On Paperclips and the Art of Letting Go

I watched a TED Talk about a guy who traded a red paperclip on the Internet for something else, and then traded the something else for a new thing, and on and on and on and on, until he had traded for things far more valuable, like a house. (Yeah, a house.) (A house?!) (Current status: searching for red paperclip in desk drawer.)

After he'd become Internet famous for all this trading, someone asked him if he missed the red paperclip, the original. If he ever regretted trading it.

Let that sink in a minute

I realized I've done this so so so so many times. I've held on to something small, clutching it tight, because I've been afraid that whatever I traded it for wouldn't be as good.

I've let fear keep me comfortable--I've stayed in my little box, making predictable choices and avoiding risk, holding on to my little paperclip.

A job I once had, for example. It was a job that a lot of people with my qualifications wanted. It took me a couple years to get it. And so once I had that position, I clung to it. Even when the stress sent my blood pressure ever upward. Even when coworkers routinely stabbed each other in the back. (I remember hearing two coworkers whisper about another coworker in the hallway outside my office door. They thought they were quiet enough not to be heard, but I question their hearing because I heard almost every word. And it wasn't nice.) The workplace became so toxic, one person suggested we burn some sage in the hallways because surely something was off there. 

I stayed because the job was my paperclip. (Well, health insurance. I mean, let's be honest. That was also a big part of it.) Other people wanted the job, and I had wanted it very badly, and it took me way too long to realize the job itself was not that great, was not worth the costs, was not worth holding on to. 

In 2014, Jesse and I spent two months in China with a suitcase and a backpack each. Everything we had with us, in mostly carry-on-sized luggage. It was shockingly liberating. I remember missing one particular dress at home. And that was it. I felt light, portable, free. When I came home, I wandered through our house and realized just how much junk we had. Closets stuffed with clothes that didn't fit, bookcases full of volumes I hadn't read or didn't even want to, an attic packed with boxes upon boxes of childhood memorabilia we hadn't gone through in years--or ever. I felt the weight of everything we owned pressing down on me. 

Since then, we've been downsizing. We cleared out our garage before H was born. (I'll find pictures for you one day. It was unbelievable how bad it had gotten.) We donated bags and bags of things to Goodwill.

And then another year and change later, we moved from a three-bedroom house with storage to a two-bedroom apartment with none. 

We got rid of more stuff.

And more.

We watched a documentary on minimalism and got rid of more stuff.

Carloads to Goodwill. Bags and bags and bags in the trash. I was counting at one point and then stopped because I couldn't keep up.

It's addictive, I'm finding. This letting go. I don't want to be the person hanging on to the paperclip anymore. Whether that's a job, or a book, or a relationship. If it's not making my life better, it needs to go. I've ended several friendships since H has been born, relationships that had become toxic and abusive. Sometimes a sliver of false guilt will show up over this, and I look at it and say, No, thank you. No. 

This is the area where I've got the most growing to do, though, the relationships part. I am the person who gives second chances and third chances and thirty-seventh chances. I was the only child in my house, so you'd think being alone wouldn't scare me, but it does. Being alone doesn't--I love an evening of silence and solitude. (Correction: Pre-baby, I loved silence and solitude. Note the past tense. Ha! You guys, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've even peed alone in the past two years.) But being alone does scare me. And always has. So letting go of friendships and relationships is particularly difficult for me. But I'm working on it. 

In a funny way, motherhood has made me realize I'm stronger and can endure so much more than I ever thought I could. And it's made my tolerance for pain much, much lower. I'm much more willing now to walk. To throw away. To clear space. To make room for something new.

The new I'm looking for is bright and beautiful and lovely. And if it isn't, then I'll just trade it for something else.

Erin BondComment