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Back when I was a young mother, “The Tightwad Gazette” was a hit among our circle of friends. Most of us were under thirty, in first-time jobs, starting families and households. We loved Amy! We needed this kind of advice, and for people my age (now over fifty) it helped us feel normal as frugal people, and not like paupers when we compared ourselves to the consumer culture spreading through our society like an influenza virus. Amy and her family lived in Maine, like our little group, and many of us shared the same conditions and challenges her family had.
We learned to make our own granola, bake our own bread, darn socks, clean with baking soda and vinegar, establish car pools for work and playgroup, refinish furniture and power-shop garage sales and thrift stores. We used it up and wore it out, made it do or did without. I admit: My mother and grandmother taught me most of this, but it was new to the people who had moved to almost rural Maine in the late sixties and early seventies, looking for a quieter, healthier way of life. Amy helped them find it, as they had left a suburban and urban world that was rapidly evolving into the greedy, status-hungry mess we now see.
Amy and her frugal companions never advocated harming your family by neglecting nutrition, good sanitation or medical care. They advocated giving gifts and helping others. They did not mean “tightwad” as in miser; it was a humourous play on how others characterized them when they saved buttons and zippers from old clothes that they then made into patchwork quilts or diapers. They weren’t hoarders. If you want you can find photos and interviews on video with Amy at her home. It is spare and clean. Her collections of reusable items are well organized.
But times have changed. And this is why I am not a tightwad. We are just poor. I do employ those old ways of keeping body and soul together; I have food in the house at all times because I have a supply of dried foodstuffs in the pantry – beans and lentils, flour and cracked wheat, potatoes, onions, carrots, turnips I bought in quantity, which should last us at least a couple of months. We have firewood, and we installed a woodstove because we could not afford to heat with oil or electricity, which were the existing systems in the house. Our reasoning was that it is cheaper here; seasoned firewood is available from our landlord; and in the worst case, we can scavenge wood, which we can’t do with oil, electricity or propane.
Back when I was a young householder, it was possible to buy or rent a big old house in rural Maine with barns and sheds, acres of land, and maybe a woodlot. A couple of Jotul stoves and a big garden later, you were good to go. This isn’t possible now. The houses are older and losing condition if they weren’t renovated 30 years ago. Woodburning stoves are expensive and old ones are no longer acceptable to insurance companies. For someone without a woodlot, cords of wood in an area where there is high demand can run as much as oil overall.
Many of us have to look at living in smaller houses, and even micro-homes, less than 500 square feet. Ours is less than a thousand, but since we use only four rooms principally, we use about 700 square feet of living space.
This is why I can’t be the classic tightwad, and I’m not sure I am inclined in that direction. We can’t afford the space to store all the bits and bobs to be re-used; we can’t trawl the thrift store and garage sales for items to be stored for later. All my extra fabric, notions, items for resale and out of season coats have to be stored in a dresser and one closet. In a micro-home, there would be even less room, and it makes no sense at all to rent a storage locker for $25-$100 a month to store items that could be purchased new for less. I’ve seen what happens when people with a tiny home start to store those things – the vintage finds for resale (that don’t get sold); the bags and boxes of extra clothing the children outgrew and haven’t yet grown into; the hardware, kitchenware, linen, toys, appliances, and even lumber for the house that is not yet built, and can’t be built until the two acres is cleared of sheds, old trucks in various stages of cannibalism, piles of scrap metal to sell, and firewood to cut and split.
I limit the saving. I don’t stock up unless I am certain I can use it within its lifespan. I am the opposite of a hoarder – I get rid of things when they have not been used. I find this is the only way to live in a small house without getting overwhelmed.
There is still plenty to be learned from Amy and the tightwads of my generation. But I think we are all going to have to look at the reality of downsizing – of consuming less – of turning old things into new things by recycling rather than storing for later. So if you have trash bags full of old detergent bottles for the Scouts to turn into bird feeders, well, just go ahead and take them to the recycling center. It’s time.
