Mark Radcliffe believes we all have a closet we avoid dealing with in life. And sometimes, it’s an actual closet.
We all have problems we put off dealing with.
Issues that we know need our attention, messes that we know we need to clean up, patterns that we know are unsustainable if not corrected. But we just can’t seem to find the motivation to tackle them.
For me, it was my closet.
It was a sprawling, ugly, chaotic, unorganized, unmanageable disaster area, and a testament to my lack of organization and inability to get rid of things I no longer need.
It’s not that my closet is too small; it’s huge. Much bigger than most New Yorkers are lucky enough to deal with. But this has only exacerbated my bad habits; because I have the extra space, I can avoid actually organizing and cleaning it out for much longer.
But of course, the problem has gradually gotten worse. More shirts were bought, more shoes, more pants, more sweaters, a suit or two. But nothing was ever judiciously thrown out or given to Goodwill. The space just became more and more cramped. And once I ran out of shelving space, I began the habit of someone truly in denial: I began stacking stuff on the floor. Then stacking stacks on top of those stacks. Until finally, I could no longer actually enter my closet. To reach something on the back shelf, six feet away, would require a serious amount of summiting possibly involving belay equipment and crampons. As a result, there are clothes in the back I haven’t worn in over a year.
And every time I opened that door, it taunted me: You know you need to deal with this. What are you, six years old? Grow up and get your house in order.
But I knew it was not a problem that could be fixed in an hour or two.
It was going to require to a sizeable devotion of time, money and brain matter: one part was ripping out the pathetic single shelf system in there and putting in a much more complicated and space-effective series of wall-mounted shelves. The other was the matter of manning up and once and for all parting with the clothes I had spent good money on but no longer used or liked. The latter being the much more emotionally crippling endeavor. It was a full weekend, minimum.
And when you live in New York city, who has a weekend to devote to something like cleaning your closet? There are parks to visit, bands to see, movie premiers to attend, meals to have, friends to join for drinks!
So I limped on, for far too long, and each day as I went into the closet to awkwardly fetch my day’s outfit, I was reminded of my ineptitude. My disorganization. My capacity for denial.
The closet became a reminder of what other matters in my life I was avoiding dealing with. Organizing my 401k’s, doing that last final edit of my novel, re-doing my website, getting a crown replaced.
But the thing with a closet is: you can always just shut the door and ignore it.
Truth be told, I’d been in this situation before. I had a huge closet in my place in Santa Monica that I avoided dealing with for nearly two years. I have a lot of crap, and the closet I inherited was large, but had only one shelf at head height. There was tons of unused space. Finally, after two years, I devoted a weekend, tore out the old stuff, went to Home Depot and brought home a ton of parts and mounts and shelves and slowly installed a completely kickass shelving system replete with 10 levels of shelving from ground to floor, shoe racks for 20 pair of shoes (I know, don’t start), and closet bars for a tsunami of shirts, suits and other hangables.
Then I got a job in New York and had to move out a month later. That’s right, after two years of suffering, I only got to enjoy the fruits of my labor for a month.
And of course I inherited another closet with the exact same problems in New York.
I knew when I moved in what needed to be done. But I avoided dealing with it. It was as if I felt I’d already paid my dues to the Closet Gods and shouldn’t have to pay them twice. Like if I just sat there with my arms folded and refused to budge, a new shelving system would magically appear. As if the universe would say, “You know what, you’re right, you earned this.”
But the universe doesn’t have a karmic closet policy, apparently.
So again, I limped along and tried to close my eyes when fishing a shirt or pair of shoes from my closet each day. And every time, I’d have a reason why I couldn’t deal with this now, “I’ve got too much to do today,” “I haven’t seen a movie in months,“ or “I’ve gotta read my friend’s new book.”
And they were all valid. My closet wasn’t urgent. But it was important. And sooner or later you’ve gotta deal with the important.
So recently, one weekend when I had plans to go cycling and then join friends for a BBQ I went into my closet to get my gear for the day and just plain couldn’t really even find the stuff I needed. I knew my bike lock was in here somewhere, etc, but it was going to take an hour to find it. And then, as I sat there knowing I was going to be late, I realized what needed to be done. I called them up, and canceled. Then I spent the rest of the weekend doing what I’d done before. I moved out all of my clothes (one hour), ripped out all the old shelving (one hour) drove to Home Depot to do my planning and buy all the parts (3 hours), then installed it (2 hours one night, 2 hours the next day), then began the slow, torturous process of deciding what clothes to keep, and what to dispose of, (which required a visit from an ex-girlfriend for consultation) as well as several bottles of wine (4 hours). Then there was just the matter of putting the clothes & gear back in the closet (half an hour).
And instantly, a fog had been lifted. There was purpose to my stride again. I had conquered the demon of inertia, regained a sense of male pride. I now found myself doing other things in half the time. My decision-making was clearer and firmer. My instincts were recharged. It was as if I recalibrated my Chi and was now free of conflict. And I was reminded of two things: One, that when we ignore what we need to do because we “don’t have time,” we actually lose more time. Because we’re trapped in the straightjacket of our own inner conflict and guilt. We can pretend we’re fine with it, but we’re really not. And that makes us less effective out in the world, even when our closet is miles behind us.
The most important lesson is: we’ve all got a closet we’re avoiding dealing with. Something we’re not giving as much attention as it needs. It might be an actual closet. But it’s probably something else. Our finances. Our relationship or marriage. Our health. A friendship in need of repair. Possibly a conversation with a family member we know we need to have. And we can say to ourselves now isn’t a good time all we want. But the longer we put it off, the longer we’re prolonging our own suffering, perpetuating a state of “stuck”-ness.
And the other thing is this: we’re never really done paying our dues. So what if you installed a beautiful closet in your last apartment. You’re going to have to do it again, probably sooner than you think is reasonable. Whether it’s a job search, finding a new romantic partner, getting our financial house in order, getting back in shape to lose the 10 pounds we gained over the winter, we’re never really off the hook. On the road of life, there’s always maintenance to be done. You can turn a blind eye and let the potholes build up, but you’ll always be moving at half-speed.
And the sooner we face that thing we’re avoiding, the sooner we can be empowered by having conquered it.
Photo courtesy of author.