Recently I was decorating my Christmas tree and I came across a broken ornament. It was a sentimental one, and I hated to part with it, but it was beyond repair. This got me thinking about broken things.
When it comes to broken items, I think many of us follow a similar pattern.
First, we break or otherwise encounter a broken item. Next,we stash it (and any corresponding broken pieces) somewhere “temporarily” until we can get around to fixing it. Third, we forget about it and never fix it.
This is often where I come in when I work with clients. I frequently come across a box of broken items in the garage/attic, a plastic bag of parts in a drawer or the pieces that need repair stashed on a shelf. Deciding what to do with broken things can be difficult for at least three reasons.
- We hate to waste. We hear the refrain, “Waste not, want not” in our heads.
- We think we should be able to fix things. Maybe we had a handy father or other family member who could fix anything. If they could fix things, we ought to be able to do the same, right?
- We are afraid that letting go of items means we will forget the memory with which they are associated. Whether it is mom’s necklace, Grandpa’s toy chair or a commemorative Christmas ornament, belongings can trigger memories that we cherish and don’t want to lose.
At the same time, surrounding ourselves with broken things can have unintended negative consequences.
- Seeing broken things can make us feel bad. We berate ourselves either for procrastinating the repair or for being in adequate because we just don’t know how to do the repair.
- Broken things demand something of us. We struggle to enjoy objects that are broken, even if they are connected to a nice memory.
- Broken things take up space that could be used for things we are currently using and enjoying.
- Broken sentimental items make us feel guilty, as if we are dishonoring the memory by allowing this special piece to sit in a state of disrepair.
- Living with broken things can simply be difficult, such as with a door that won’t close properly, lights that are burned out or windows that are painted shut.
The obvious question becomes, how do we know what to keep and fix versus what we would be better off letting go? I think there are a couple of questions we can ask ourselves when we come across broken things to help us decide the best way to proceed:
1. Is it part of my “physical plant?”
Things like stuck windows, squeaky hinges, dead light bulbs,sticky doors, leaky faucets, chipping paint, broken furniture, torn carpets and the like should either be repaired or replaced. These things will only fall into poorer condition if left unaddressed. Make a list, consider your budget,and put together a plan to set things right. If you are a renter, fix what is within your purview, and talk to your landlord about whatever is not.
2. Do I need this?
Anything that we truly need deserves to be fixed or replaced.Whether it is a coffee pot or a computer, if being productive requires having this item in working order, it is worth the time, money and energy to either get it repaired or get a new one. Remember to be realistic about your ability and knowledge when considering whether to repair or replace it. Just because“someone” can fix it doesn’t meant that you can. In fact, you might make the problem worse if you don’t know what you are doing. Don’t feel guilty about hiring a professional to handle whatever you are not comfortable tackling yourself.Think of it as a wise investment in your future.
3. Do I love this?
Some objects we absolutely adore. They carry great sentimental, emotional or functional value, and we would be very sad not to have them. Objects like these are the ones worth fixing.
In contrast, often we feel obligated to fix broken things that we don’t even actually like. For instance, you inherit a broken chair that doesn’t fit your taste. You feel like you “should” get it fixed, but since you don’t really want to use it, you are not motivated to spend time, money or energy on it. As a result, you avoid dealing with it, and thus allow it to take up space in your life. If you really don’t like a broken item, give yourself permission to let it go.
4. Has this item’s moment passed?
This is a good question for things like children’s toys.Kids break toys all the time, and in the moment, they are devastated. We gather the pieces with a promise of repair largely to bring some peace into the sad moment. However, if we’ve had a broken toy in a plastic bag for 2 years, odds are that the child no longer remembers or cares about it.
5. Is this a financial priority?
There may be some objects that it would be nice to have fixed, but just aren’t a top priority for how we want to spend our money right now. This applies to those things we might describe as, “nice to have fixed,but not really critical.” It is important to remember that holding onto these broken things does have an associated cost, including the square footage they require,the cost of cleaning them and moving them around, the opportunity cost of space lost for more important items, etc. In addition, if you consider your hourly rate, you may realize that fixing this item is not worthwhile.
6. If it is repaired, will I be happy with it?
While a repair may be possible, it may not restore the item to the condition we would like. For instance, a broken vase can be glued back together, but may no longer be watertight, and therefore unable to hold a bouquet of flowers. Or perhaps we are able to mend a garment, but the repair may remain visible, making us no longer want to wear it. If you will look at the fixed item and see it is flawed, as opposed to restored, then it is wiser to simply release it.
7. Do I care about the memory more than the object?
Many times we own things that we don’t want to use, but they have sentimental value, reminding us of people or experiences. In these cases, keeping the broken item is not a way to honor the memory. Instead, take a photo of it, and then write (or record an audio of) the item’s story. For instance, “Here is a photo of Grandma setting her table with her Austrian china. She only brought these dishes out for the holidays,and told us each year about why she selected this to be her wedding pattern.She often commented about how looking at the tiny roses on the edge made her think of her bridal bouquet. I remember eating from these dishes and wondering whom I would marry.”
If after asking these questions, you decide that fixing your broken item is justified, the next step is to make it happen. As with all tasks, this requires identifying the steps that need to be taken, and then scheduling the first step on your calendar. Set yourself a deadline for taking action to avoid letting the repair lapse once again into oblivion.
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One final thought: sometimes, breaks are endings. A beak may actually be a sort of “permission” to finally an item go. If we kept everything we ever acquired, we would literally be unable to move.
Have you struggled to let go of a broken item? Do you have broken items in your space?