I’m a big fan of British television shows. They have a lovely taste of exotic mixed with just enough familiarity. My husband’s family is British; his parents emigrated to Canada from London. I have been sorting through some of his family photos, and so many of them were taken in pubs – everyone holding a pint glass of something foamy and dark. The wedding photos are of large groups of people in elaborate dress, flowers clutched, women with veils, little girls in crinolines, men in dark suits, everyone grinning outside the church.
It’s quite the contrast to my family photos. My rural family gathered at holidays, surrounding tables laden with food. (No alcohol, we’re Baptist.) So a typical group photo is the family looking over their shoulders, or a casual picnic shot of wide-beamed women in skirts and aprons, backs to the camera, ladling beans and potato salad onto paper plates. There are few old wedding photos – we married quietly, in our Sunday dress, no frills, with just family in attendance. My mother’s father was one of a large family who went to automobiles early, so as each boy bought his first car, the family would stand around the Model A and get a snap done. Solemn, dressed in sober dark colours: You would think it was a funeral.
British television reflects that difference in background. I’m quite in love with Kim and Aggie of “How Clean is Your House?” They are a no-nonsense team who motivate people to live in healthier home environments. They are a big contrast to the therapists and organizers we see in the American television shows such as “Hoarders” and “Hoarding: Buried Alive.” Kim and Aggie bring in a team to pack and clean; what isn’t trash goes to storage to be dealt with later. They aren’t afraid to scold, reprimand and warn. It’s rather like having Aunt Vera and Aunt Gwen show up , buckets and mops in hand, ready to do battle.
I expect that they do some screening before taking on their subjects so as not to cause anyone untold grief and trauma if they are pathological hoarders. Most have at least a clutter problem, others are out-and-out hoarders, unable to motivate themselves to get rid of the filthy mess. (Which is what Kim calls it. She also used “flaming” as an adjective. Be warned.) This is the deal: They come in, make all the comments they want, analyze the situation, and then call in their team. The homeowner helps with the clearing, but it is very much about getting the work done. There’s no halt to the process – trash or treasure, it’s got to leave. It can go in the truck to storage, or it goes in the skip. The ladies get right down to the basics, the house is scrubbed down, and the place redecorated with what the owner needs.
While this does not solve the problem of hoarding, at least it gets the mess out of the house. It’s hauled to the council tip, or it’s boxed and put away. The subject can look around and see what they’ve been missing – a safe, clean, comfortable environment. They can again sleep in their bed, cook in their kitchen, and take a bath, all within a couple of days. This gives them the choice – do I maintain this nice home, or do I haul my stuff back in here and live in squalor?
While the American television programmes deal with some people with deep-seated pathologies, Aggie and Kim deal with those who have been overwhelmed by a family death, ill-health, or other changes in circumstances. The cases may look as bad – a bedsitter crammed with boxes, clothing, ornaments and other detritus from a larger house, for example, with no room to sit, lie down or even walk – but the subjects are emotionally in a place to divest of their trash. And there are no kid gloves here – it’s fanciful rubber gloves all round, and a good scrub-down.
“How Clean” focusses on the health and environmental issues – Aggie sends out swabs and petri dishes to a lab, and usually finds that kitchens, baths and even carpets are hosting toxic levels of bacteria and mold. They teach how to clean, declutter and maintain as they go. They give the subject some skills as well as motivation to maintain a clean home.
This is not to say their approach is better than the therapeutic one of “Hoarders” and “Hoarding.” It is for some people, who are heartily sick of the mess they are in, and ready to change. Others will probably backslide as soon as the crew is out the door. (They sometimes follow up in a couple of weeks.) Shopping and hoarding compulsions are hard to beat. They tie into our basic drive to save for the winter. But spending money on bargains is not the same as saving; accumulating is not the same as stocking.
Only occasionally do these television programmes address an underlying motivation – the need to control. When people think their lives are out of control, they may try to control their environment. They may impose their need on those who live with them. That need for control then becomes a need to control other people, to even force them into a little corner and take over their lives. The child who left home for adult life can’t come back; their room is filled with a parent’s possessions. Their abandonment of the parent is retaliated. Or the parent who can’t let go buys an inordinate number of gifts to “please” the absent child, and fills the room with those in anticipation that the child will then come back. The parent or spouse may be trying to construct the perfect home by buying more things in hopes of bringing the family together. They seem to forget how much stuff is in the house already; they may have lost some spatial sensibility. “The perfect home” exists somewhere in their imagination, but the real building would have to be ten times as big as what they now have to accommodate all they own.
