by rthieme on June 27, 2017


by Richard Thieme


We are continually challenged these days to restructure a sense of who we are in response to rapidly changing conditions and reinvent ourselves. A career change, the end of a time of life, a major life event like marriage or divorce or selling a home and moving — any one of those can trigger the dismantling of a life structure that had become habitual. The event loosens the screws that held the structure together and we see it for what it is — a momentary accommodation to the context that framed it but which had become invisible over time. It’s a rickety structure, too, not as earthquake-proof as we thought.

The process of dismantling a life structure reveals that we build psychological structures too — “cognitive artifacts” — that fit seamlessly the external conditions in which we live. We live inside that doll’s house as if it is and always will be who we are.

A friend responded to our decision to sell our home of thirty years and move to another city by saying, she sure couldn’t do that yet because all of her “stuff” brought up so many memories. My experience is that all stuff is attached to memories and while some are useful and practical, their significance is often related to the intensity of those memories. Dismantling my home and home office meant reevaluating everything in the house. The practical concern asked, Is it still useful? But the emotional concern asked, Is it still supportive of who I am — now? Everything was attached to memories I had knitted into an identity that was suddenly up for grabs. Selling and buying, moving from one city to another, was primarily a psychological event.

All of the seemingly external structures of our lives are “objective correlatives” of psychological events, cognitive artifacts that we create to sustain a self-image, a persona, a life-style, a way of thinking about who we are. The others in our life support that self-image either actively or by not questioning it. The things with which we surround ourselves prop that self-understanding up. When we dismantle, we discover that the components of our identities are modular and fluid like images on a computer screen.

The walls of my home office were decorated with photographs, posters from book-signings and significant speeches, book shelves full of books that were “memory markers” of times of life, people, places, and events that supported a persona I created when I reinvented myself as an author, speaker and internet presence. The objects clustered around me as I worked in that office and helped me think of myself as “that person.” File cabinets contained hundreds of pages of notes and research material and correspondence, records of my life that felt “real.”

Then my daughter said at just the right time, “you can see the future, so why not move here before it arrives?” and we realized she was right. That decision triggered the dismantling process that became an adventure as we sorted the detritus of the past that had settled all around us.

The low hanging fruit was easy to discard, sell, or give away. Then handling the “good stuff” evoked intense memories and the past replayed vividly like a voice-over. But in the end, we didn’t keep much, for an important reason – the dismantling process generated its own momentum, increasing positive energy and feelings of liberation. We reduced 9 rooms of “stuff” to 3. I shredded hundreds of pages as I went through files and realized I’ll never have that client again or speak for that venue again. Each time I discarded more, I felt lighter, more free, as the mass-bound energy of the past dissipated and I rose as in buoyant waters toward air I could breathe deeply, experiencing intimations of who I had quietly become while I was busy fulfilling a different role. That gave me the freedom to choose who to be next, which attributes to jettison and which to keep and recontextualize in a new frame. Adopting a new persona is an act of both discovery and creation, and with the wind at my back, it was exhilarating.

When the truck unloaded at our new place, we realized that we did not miss even the smaller cache of things we had kept. George Carlin was right. A house is a shell for stuff. The psychic reality, what we call “home,” is inside our heads and can become as cluttered as an attic full of junk. Dismantling one means cleaning out the other.

I am rebuilding a sense of who I am now from the inside out. All those artifacts were like an exoskeleton which provided strength but enclosed me in behaviors that became less flexible. It did the job for years but as Updike wrote during a divorce, if temporality were held to be invalidating, then nothing real succeeds. The moral of his stories, he concluded, is that all blessings are mixed.

This dismantling process is a revelation of what stuff does – and does not – mean. When the house is empty, it becomes an empty shell from which meaning has vanished. It is a corpse-like likeness of a body without an animating spirit.

Design ripens over summers of time but when the fruit is ready to fall, it falls fast and leaves the stem at a mere touch. Only bare branches can once again bear fruit. The readiness is all.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Wally Fosnight June 28, 2017 at 10:00 AM

Encountered a somewhat rare disease a year ago that I’m gradually working thruway I’ve been able to accomplish that I wasn’t supposed to be able todo is so rewarding. After reading this post I/we now also realize this life changing event was merely an awakening for us to the reality of where we’ve been and where we’re going.

Thanx again…please keep writing.

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