It was a cool summer day, too cold to go to the pool, so my younger son and I decided to bite the bullet and clean out his room. And by “clean out his room,” I don’t mean we revved up the Dyson, sprayed some Pledge, and called it a day. I mean we sorted through every drawer and unloaded every shelf and examined every piece of everything that had been shoved into the closet throughout the past year.
It seemed like such a great idea in the moment. After all, the mess wasn’t really that bad. But it didn’t take us long to realize that the little bit of mess that you could see was the result of a whole lot of mess that you couldn’t see behind closed drawers.
Bit by bit, we pulled everything out of everywhere. We sorted. We purged. He tried on. And when we finally had to stop to leave for an appointment, it looked like Old Navy, Dicks Sporting Goods, and Toys R Us had exploded from a confetti cannon. The shrapnel was everywhere.
I sat in the middle of the chaos – the piles to donate and the piles to sell and the piles to relocate and the piles to trash – and nearly cried. (Admittedly, a bit of an overreaction, but it was that kind of day.) “What have we done?” I thought. “This is worse than before we began! I never should have started this project.”
Sometimes, the mess that we can’t see is much bigger than the mess that we can.
And, sometimes, things have to get messier before they can get better.
The disorder was annoying, but I knew that when we finished organizing, my son would more fully enjoy his space and more easily find the things that bring him joy. But to fix the visible mess, we needed to address the problems that weren’t as visible. We had to face the junk and the clutter. We had to look at it and think about it and physically touch each and every piece of it. We had to make decisions and say farewell to some things while saying hello to the unlimited potential of empty space – instead of falling into the temptation of filling it.
And then, in the midst of the damaged posters and the Goodwill donations and the dress shoes that are two sizes too small, I realized something – that I am unpacking the drawers and the shelves and the closets of my own self this summer. I am facing the messes that I’ve shoved to the back where I could not see them. I am looking at them and thinking about them and allowing myself to physically touch them and viscerally feel them. I am pulling all of the questions and all of the pain and all of the lessons and all of the regrets out of the hidden spaces, and I am forcing myself to sit in the middle of those piles and sort them all out. I am trying to elevate the gifts in my life to a special shelf and to purge some of the heartache to make the space for what is new and what is good.
And you probably need to do this, too.
Because we all have a tendency to push the hard, ugly parts of our lives into the furthest corners of our minds and ignore them, and we all have a tendency to pull the easy, more beautiful things into the light. And then post a picture of them on Facebook.
When the piles finally cleared, my son’s room evoked a new and palpable sense of peace. We had trashed some things that no longer mattered, things he did not want to keep nor need to remember. We had discovered buried treasures that my son dearly values, and we had reminisced about their significance and given them the special space in his room that they deserve. And we had found items that he no longer needs stuffed in the back of the closet, things that were stealing his valuable space, things that he will now pass along to benefit someone else.
Our lives are so similar, filled with problems and messes that we don’t want to face, stuffed with regrets that haunt our days and hurts that steal the empty spaces in our souls. There are mistakes that need to be pulled out of the darkness and corrected, and insecurities and negative influences that need to be thrown out with the trash. There are important life lessons and happy memories that are being smothered by pain that no longer serves us but that we refuse to let go. And there is wisdom that can be excavated from experiences that we’d rather forget, gems that we can’t share with others unless we allow ourselves to dig them up.
Stuffing our hurts into the back of the closet may seem easier, but living in the midst of our messes, learning and growing and facing the things we would rather ignore, creates the healthy spaces that our hearts need to heal and to dream and to change the world in positive ways for the people around us. And if I am openly sorting through my piles, I don’t need to worry about what others will discover behind my closed doors. They will have already stepped over my junk just to reach them, and there will be nothing behind them but empty space – space that is ready to be filled by blessings that are yet unknown.
It’s tempting to envy a house that seems pristine, an image that seems cut from a retail ad, or a soul that seems unblemished. It’s easy to assume that an uncluttered room is actually clean. But don’t.
Because you may trigger an avalanche if you open the closet.
Just clean your kid’s room and you’ll see.