Others simply cannot let go of the possessions of a lost love one. They have all of Mom’s things brought in to their home when she dies, with the aim of gradually sorting through everything. But everything reminds them of their unresolved grief, and nothing gets discarded or repurposed. I once walked into a house where Mom’s things were still there after a year; the family was standing at the kitchen table, trying to sort out spice jars. The rooms were filled with furniture and artwork and books; no one could make a decision about anything, not even the now-worthless containers of old food. They were telling themselves that they were afraid to throw out something valuable, but the one thing they valued above all was gone – Mom – and hanging onto dessicated bay leaves was just not going to bring her back.
We all have a tendency to keep things. It may be hardwired human nature. But it is also human nature to walk away from what is disgusting and dirty. It is God-given human nature to keep order. Sometimes this goes wrong, and things are kept that should be thrown away; dirt, mess and decay are ignored in favour of keeping what is damaged. Attempts at order may be undertaken – containers bought, things boxed or bagged and put in closets or drawers – but for the chronic keeper this is a stopgap. Eventually all those spaces get filled. Other spaces get appropriated.
The boxes get stacked in a corner. The books get piled on the floor. New clothes get dropped on top of the accumulated dirty laundry until it is not clear what is worn and what is clean. Eventually the piles of stuff, paper and boxes topple over and the owner gives up.
This is not the world the Lord means us to have. God does not intend us to be buried under manmade possessions, but to live in His Spirit, free of sin and sadness. Every pile of possessions, every crowded room, closet and attic, says to the owner that he or she has failed, that life is out of control, that in trying to grasp at happiness they have instead damaged it. They can’t face the anxiety and pain of parting with what was once valued and treasured, but if they don’t, a greater pain and weight will bear on them.
This is what I mean when I say that hoarding and its accompanying indecision are spiritual diseases. They are endemic in our culture. We are lied to constantly, that we can buy happiness and satisfaction. Walmart is showing an ad on television right now, a family picnic scene. One only needs to go to Walmart, buy some products (cooler, grill, foods, toys) and the whole family will have a perfectly good time. It doesn’t show the family where the parents get drunk on beer from the cooler, the kids sulk on benches with their handheld video games, and the teenagers sneak off to smoke and complain about their lousy family life. All the products at Walmart can’t cure a broken family. A happy family doesn’t need to go buy a carload of products to enjoy each other’s company. It might include some grilled burgers and a water slide, but it doesn’t need to.
I’ve known homesteading hoarders, suburban hoarders, rich hoarders and poor hoarders. The church itself doesn’t seem to help these people much. Gossip and rejection are the opposite of what they need, but that is stock in trade in most communities. Integration, outreach and acceptance are the first steps to helping those who suffer from a broken relationship with the material world. Then we can offer some common-sense, Kim and Aggie-type physical help.
I’ve discussed previously some of the aspects of extreme hoarding, and perhaps why people do it.
Some people begin hoarding from depression; they just stop throwing out what they don’t need, or what is useless, or even what is trash. They stop cleaning, so unwashed clothes and dirty dishes accumulate and new ones are purchased rather than the old ones cleaned. They stop caring about themselves, and have no energy for personal care and household maintenance. They start blocking out all that is too much to comprehend and address, turning inward to amusement in television, the internet or even shopping, in efforts to treat their own depression. Substance abuse and overeating go along with this.
Others are suffering grief – they have lost a spouse, parent or child; they have been fired from a much-loved job or their business went bankrupt. Depression is part of the problem, but the grief causes them to hang on to anything that reminds them of the happier, more successful past. They can’t part with any of the things the loved one owned; they buy or bring in more items that reinforce the sense of the past as a better place. They may turn to collecting pleasing objects such as clothing, jewelry, books, art, or craft supplies and for men, guns or sports equipment. (Men may collect any of the other categories as well, but women seem rarely to gravitate toward sports or hunting in collecting.) I suspect they have a very active fantasy life built around the loss, and they begin to act it out by hoarding, as if the objects will help make the fantasy come true.
