Let me tell you a story about old t-shirts, and I promise I have a point.
Several weeks ago, I had a spurt of energy and decided to tackle the laundry room. When there’s some article of clothing nobody wants to think about, they stuff it in the laundry room, and have done so for years. So I girded my mental loins, took a decongestant for the dust, and dived in.
I’ve been something of a hoarder in the past, partly because I’m sentimental, partly because anxiety makes it hard to make decisions, and partly because we were so poor for so long, it really was reasonable to hold onto iffy stuff in case we needed it someday, somehow.
But on this day, I was ruthless. I got rid of stained tablecloths; I tossed out bedsheets with sub-par elastic. I said goodbye to stacks of once-adorable onesies that several of my little ones had worn, and had thoroughly, irredeemably worn out. I called people over to give me a definitive answer about whether or not they would ever wear all these overalls and cardigans and leotards, and I filled several bags and marked them “give away.” And I turned up dozens of t-shirts with corporate logos on them, and these I threw away.
Even though there was so much more I could have done with them, I just threw them away! Nobody in my house wants these shirts. We have clothes we like, and don’t need to wear t-shirts advertising an insurance agency that sponsored a long-ago softball team, or commemorating a marathon we didn’t actually run in. We already have plenty of comfy pyjamas, and I already have plenty of rags. There is no chance in hell I will recycle them into some shabby chic rag rug or boho wall hanging. I want them out of my tiny, overstuffed house, and I want to get on with my life.
When you want to get rid of stuff, you have choices, of course. I could put them in a local clothing collection bin, whence they will be collected, shredded, and sold by the pound, and the proceeds will go to an organisation that helps the poor in third world countries by pressuring them into getting sterilised.
I could put them in the back of my car and drive around with them for months until I remember to put them in the one bin three towns away that doesn’t have ethical problems, but by the time I get around to it, my children will have stepped on them so many times, they will be literal garbage. Or I could donate them to a local thrift shop, which, because it’s already so well-stocked, would entail making an appointment with someone, who would sort through everything and accept some but not all of them, and would add them to the already vast assortment of cast-off t-shirts with corporate logos on them, which the poor can buy for a dollar or even take for free.
Or I could throw them away.
Maybe this wouldn’t feel like a radical act to you, but that’s how it felt to me. Americans have been trained to believe that, because our world is drowning in garbage, we should always search for some other solution besides throwing things away, and if we do throw things away, we should at least offer up a pinch of the incense of guilt. But there’s more to the story than that.
As I mentioned, I have been The Poor. There is a river of clothes that slowly winds its way around the world, I have spent most of my life downstream on that river. I have been the person who comes home from grocery shopping with a car full of exhausted children and perishables, only to discover that, before I can unlock my front door, I must wade through a dozen bags of clothing someone has dumped there, apparently under the impression that being poor means having endless time and energy to sort unsolicited goods, endless capacity for disposing of unwanted trash, and a bottomless need for free items of any kind, even clothing for short, fat old men, clothing for boys we did not have at the time, and yes, dozens and dozens of t-shirts printed with corporate logos.
I have been the child who has only cast-offs to wear, and I remember hoping my classmates would somehow believe the souvenir shirt I was wearing was from somewhere I had actually been, even though everybody knew I was the free lunch kid who never went anywhere on vacation.
I have had the job of trying to clothe my family on a budget of a few dollars, and of jiggling a fussing baby while sorting through racks and racks of shirts that may as well be printed to say ‘This Is All You Deserve, Slob’ or ‘You Yourself Are Second-Hand’.
So you can see, these weren’t just t-shirts I was dealing with as I stood in my laundry room. It was a personal problem. But personal problems are real problems. They aren’t less real just because not everybody shares them. Maybe only the very busy mother of a very large family and a small budget can understand what it meant to me to decide that, just this once, I wasn’t going to get entangled in some complicated moral and emotional quandary over a bag of used t-shirts. Just this once, I was just going to throw them away.
I was telling myself that my time, for once, was valuable; that I was entitled to the peace of mind that comes with finishing a project completely, rather than drawing it out endlessly with loose ends that need to be dealt with and tidied up later (never). And I was going to do the poor people of the world a favour, and not insult them with another avalanche of crappy leftovers from someone else’s life.
It felt wonderful. It felt like freedom and justice and dignity. And that is what it was. I’m telling you this in case you, too have, ever found yourself longing to do something simple that will give you so much peace and satisfaction, but you can’t because you’re standing there interiorly fielding a barrage of accusations that you could be doing something so much more. You could be doing more!
I’m here to tell you that not every action has to be optimal. Not every behaviour has to be exquisitely primed to produce the greatest possible freedom from every kind of error. Sometimes — often, even — people’s circumstances vary so widely that it’s actually pretty rare for there to be one clear cut course of action that’s superior to all others. Some things are black and white, but many are not.
And this is especially true if you are someone who lives downstream from the choices of other people. Many of the things that the world at large considers ethical behaviour are actually luxuries. We’re familiar with the idea that out-of-touch elitist celebrities deserve no praise for treating themselves to environmentally ethical goods that most people can’t afford.
But money isn’t the only kind of privilege that allows us to put on a show of rarified ethics. Time is a privilege. Energy is a privilege. Mental and emotional clarity is a privilege. Freedom from certain kinds of childhood baggage is a privilege. These are all things that many people don’t even realise they enjoy, but which make a profound difference in how they live their lives and how they make decisions.
It’s very easy to heap the heaviest burdens on the backs of the weakest. We feel the guilt of the world and we can’t tolerate it, so we pass it along to someone who can’t fight back. Sometimes we do this to ourselves. We accuse ourselves of not doing enough, when really mostly what we are is downstream, and being downstream means you already have to work against the current.
I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders every day, in every way, in every room of your house, t-shirt by t-shirt. You can step away from some burdens. You don’t have to carry them all. Sometimes, you can just throw things away.