for a pint…


  16. Sounds like an inertia that grows until you become unable to function; either like some forms of clinical depression or becoming so passive and wrapped up in yourself that outside reality “becomes strangely dim”.


  17. For those trying to wrap their heads around “acedia”: I thought this was pretty good from the intro for “The Noonday Devil”:

    The noonday devil is the demon of acedia, the vice also known as sloth. The word sloth , however, can be misleading, for acedia is not laziness; in fact it can manifest as busyness or activism. Rather, acedia is a gloomy combination of weariness, sadness, and a lack of purposefulness. It robs a person of his capacity for joy and leaves him feeling empty, or void of meaning.

    Not exactly inactivity, not exactly sadness, but can include elements of both.
    GLOOMY, and WEARY come closer as would DESPAIRING.


  18. For anyone who is pursuing this theme: I’d be grateful for any leads that others have found helpful in both understanding and walking towards healing. Currently reading the Norris book mentioned, so I’ll cull thru her bibliography. Thanks.
    Sad lol: I see your garage, Chap, and raise you a basement…..
    Thanks for poking a stick in the acedia bear….


  19. I am a bower bird. I have always collected things I liked or which were important to me and my family.
    I collect memories, so much of my life and of my predecessors with whom I associate through the items and manuscripts handed down. Many of these will go to my children and they are happy with that.
    My children’s school items, I am getting them to take these to their homes. They are not mine. They are in their 40’s, take them!!
    I had a man come today and take away a lot of electronic ‘stuff’. That was good. However it just touched on the remaining problems.
    I want to live long enough to complete my craft items and sewing for grandchildren, this hanging onto such items is a further problem. I don’t see it as hoarding but I have hopes for my skills to be shown again in the next few years that I might have.

    My hardest items to dispose of are my husband’s church papers, papers of charity affiliations and business files. They are his, they are not mine.There are boxes of these. Some business papers by law I have to keep for a number of years yet. Perhaps I relate to all these boxes somewhat by association but they are not mine.
    They clutter my life. The removal of them will take a huge chunk out of our life together. He has no recollection of these. things.He doesn’t remember yesterday. It is my reticence which prohibits my culling of what was personal to him. It will further sever the fine thread we can occasionally share. These moments are becoming more brief.
    I fear I will hang onto much of these until he is called to his Maker.

    ‘Do the next thing’ sums up my life at present. I can only love him as I see him on a visit to visit basis. He knew me yesterday. He can’t talk anymore but the smile on his face and the kiss he blew me told me so.
    I feel a lot of my life is in suspense.



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