Some hoarders are desperate to build a real life out of imagination in much the same way. They have a perfect image of what their life should look like, if they had the objects to make it that way. They do not take into account people they live with, or the impossibility of building the dream castle in their three-bedroom suburban bungalow. When everything is just right, they know they will have the dream home, the dream family, the dream life. These people may not be able to address some disappointment in their lives, that they did not achieve a goal they treasured, or that old goals no longer match reality. Some women begin to hoard when their children move out, trying to fill the emotional gap by filling the physical space.
Hoarding can be related to pathologies – dementias and other organic brain illnesses. We may be seeing some of this in elderly people who can’t seem to sort out the contents of their houses, or accumulate truly useless things such as empty bottles or broken items found on the street. Others may be manifesting symptoms from old brain injuries, or may be forming a brain lesion. Anyone whose hoarding is a change in their personality that can’t be explained by emotional trauma needs to be examined to see if there is a brain injury or illness.
Emotionally based hoarding may be a result of a spiritual emptiness pervasive in our culture. We were hunter-gatherers in our ancestral past, and some of that still clings to us. Some people are hunters, who thrill to the chase. I’m one of those people, both physically and emotionally. I have the muscle structure of a marathoner, a mind that stays on edge while working, and I prefer to seek rather than to find. Some people are gatherers, who enjoy the social aspects of being in the “field” (the shopping mall, for instance) and are more thrilled with the result than the pursuit. But we now have a culture that doesn’t value group effort, or sharing. The rewarding aspects of gathering – spending time with the group, supplying the needs of many, a sense of security in a preserved harvest – are lost while the gratification of accumulation is over-emphasized.
I think I feel very sorry for those who are attempting to build a fantasy life instead of living in real time. Daydreams are useful on several levels: They can give relief from boredom or depressing conditions; they can help define goals. But when the daydream overtakes reality, then severe interpersonal problems develop. The real people with whom we have messy and complicated relationships get pushed out because they don’t match the furnishings, so to speak. The intended goal – the perfect life in the perfect house with the perfect spouse and family – is negated by the hoarding behaviour. It overwhelms them emotionally and physically. The whole “perfect life” concept is a product of advertising, worldliness and the selling of fantasy, whether in a romance novel, on the television or at Disneyland. While the occasional indulgence can be fun and relaxing, a break from routine, too much exposure seems to disorient susceptible people; they can’t tell the difference between fantasy and their own life. They may not be aware of the script playing in their heads, although they may realize that things around them are not at all satisfactory. They can’t settle in and be grateful for their blessings; they are always petitioning for the better blessings.
Every minute spent shopping for more than the necessities of life should be countered with ten minutes of prayer. Every minute spent watching fiction on television should be answered with ten minutes of scripture reading. I say this tongue-in-cheek, of course, but a more balanced spiritual life will insulate us from the depredations of culture.
I don’t know if materialism as I mean it here is a philosophy. If it were, it would simply mean that one believes that things are real – have substance and “thingness,” and don’t possibly disappear when we can’t see them, as poor old Barclay hypothesized. So that’s not what I mean.
What I mean is not just consumerism – which is part of materialism – that drive to buy and consume and accumulate – but a belief that possessions are good, and that one gains “good” from them beyond their functionality. We can’t deny that we use things, or that we need a certain number of things. We are tool-users, and there’s a reason for that. It makes our lives productive and safer. No one is proposing here that we go back to a paleolithic lifestyle, following herds of wild animals, dressed in who knows what, guarding our campfires carefully because we don’t have flint. I’m acknowledging that we need objects more sophisticated than a heavy rock.
The problem as I see it is that we have endued things with personality. Objects are not just objects – tools and conveniences – but have inherency, a status. “Valuable” is a word we attach to objects. It has value beyond utility. Its mere possession makes someone a “better” person, more worthy of admiration and flattery. (I’m going to avoid including ‘status” experiences here, a a somewhat different topic.) A person derives status from the object rather than the other way around.
