I was sorting through old boxes yesterday — part of recent decluttering kick — and I came across a folder of beer labels: Tucher, Paulaner, Chimay, Affligem, Kirin, Pete’s Wicked Ale. They’re from a time in my teens when I was discovering the world of beer, a world that seemed so new and exciting to me that I would soak each empty bottle overnight, peel the label off, dry it on a paper towel, and then transfer it to a scrapbook so that I would have a record of my journey. After a year of doing this, I stopped. The collection never became the comprehensive journal that I imagined it might be, but still I felt attached to it, so I saved it. It stayed with me through many apartments, many jobs, many phases of life, in storage, entering my awareness once every five or ten years during a move, accompanying me all the way into my forties.
Yesterday I managed to throw it out. Finally. Here’s why it took so long:
Over the years, whenever I thought about throwing the labels away, I would remember my former self, the person who decided to start the collection. I’d remember his optimism about the future, his faith that these mementos he was saving would be wanted and appreciated indefinitely, that they would stay useful as triggers for recollection. I’d think of that kid who diligently preserved each label as if to assemble a gift for the person he was going to become. I’d imagine how disappointed he would be to learn that his older self would have no use for the gift. I’d imagine how crushed he would be to know that the romantic image of his older self fondly flipping through the collection and experiencing a surge of delightful memories would never, in fact, materialize.
I’d feel so mortified at the thought of letting my younger self down that I’d play a game of sorts, pretending that I still wanted the labels as he would have wanted me to. I’d reason that it wouldn’t hurt me to humor him, to put the labels back in a storage box, put the box in my attic, keep it a while longer.
Something changed yesterday. I tried an experiment. The experiment was to imagine my future self, the person I’ll be in ten or twenty years. What is my attitude toward that older person? Would I want him to faithfully preserve all of things he inherits from me? Would I want him to live in my mess? Would I want him to slavishly attend to all of my unfinished projects? Would I expect him to value everything I value now? Or would I want him to be free to seek fulfillment in his own present, unencumbered by the stuff I’m passing on to him?
I realized that my message to my future self, if there were some way I could convey it to him, would be this: “Go for it, guy. Do what you gotta do. Enjoy the time you have. I hope you’ll remember me. I hope you’ll feel connected to me. But don’t overdo it. I give you full permission to throw away every single thing I acquired, and to stop any project I started if it’s not helping you be whole.”
I’m not sure my teenage self would have formulated the same thought, but I’m sure if I could talk with him for a little while and explain some of the things I’ve learned over the years, he’d be on board with the message too. And he’d be happy that I finally got rid of those beer labels.