More Than Money
Issue #34

The Art of Giving

Table of Contents

“Creating the Space to Give”

An Interview with Michelle Passoff

Interviewed by Pamela Gerloff

MTM: When I asked members of More Than Money's email discussion group to share their thoughts about "the art of giving," the conversation quickly turned to a discussion about too much stuff and what to do with it. This led me to wonder about the relationship between clutter and giving. As a professional "declutterer" who takes a philosophical as well as a practical approach to decluttering, do you have thoughts on that?

PASSOFF: The first thing that comes to mind is that when you have nothing in the way, you can be who you really are. When you have nothing left to perfect in your physical environment, you have a chance to reflect on yourself. You are not distracted. This reflection can lead you to be yourself and express yourself in an authentic way-and to me, that's the highest form of giving.

Many profound things happen in the course of cleaning your clutter. For one thing, you build confidence. Often, people don't have confidence because they are scattered and disorganized. When they get their clutter in shape, they have greater self-esteem. They are also able to express themselves more openly to other people, because they're not afraid to show who they are. This self-confidence can enable people to be clearer and bolder about the giving that they do.

On a practical level, your clutter contains a lot of things you don't want but that are useful to others, like clothes that no longer fit or books you won't read again. You can donate those to charities and turn what you don't want into opportunities for others.

For the more valuable items, such as artwork, jewelry, or family heirlooms, it's very helpful to inventory and appraise what you have. You can use that knowledge to make sound choices about where you want your physical belongings to go when you're gone. It makes estate planning clear, it's good for insurance purposes, and it leaves a legacy for others.

Even when you're gone, the clutter is not gone; it's not buried with you. So you want to ask yourself, "What is the legacy I'm leaving?" When you have your own house in order, you free the next generation from the burdens of having to reconcile your life. That is a gift. One of the questions I am asked most often is, "What am I going to do with all this stuff of my mother's?" I've seen people burdened for years because they had to deal with stuff that other generations left for them to handle. They can't tell if that little vase is something from the Ming Dynasty or if someone got it at a flea market. In such cases, the things that are inherited become an emotional and physical burden, not an asset. It's hard to face your own mortality, but you want to leave in a way that is life-giving for others.

MTM: In your book, you told of a client who had gotten rid of his clutter and organized all his papers related to a company he had sold, so that he could pass them along in an orderly way to the new owner. You said that by doing that, he "made room to restructure his finances so that his charitable giving reflected his benevolence." Would you say more about that?

PASSOFF: Clutter acts as a mirror. It allows you to see your situation clearly. That client, in the process of cleaning his clutter, was forced to recognize that his finances were in disarray. Moreover, they were not accurately reflecting his true benevolence and intentions. As he organized his records, he set some new financial priorities. He decided that he no longer wanted to organize his life around earning money, choosing instead to focus on using his resources to make a difference for others. All that happened because he cleaned out his clutter.

Cleaning clutter also frees up creativity, and that's part of what happened for him. Clutter drains you of energy. If you see that your will needs to be rewritten or your estate needs to be restructured, cleaning your clutter can release creative energy, which then becomes available to do those things. As you clean your clutter, you open up space for something new to emerge: some quality or thing that you actually want in your life. If, for example, generosity is an expression of who you really are and want to be, it shows up in the empty space.

MTM: Given all the benefits of clutter-clearing, should everyone clear clutter?

PASSOFF: It's not a "should." There is no judgment here. To be human is to have clutter. We all have a complexity of things that are incomplete, unfinished, or unclear. It's a process, and there is no end to it. I think it's worthwhile to keep bringing yourself up to a new level. You become more buoyant by shedding what's no longer relevant in your life, and being conscious of what you're doing. To me, clutter clearing is a consciousness-raising process.

It is also a continual process of completion. You are taking something to its final conclusion. Completing something in the physical dimension gives you practice that you naturally apply to other levels-the emotional level, for example. It's like exercising in a gym-you just keep on doing it. As you complete each clutter-cleaning task, you begin to complete at other levels. You might return a phone call now, rather than later, for example, or clear up a disagreement you had with a friend right away, instead of waiting. You keep pressing yourself to complete. There is a conscious and an unconscious peacefulness that comes when you have completed something. So, when you complete things, you are giving peace- to yourself first, and then that peace is felt by others.