Advertising creates a false status – this famous person uses this product, therefore his or her status is transferred to it; a consumer of the product can then derive some status from the product, presumably by some osmosis. In a way there is a logic to it. Tiger Woods is an excellent golf player. He chooses to use a certain kind of nine-iron because he knows what a good nine-iron is; if the consumer buys the same nine-iron, he will be using a better tool than the one he is using now. This is logical within its own little closed loop, but doesn’t take into account the facts outside the loop: Tiger Woods is paid to use that nine-iron and perhaps has not considered its full utility. Or the advertising shows him using it, but the one he uses in tournaments is different. Or it is a perfectly good and usable nine-iron, but without the inborn athletic ability and years of practice Mr. Woods has, the buyer will never realize maximum potential from the nine-iron, and may play no better than he did before.
Derived status just doesn’t work, does it?
So carrying a Coach or Gucci handbag, using l’Oreal hair dye and driving a Lexus do not confer status. They might excite envy in someone who is status-conscious, but the products themselves will not gain status for the one buying them. The Gucci bag will not get you the best table at Le Cirque. (If that is still around – I don’t know – although I just googled it and yes it is, with a huge five star boast. For those who don’t know, it is a restaurant in New York, once the hotspot for all the glitterati. A meal there would cost us a week’s wages.)
Status is illusory. I’m going to just make the bold statement – status is a lie. Advertising lies to you.
Some new products will make your life easier. If you hate ironing, the no-wrinkle shirt will please you and relieve the load of guilt you might feel when you don’t iron – but you have to take it out of the dryer while it is still warm, and you can’t hang it on the clothesline and expect that it will be wrinkle-free. It will make you do some work, too, but that might be a good exchange for you. Those all in one mop devices (rhymes with sniffer) with the disposable cloths for sweeping and washing floors might satisfy your cleaning needs, and you are comfortable with throwing out the little expensive nylon reinforced nonwoven nonrecycable sheets. You are probably not going to derive status from them; they are conveniences and you know it. (Yes, at first convenience products can endow status – in my mother’s day it was cake mixes. Forty years ago, you said something about your socio-economic bracket and the amount of social time you indulged if you were “too busy to bake.” Now you can buy cake mixes at the dollar store, and many children have never had a scratch-baked cake.)
Our culture – that of North America and Europe and the other areas of the globe we influence, which is a lot – has gone status mad. A young friend went to New York City for the first time this spring. She’s a girl from the country, but raised with television and fashion magazines. She’s no hayseed, although she isn’t experienced in the world. She had many memorable experiences in the city, and truly enjoyed her trip to all the cultural sites, but one of her most vivid memories is the other women buying rip-off designer handbags on the street from vendors selling goods packed in a shopping cart. These women were going back to small town Canada with bags that said Prada and Gucci, to a place where some of them will have to drive a tractor and sort seed potatoes. Where the heck are they going to derive this status? No one, I hope, is realy fooled that they got an authentic bag from Paris. How does this lie about status improve their lives any?
This may be materialism at its worst. It is the tremendous waste of resources that goes into making status objects, and the continued deception (most of it self-deception) that these objects confer good. It wastes the materials it takes to make the object, the cost of transporting it, the human energy of crafting and selling it, and the brain cells of the purchaser or recipient who should be thinking of more productive things than owing a fake Gucci handbag.
So having laid out my premise and perhaps having defended it, it’s time to get to the core of this argument.
People are more important than objects. Relationships with people matter more than relationships with objects.
We laugh at edgy comedy where money fixation is used as the punchline – the character who pledges his mother’s house on a short sale in the stock market, hoping to flip a stock fast enough and for enough profit to buy a new Lexus. And what if he fails? (Short sales being a gamble.) Mom will have to go live with his sister. (Cymbal crash, we all laugh.)
