The Art of Subtraction [or too much is not enough]

The blank pieces of paper stared at me as they sat in a line.  Waiting for me to share some ink.  Waiting for me to give them purpose.

I had nothing. 

The presenter checked in to see if we could move on to the next part of the exercise.  I wasn’t ready to continue.  

Five material possessions.  Write down five material possessions that I cherish.

My brain shifted into overdrive as I mentally walked through my entire house, scanning the thousands of things in my possession.  Tools, books, dinnerware, outdoor equipment, musical instruments, furniture.  

Which of these are my top five?  It’s not that I was overwhelmed from hundreds of cherished items and only needed to choose five.  I really couldn’t think of five treasured items.

Feeling the self-imposed pressure to complete this sections so as not to hold up the rest of the class, I finally wrote down five things.  My house, because it represents a way that I take care of my family.  My trumpet which has not been played in years but represents my parents investment in me as a musician so long ago.  My wedding ring given to me by my best friend.  

I honestly do not remember the other two.  

The exercise is part of the volunteer orientation I host every three months for my organization.  We walk volunteer’s in a scenario of facing their own death to unearth the empathy necessary to volunteer with hospice patients and their families.  During the exercise, all of our slips of paper are taken away from us.  Our material possessions, our hobbies, our loved ones.  

Unequivocally, the first thing volunteers are willing to give up are their material possessions.  Not their hobbies (though these most likely require SOME material possessions) and certainly not their relationships.  The material possessions hold the least amount of value in comparison to other ingredients of life.  

This observation leads to a hard and important question:

Do we clutter our lives with things…stuff that is ultimately unimportant?  

And a related question: Is it too much of a challenge to focus on the important pieces of life because the clutter has required so much physical and mental real estate?

My son and I recently spent a few days with my dad, brother and nephew in Southern California.  To remain semi-active, he and I nightly went to the local indoor mall and walked up and down the main corridor as we passed enticing stores and shops.  We do not shop just to buy a utilitarian item; we shop to buy an ephemeral feeling.  Brands heavily invest in the psychological component of shopping, and a positive feeling is at least half (if not more) of the purchase.  Until the feeling goes away.  Then it’s time to hit the mall again.

After our volunteer exercise, I went home and took a hard look in my closet.  Why do I have all the stuff I have?  No human discipline is as difficult as making a conscious choice to let go.  Fear quickly voices its loud objection.  “What if you will need this later?”  “What if you’ll miss out on something if you don’t have this?”    “What if you decide to pick this activity up again in the future?”  “What if these pants will fit again?”

So we acquire.  We build our kingdoms and look at our storehouses, thinking that someday we may have enough.  That someday I’ll hit the tipping point and be satisfied.  But if the recent studies are true, and America is a nation that suffers from anxiety and depression and a fear of missing out and a lack of contentment, perhaps we’re just running on a treadmill thinking we’ll arrive somewhere…anywhere else but here.  

So if addition does not appear to be the answer we want it to be, what’s the next logical possibility?



Letting go.  

Life subtraction, on the surface, looks similar to mathematical subtraction.  Mathematical subtraction typically reduces your original number.  That is how we initially approach it.  If I let go of things, then my life will hold less worth.  

But in life’s wisdom, subtraction can actually lead to addition.  Let go of something, and you might actually gain something else.  Something better.  Something of true, soul-filled value. 

Less noise provides more silence.  (If you haven’t attempted times of silence in your life, I HIGHLY recommend it.)

Less busyness provides more time for rest.

Less stuff may provide more contentment.  (I’m trying to learn this one…not so good at it yet.)

Less time spent in distraction may provide more time giving attention to those things truly important.  

Less time in “fake” friendships provides more time for real, mutual relationships.  

Letting go always requires faith.  Faith that what I give up is paltry in comparison to what awaits.  Faith that subtraction may actually lead to addition.  

About the author


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.