Cleaning the closet of doubt

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
June 2nd, 2022
cleaning out clutter

Now that I can see the top of my desk again, it’s good to get back to the keyboard and set down in writing some thoughts about the everyday life of a retired psychologist. In case you’re wondering about the hidden desktop, it had been covered until recently by stuff that I’ve been cleaning out of the small room’s closet. The closet is original with the house so that makes it 73 years old, just one year younger than I am, and I have lived with it for the past 44 years since we first moved in.

It started as a handy place to store books on one high shelf at the back and three more on the right-hand wall. Add a small free-standing book case and you’ve got plenty of room to accommodate the overflow of volumes from the room itself. The closet served me well until one day, it stopped being a closet.

It wasn’t a sudden protest against its closet essence, it didn’t go on strike or, re-thinking its purpose, jam its door so I couldn’t get in. No, this was a silent, gradual, incremental crossing from a useful space to keep things to a tower of stuff in cardboard boxes and vinyl tote bags that blocked the view of everything I put on the shelves in the first place. I should have seen it coming, but I was too busy tossing anything I thought I might someday need onto any surface that didn’t assault the eye and cry out the dreaded word “clutter.”

Even with the unsteady tower of stuff obscuring my view, I might have continued finding cracks and crevices in this swaying mass of material to stash just one more file folder of outdated research articles, a notebook or two from my graduate school days, or that manila envelope filled with black and white photos from my childhood. The closet had long been the cubby of last resort, the resting place for things that were neither obviously junk nor items of striking beauty or everyday usefulness.

The junk was easy to identify and dispose of in the trash or at the town recycle center, and the truly beautiful and useful were put on display or kept within easy reach.

It was that large middle ground of stuff that proved to be most troublesome, the things that you didn’t need right now but just might come in handy at some time in the future. You just couldn’t be sure, so you put them in the closet. It was, I realized oh too late, the Closet of Doubt.

I might have continued stuffing this small space with more doubtfully valuable things, but when the painters came to freshen up our rooms, it was time to put all doubt aside (or at least most of it) and clean the closet. But where to begin? Freud and Jung likened the psyche to an archeological site with successive layers built upon earlier structures, and it occurred to me that something like this might be going on in my closet.

The task before me felt overwhelming, and I knew I needed help, maybe a psycho-archeologist, an Indiana Jung type of guy with a beard, cigar and Stetson hat, to guide me in the excavation and removal of those once useful artifacts that told the story of the person I had become. Specialists like that are hard to find, and when it comes to understanding who I had become, my wife was my expert of choice and the only one I needed.

And so we began by taking heaps of stuff out of the closet and piling them onto the floor and every other surface of the small room. We opened the opaque vinyl bags and

cardboard boxes to expose their secrets. Lecture notes for talks I would never again give were tagged for the dump. Notes for my regular gigs went into an open box where I could see them and retrieve them whenever they were needed. Other folders told the story of my continuing education with workshop materials on anger management, motivational interviewing, leadership development, and a host of other topics that, if I hadn’t learned by now, I never would. It was off to the dump with them too.

Then the unlabeled containers spilled out an assortment of things joined only by their importance at one time or another to me, their owner. My grammar school report cards rested with letters from old friends, some funny, some touching, but none more moving than one describing a friend’s agonizing decision to refuse to fight in Vietnam.

Black and white photos of John F. Kennedy’s funeral cortege nestled in envelopes with my high school graduation pictures while slides from our vacations before children shared space with pictures of our growing family.

Layers of hobby materials told the story of my interests in model ship building and, further down, my deeper attraction to astronomy and the other career path I might have taken. Unfinished manuscripts reminded me what else might have been and tease me still with what might yet happen, but I doubt it. Still, I will keep one copy of each, pruning the closet of duplicates and opening the space I need to see what remains.

When our excavation exposes the hidden bookshelves, it is easy to fill three bags with paperback mysteries, outdated travel guides, and a few psychology textbooks, all destined for the take-and-leave area at the recycle center. My introduction to psychology book stays. It was a love letter from a discipline that became my life. Layers of my own life eventually give way to traces of our children’s experiences – games they played, papers they wrote and, at the very bottom of the pile, our son’s hat decorated with souvenir pins of every state we passed through on a cross country train trip so long ago.

After days of work, we are left with bags of trash earmarked for the dump, boxes of written material and clear plastic bags of photos that can be moved out of the way and sorted later, books and assorted objects bound for the recycling center, and bags of papers for shredding. Valuable documents find space to breathe in the de-cluttered closet and in file cabinets that we have also purged of their useless burdens. We clear the desktop and the floor. The pile of stuff that might come in handy someday is smaller now, but it’s still there in a reduced version of my closet of doubt. Maybe someday I’ll just have a file cabinet of doubt or even a desk drawer of doubt. Maybe…but I doubt it.

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