There’s the plot of the drama I watched last night – a Johnny Depp movie. He’s a young man in the nineteen-sixties who falls into the drug smuggling business. Despite numerous busts, despite jail time, despite getting married and having a child, he keeps going back to the fast lane. He’s got good intentions for this one last deal, but it always falls apart. He goes from the Miami palace and the jet set lifestyle to prison. On the way he alienates his parents, his first love, his friends, his wife and finally his adoring little daughter. While it is a cautionary tale, a tragedy in the classic sense, it would be tempting to a young person who might think they were smarter than old George Jung, the character Depp plays. He’s got the girls, the looks, the clothes, the toys, the drugs and alcohol. It’s party life. Even if he had succeeded, and had escaped the law, where would that life get him eventually? The same alienation, the same poor health, the same lack of self-understanding. And death.
Maybe we aren’t interested in the fast lane. But we can be just as material, just as grubbing, to get the things we want.
The church often wants to marry culture. It’s a mismatch. Jesus told us it would be. Anyone who can read the gospel with an open mind can see that. Although we have to live in this world, we are not of this world.
I believe the only way to defeat this materialism is to live entirely in God, following the way of Christ, which is a way of realtive poverty and a way of self-denial. For some, that may mean the poverty of a dedicated life religious, with no possessions at all except the clothes they wear, and complete celibacy. For others, it may mean asettled family life, just enough shelter and possessions to be reasonably self-supporting, and in the chastity of marriage. There may be minor variations on these themes, but it all comes down to humbling ourselves before God and embodying that humility in our ways of earning money, our appearance, our public discourse. We need to get rid of our mirros – the glass reflecting kind and the advertising we see in print and video. Mirrors begat anxiety; we are unsure of what we offer the world. We start judging ourselves and then we judge others.
Christ lived in holy poverty and with the interdependence of His group of disciples, based on a village-agrarian culture. It is still a good model, even if our “garden” is a farmer’s market. God calls us to humility in Him because we need that humility to live with others. And although I am communciating with you via this electronic medium, it is not nearly as good as if we could live in real-time community. We ar all spending too much time bathed in the glow of plasma screens and not enough time under the sun God provided. Our words are silent on deaf ears. Although we are building productive virtual communities, we need to look to ways to make them face to face and hand to hand.
I feel the world changing. Soon I believe we will be ready to move out into a real community of voices, smells, and the sights of three-dimensional human faces. This virtual community can become a real community. The time is shifting fast. God is working in hearts, minds and through our hands.
As always, I have to start with this caveat: I am not a sentimental person. I don’t save things just for the memories. I think it may be part of my hard-wired personality. I’m kind of obtuse as to why people hang on to old birthday cards and ticket stubs. I was a museum curator for a couple of years, and finding boxes of junk dropped on my doorstep because someone else couldn’t bear to sort them or throw them out was a major stress point. I had to sort through it, decide if there was anything worth keeping, catalogue it, and list what I sent to the trash. Most certainly, someone would come in and ask, “What happened to Mama’s collection of Tropicana juice bottles? Some of those went all the way back to 1977!” This was a museum dedicated to the history of Swedish settlement in northern Maine. Tropicana had nothing to do with it. It didn’t help that one of the directors, now deceased (God grant him rest), was an out-and-out hoarder, who had filled at least two houses and attempted to hide his “collections” in various nooks and crannies of the museum. I would find cardboard boxes and old suitcases full of newspapers, postcards, letters and family photos in the closets and attics, haul them out, and once again explain to him that it was a non-profit organization, not a storage facility. I tossed the collection of phonebooks – none of them old, none of them local – into recycling and he sulked for a month. Now, I understand about ephemera – things saved that were meant to be disposed – because we can learn a lot about past patterns of behaviour and consumption from them, and some have artistic merit, which is usually why they were saved. We had collections of letters in Swedish, early local postcards, even a large collection of visiting cards from a “coming out” in Sweden more than a hundred years before. All of this had merit in our general collections. Stacks of year old newspapers didn’t, and I sure wasn’t going to go through them to clip out the local articles. That was not in my job description.
I think it made me a good curator. I cast a cold eye on objects, and didn’t get carried away with emotion. I don’t see any merit in useless things, in things merely decorative, in things meant to be attached to a sentiment. I don’t want to be given things that have strings – “Remember me!” Would it be all right if I just remember you for your warm friendship, your open heart, your loving smile? I can do that without a suncatcher angel figurine. (Sorry, Hallmark.)
