I started with papers from the one remaining (totally stuffed) file drawer on the main floor. I had already winnowed paper down from six large file drawers full to this one. That wasn't so bad. "Manageable," I thought. "I'm glad I already got rid of so much paper."
Then I started bringing papers up from the Dreaded Basement including files from seminary classes (I graduated 16 years ago) and all the papers from my mom's estate. It was a lot of paper. I felt overwhelmed. "One thing at a time." I told myself, "Just keep going." It took a few weekends and broke my shredder. It turns out Staples will shred stuff for you- they charge a dollar per pound. Totally worth it.
Some papers did have some emotional charge to them. I wouldn't have thought of that before this tidying but it was true. Some of the emotions were positive, like pride attached to the papers that represented successes in my life. These included papers related to my Masters of Divinity and ordination years ago and Board Certification as a chaplain more recently. These papers represented those achievements but also years and years of work. I realized the diplomas and certificates are enough to represent that work and got rid of the most of the paper.
Surprisingly to me, paper that represented failure was even harder to sort through. Looking through these papers brought back some painful times and a sick feeling in my stomach. Most difficult of these were papers related to a failure in my professional life. Events from that time triggered trauma from my childhood and left me reeling for a long time. It was cathartic to shred those papers but it didn't make it as though that horrible time never happened.
This was also true of the papers related to my son's struggles in school. He is highly intelligent but unlike me he has trouble putting what he knows on paper. He went through years of assessments and interventions that only really resulted in my son feeling badly about himself.
Sorting through them and talking with him I realized the failures were not so much mine or his as those of our educational system. His AP and SAT scores proved he had a good grasp of the material, so why did he do so poorly in school? He nearly didn't graduate because his school failed to assess his knowledge accurately. He was fortunate to have parents who advocated for him but what about all those kids who don't have advocates, or who have challenges above and beyond school? This terrible failure of our school system causes a lot of pain to a lot of people.
What papers fail to show is that my son is a kind, compassionate, thoughtful person. He tries to help others. He is loving and affectionate. He is creative in both visual and musical arts. He composes music on his computer and recently produced and released an album. I pray he finds employers, mentors, partners who see and appreciate him.
Tidying papers related to failures brought up a lot of pain. I had restless nights and stress dreams for a while. Sorting these papers forced me to sort through my feelings and come to terms with those memories. It led me to have healing conversations with my son. In the end I decided that it's good set the past behind you. Getting rid of papers related to failures is one way to symbolize that process. Marie Kondo says only to take what you need going forward, and we don't need reminders of pain.
During this sorting I found a card given to me on my last day at the job where I felt I had failed. The card included a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, "A woman is like a teabag - you don't know how strong she is until you put her in hot water." I cried when I first read that card that day when I felt like such a failure. Coming across it again I felt deep gratitude for the woman who gave it to me. It is a treasure I am keeping.
Eleanor Roosevelt is right. Surviving and learning from failure can shows our strength. My spiritual director during that time asked what was God saying to me. "That he has my back." I forcefully disbelieved that at the time, but in retrospect it was true. Through that failure I found my way to chaplaincy, first in a hospital and now for a hospice. It is a calling that better suits me.
Becoming a chaplain led me to pursue board certification which required me to do three more chaplaincy internships. These forced me to examine my part in that professional failure. During the time I questioned my calling and my faith, but that questioning ultimately affirmed it. In an essay of my theology of chaplaincy I wrote, "Unitarian Universalism affirms that at our worst we are redeemable and at our best we can be redemptive." This informs my work and is part of who I am. Sometimes paper can capture our deepest values and identities.
For me work of tidying was more than getting rid of things. It was about working through what the papers represented. Yes, It's nice that my files are down to bare essentials like legal papers, but the real rewards of this "simple" tidying exercise are much deeper. They include reaping strength from failure and finding healing for myself and for my relationship with my son. I hope he finds healing, too.