40 bags of stuff. · 40 trash bag challenge

40 Bags in 40 Days


If you would like to learn more about the 40 bag challenge for Lent please read this post.

Last night I gave a talk about the 40 bag challenge and simplicity to our home school group.

My talk tonight  isn’t about organizing or time management and this isn’t about money or home schooling or catholic life or family, but it sort of fits a little bit into all of those areas.

Confession time: I am by nature a disorganized disaster. I have my places of super organization, In school my notebooks were amazing neat, so was my locker and music, but my room looked like a bomb went off in it most the time. As an adult this trend continued. At work my code and documentation was obsessively organized but I would misplace my car keys at home, be notorious for procrastination everything and lived in a cavern of mostly done projects, way too many books, aspiration-ally purchased cleaning supplies and more cloths then I could wear in a month. My children added whole new outlets for the chaos.

Over the years I tried every organization system I find of with varying degrees of success ranging from “giving up before I even start because this is way to complicated” (Sidetracked Home Executives)  to “this worked for about a week and then something happened” (Organizing from the Inside Out) to “Oh my goodness you have drowned me emails about how great I am until I want to choke on sappy goodness – I quit” (FlyLady — but that thing about not being able to organize clutter was cool and we will come back to it.) All of these systems are supposed to help, have helped thousands of people and I was able to take something away from all of but being that I am stubborn and such Nothing really clicked until I had Joshua.

While I was in the hospital for Joshua’s birth my in-laws came and stayed at our house. Which was kind of traumatic for me because of the whole people in my house and the oven wasn’t working right and I was having a baby thing. And while they were staying with us my mother in law was super helpful and she did about 30 loads of laundry in 3 days. After I had mostly recovered from that whole “just had a baby thing” she told me in the point-blank way that only she could that I would never be able to keep up with the laundry because we just had too many clothes. “Well duh, I have 4 kids and a new born “ NOPE. She had raised 7 kids and the problem was not the number of people, it was the amount of clothing per person.

I had to admit the only part of the whole laundry thing that was working was the school uniforms. Both the children in the parish school had three bottom and three tops. We did laundry for the uniforms on Wednesday and Saturday and it worked perfectly. Everything else was a mess. So I spent way too much time researching boarding school checklists and comp checklists and thinking about laundry schedules and came up with Clothing checklists for the kids. I went in a winnowed down their clothing to “the list” and got rid of about 2/3s of the clothing I had for the children.

This completely transformed the entire laundry issue. But I still wasn’t quite insightful enough to apply this to anything else. But the reality was I just had way too much stuff. And I am not alone in this Statistically we are a society drowning in stuff.

Some examples :  British research found that the average 10-year-old owns 238 toys but plays with just 12 daily

There are 300,000 items in the average American home and the size of the average American Single family new home has tippled in the past 70 years.

The average American woman owns 30 outfits. In 1930, that figure was nine

Over the course of our lifetime, we will spend a total of 3,680 hours or 153 days searching for misplaced items.The research found we lose up to nine items every day—or 198,743 in a lifetime. Phones, keys, sunglasses, and paperwork top the list

So, here I was in desperate need of something and it took me way to long to realize that what I really really needed was less of everything I had. So back in about 2008 I was reading on Elizabeth Foss’s blog about how she had done a major clean out and posted a picture of an empty box of trash bags and I thought, If I just did one bag a day how much clutter and stuff could I get rid of. So I tried it for 40 days, 8 weeks for five days a week. And it was liberating and all that Simplicity that I wanted so desperately to get into my life started feeling possible. The next year a priest I knew talked to me about doing the 40 bags thing during lent. And we did and that was great. And then life hit like a hammer, and my grandmother’s health started failing. I had a baby and got totally side tracked from what I had been working toward. But then the storm passed as storms as storms always do and I started working toward simplicity once again.

When I talk about Simplicity I don’t really mean in the Simple Living concept which is inherited from the Shaker and Amish traditions of Simple/ plain living. Nor am I advocating that modern “zen” minimalism which is both a design concept and a living concept that advocates working toward an absolute minimum of what is necessary, but a middle ground that is Removed from the goals and values of American consumerism but not toward the extremes of selling everything and homesteading in Upstate Wisconsin in a refurbished school bus on one end or getting rid of everything but 100 possessions on the other. But  a simplicity that is rooted in Christian tradition and is Authentically Catholic. As Pope Francis had put it “Less is more. A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment.”

For me anything that isn’t gradual and sensible is not sustainable. So purging a bag a day – is to much for the long term. But with the 40 bags in 40 days thing it doesn’t have to be. It is a discipline for a brief time, a sacrifice and a giving up of things but since it is just for a short season; there is always the “end” coming up so it is doable.

After I wrote about this it sort of took on a life of its own and I have seen it pop-up all over the place. So you will have to forgive me if you have heard about it before, but here is the basic concept. 40 bags of stuff in 40 days – gone. (or 37 if you stop at Holy Thursday and don’t do any Sundays) The basic thing is to pick a bag (Shopping bag, paper bag, trash bag or Big Black bag) and then fill up one bag a day one day at a time. Then either get rid of it or donate it. I have also counted “equivalents” like a computer system or a box of books or a piece of furniture counting as a bag. Usually the bulkyness or the hassle they add just getting them gone adds to the the sense of having done something worth while that day.

For some reason this really resonates with some people. They totally love it and find it a wonderful process and other just hate to pieces.

I have seen some people declare that they don’t have enough stuff to get rid of even a small bag each day. Which is wonderful — I wish I could be that person. I have seen others who really wanted to it but were so overwhelmed by their own situation that they felt they couldn’t because they were in too deep and needed serious help. I have also seen people decide that this isn’t a good Lenten exercise as they don’t feel it is spiritual enough. (as opposed to giving up soda or TV – I guess, or maybe they would think those weren’t very spiritual either..)

All kidding aside I think that is a perfectly valid thing to say in as far as it may not be what the Holy Spirit calls them to at that moment. But one really can’t claim that getting rid of material possessions is an act devoid of a spiritual dimension. There are multiple Biblical examples of Christ calling those who would follow him to freely give away their possessions or telling them not be concerned with their material needs and there are many, many examples of the Saints doing just that.

The obvious Biblical example is the rich young man.

Mark 10:21-23

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

As Americans we are all wealthy.

Thankfully there is a long Christian tradition for dealing with the fact that we tend to covet and keep more material possessions then are spiritually good for us. Getting rid of 40 bags of stuff over 40 days in Lent may not resonate with you, it may not be what God is calling you to do, and it could be that someone could do it and get nothing from it (which could be said of almost anything one gives up for Lent) but for those who are called to do it and are mindful of the reasons for it the letting go of stuff is a very spiritually enhancing discipline.

First World Problems:

We live in a world warped by consumerism. We have a disposable cup culture where the competition to have the new and latest thing takes our natural and good desires to bless those we love with beauty and sets us off into focusing on things that aren’t lasting. Too often this consumerism replaces the bonds of family, community and even faith. The Holy Father has spoken on this very topic saying: “ Today consumerism determines what is important. Consuming relationships, consuming friendships, consuming religions, consuming, consuming… Whatever the cost or consequences. A consumption which does not favor bonding, a consumption which has little to do with human relationships. “

There is an essential fact that when our life is full of stuff there is less room for God, prayer or family. So letting go of things move from being a good but neutral act to and act of significance.

In the process of forcing ourselves to let go of these extra things we occasionally find that something is hard to let go of, in this moment we are learning where we cling to things not of God, where we fail to trust God and where use possessions to insulate ourselves from the world we are called to engage.

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