MTM: You operate from the premise that physical clutter is connected to your spiritual and emotional self.

PASSOFF: Yes. I view clutter as something that blocks you. If you can't get your hands on the emotional or spiritual blocks that it's connected to, you can start clearing clutter at the physical level. You let go of what's irrelevant. As you do that in the physical domain, it impacts other areas.

MTM: I was thinking that if your physical clutter is connected, at least metaphorically, to other levels of yourself- emotional, mental, and spiritual-perhaps you can deliberately engage with it as a kind of biofeedback tool. That is, clutter would indicate areas of your life that you want to improve. As you clean your clutter, you know you are also "cleaning up" some of those other areas. Where clutter remains, you know you have more work to do on the emotional or spiritual level.

PASSOFF: Yes. There seems to be a non-linear relationship between cleaning your clutter and what begins to happen in the rest of your life when you do. You might clear up your paperwork one day and get new calls for business the next. You might empty out a closet of clothes and get a creative idea for the charity work you are doing. Sometimes mysterious things happen when you straighten out entanglements in your physical world. That's why I urge people to approach cleaning clutter with a sense of adventure-you never know what's going to happen.

MTM: Yet you also advise people to be deliberate and specific about the outcome they want to achieve by cleaning their clutter.

PASSOFF: Yes. I ask people to decide what they're making room for when they clean, before they start. It might be making room for a new job, or for something to happen, or even to excel at your tennis game.

MTM: How about clarity about where you want to give your money?

PASSOFF: Yes. Or let's say you want to make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities, or you want children who need homes to find them. You don't know how that might occur or how you're going to express that intention, but you go about cleaning with that in mind. Things will come up as you clean that empower and support your intention. You might find a piece of paper with a telephone number on it, or you may come up with an idea of how to accomplish that goal, or someone may call you out of the blue. What you've shifted within yourself by cleaning your physical environment shows up around that intention.

MTM: Have you or your clients had that experience?

PASSOFF: Oh, yes. For instance, I have a client I have worked with through several major life changes. She is a philanthropic person who raises money to support her community and political interests. As we worked together to clean her clutter we carried around a box marked "Run for Office," which expressed her intention for her clutter clearing. She wanted to run for office, instead of being the power behind the scenes-but she was timid about taking that leap. I am proud to say that she ran for political office for the first time this year. Cleaning her clutter helped transform her fantasy of running for office into a dream come true.

In another case, a client was not shy about saying she was making room for a husband as she cleaned. In the process of clearing her clutter, she decided to take a teaching sabbatical in Australia. Guess where she lives now? In Melbourne with her husband!

The stories go on and on. They are stories about people who replace their clutter with accomplishment. I don't do what I do because I'm interested in being neat and tidy, but because it makes room for focus and fulfillment to show up in the empty space that is created when we clean out clutter.

MTM: Some of the stories you recount make the process sound almost magical.

PASSOFF: It makes you wonder. I think there is a lot to be said for being intentional. You can actually take away the task itself and use your intention alone to get similar results, if your intention is strong and clear enough.

MTM: I have certainly experienced the power of focused intention, but the process you're describing sounds almost like a game.

PASSOFF: Yes, it is a game! It can be playful and fun.

MTM: So we can play the clutter-cleaning game-

PASSOFF: And watch and see what benefits it has. The biggest gift you get out of it is yourself. And then you have the freedom to give yourself. Everything else is the icing on the cake.

In 1991 Michelle Passoff, formerly a journalist, corporate communications editor, and public relations consultant, founded Lighten Up! Free Yourself from Clutter, a service that offers tools for people who want to live free of clutter. Her book of the same name treats cleaning clutter not as a burdensome chore but as a transformational experience. In 2003, Ms. Passoff co-founded, with Andre Kupfermunz, Estate Organization and Resolution Services, Inc. to help clients organize their estates so they can leave a legacy instead of a mess.

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