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There are words that strike terror in the hearts of people who are otherwise secure. Consider the father who sits looking at a sizeable box containing his child’s birthday gift, his eyes riveted on what is etched on a side panel: "Some assembly required." Opening the box and dumping the contents onto the middle of the living room floor, he is confronted by what looks to be a hundred oddly shaped pieces, none of them seeming to have anything to do with any of the others. But he is saved. Somewhere in the debris, he spots what appears to be the instructions.  He carefully unfolds them ending with one enormous sheet written in Japanese. Hurray! He calls a Japanese neighbor who has a Ph.D. in engineering from MIT. Together they get the thing assembled just in time — except for three of the pieces that don’t seem to fit anywhere. “Oh well, we’ve done our best, and the thing works.”

 When you are much older than this poor father, most such problems can be instantly solved by a second-grade great-grandchild. But there are other frightening words that come with our senior years. Consider: "Downsizing."

 The time has arrived when the children are long gone and the big old three-bedroom house, complete with attic and basement, has served its precious purpose and must now be left. You are to be located in a one-bedroom apartment complete with a walk-in closet that passes for a second bedroom. Even if you have a magic powder that can shrink anything it touches to half size, there is no way to squeeze a third of your stuff into your new digs. Downsizing is the answer that ominously looms.

 What will you take and what must be left behind? Since in our society, there are businesses for almost everything, a quick look at the internet — it used to be the yellow pages — will produce a dozen companies that guarantee they can fit everything you need into your new home. All they require is your agreement to let them decide what you can take and what must otherwise be jettisoned. First, after taking careful measurements in each room of the home-to-be, they will look at and measure all your stuff, requiring that you answer the following questions as you and they examine everything piece by piece:

  •  Is it necessary?
  • Do we really want it?
  • Are there multiples of this item?
  • Is this utilized regularly?
  • Does it have sentimental value?
  • Does it have significant financial value?
  • Will it fit into the smaller space?
  • Would a family member or friend appreciate and use it?

This is like hospice care for the ebbing lifetime of your precious stuff.

Some things are obviously disposable — like everything in the attic. There is that precious set of golf clubs. And you haven’t played for years and never will again. What about the books still in boxes that remain unpacked from the last move, or the volumes gathering dust in the wall-to-wall shelves somewhere in the house? Among them are books you haven’t looked at for a generation, but are a security blanket just in case someday you might need their precious information.

What about that great old oak dining room table and its three leaves? Might as well find someone who could use it. Don’t bother even looking at the stuff in the basement. You won’t miss anything down there. As a last resort, you could rent one of those storage things. But why? The chances are you will never need any of what you put there. And one day when you haven’t paid the rent for a year, all that debris will be confiscated and auctioned off, perhaps on one of those made-for-TV shows.

There are better solutions. We knew someone who sent out an invitation to all her friends, inviting them not to a house-warming, but to a house-cooling where they could take as a gift an item they might use.

All of the above just has to do with stuff, and stuff may be the easiest thing to downsize. Here are a few things that will  shrink automatically: 

  • A bucket list containing places you have always wanted to go; and your traveling days are over.
  • A list of old friends. That list gets downsized with every obituary.
  • The names of people you don’t think you ever knew but who claim to know you.
  • Believing you will get over whatever physical illness you have recently developed. You won’t!
  • Having to remember the plot of the book you have just read.
  • The belief that you and your generation will solve the world’s most difficult problems. You won’t. Your inventory of stories, not realizing you have told the same ones to the same groups a dozen times.

There are many other things that belong on this list, but my reduced memory can’t call them up.

 So when you see words like some assembly required, just chuckle and say to yourself, “I’ll let somebody else worry about putting together whatever is in this box. Because now I’ve got to worry about downsizing.”

Charles Bayer

Charles Bayer is a somewhat retired theological professor and congregational pastor. 

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