Hoarders often attach sentimental value to valueless objects. No one else can see why they keep what they do, but each item has a story to them. This disorder seems to be about misapplying affection and memory – trying to hold onto a feeling, a person, a lost relationship, a part of the past when they were better, happier, more fulfilled. But holding onto the objects doesn’t help. It causes unbearable stress and often hardship. Hoarding is associated with depression, but it is hard to say if the depression caused the hoarding or the hoarding and its stresses caused the depression. Dealing with the horrendous clutter means coming out of the shell of that depression for some, or facing a traumatic time from the past with which they have not yet recovered.
I understand the need to hold onto things, at least for a while. I kept some of my late husband’s clothes for about a year. I had some strange idea that he might not be really dead, that he might come back. This is a common thought in the recently bereaved, that there was a mistake and the loved one will return. This was unreasonable in the face of the evidence – I had seen him after his death, I had death certificates, there had been a funeral and all of that. But it was necessary to my grieving that I didn’t let go too soon. It was a sudden, unexpected illness and death, and was a terrible shock to me. I needed to cling for a while. When I was ready to move to the next stage of my life, the old clothes could go. Some other objects were harder to get rid of; some sort of stayed on too long, but the day came when I could throw them out with no regret. I could finally commit him entirely to the care of God.
Is it wrong to hold on to old things we don’t need? I think that is the big question for people who are trying to simplify. On one side of the question, no, if they are not causing harm, stress, or undue cost. I would not like to see someone keeping a big house they can’t afford anymore because it is full of sentimental objects. I have seen people completely devastated emotionally because a fire took all of Mama’s handmade quilts, and Mama isn’t around to make any more. It was sad, I was sorry that they had a major loss, but all the quilts she might have sewn can’t replace Mama. Their memories were intact, and who they are because of their mother’s influence and love was still there. The family itself was a tribute to their Mama, not the quilts. I’m afraid they had gotten to the point where they almost worshipped their late mother, kept her house as a shrine and venerated her handiwork as gifts of the divine. God does not tolerate the worship of other gods. Losing the shrine may have saved their souls.
God means us to focus our attention on Him. When we become too attached to the things of this world, we lose that focus. We focus on ourselves and our own fulfillment. We build cheap little kingdoms out of dust instead of living in His Kingdom. While we can’t live as birds and foxes, in nests and holes in the ground, we are called by God and the example of Jesus Christ to live lightly on this earth. And that simply means that we live simply.
I love an empty house. It’s probably an aesthetic thing for me, but it also means that it is clean and free of attachment. An empty house can be filled with people. They may have to sit on the floor or bring their own chairs, but that doesn’t bother good friends who want to be together. One of the saddest things about modern life is to hear people say they want a big house for entertaining, but then they never have friends over because the house is too cluttered or too hard to clean up. The house is cluttered, their schedules are cluttered, their minds ar cluttered with concern and worry. There’s no room to relax.
It’s reflected in those “let’s go RVing” ads on television or in magazines. The family, in their own home, is isolated from each other by the phone, the internet, the television or their work. They have homes with dining rooms, family rooms, living rooms, and each person is alone: They are not eating together, sitting together or living together. So Dad fires up the motor home and they head out to the campground in the mountains.
Just as the compulsive hoarder builds literal walls of things to keep out instrusion into their private world of pain, so we all acquire objects and attachements to build worlds of status, indulgence and sentiment. We shut out even those whose love we need. In our human brokenness, we move to isolation rather than hospitality.
When Jesus died on the cross, he was stripped near-naked. All He had was taken away, and that was just His clothes. It was a sorry little haul for the Roman soldiers – seizure of property was one of the bonuses of being a soldier. The one thing He might have been left for His burial, His fine cloak, was gambled away. He was buried in a donated winding sheet. And yet He was king of all; all that was created, was made through Him.
In light of that, my own few possessions seem paltry. There is no glory in them, only in Him who has placed them into my hands for the time being so that I may use them to His glory. God keep that prayer in my heart!
With all the reading and research I’ve done lately on hoarding, I think I can make a statement about what causes this condition. It’s sufferers have a fractured ontology.
They have lost or perhaps never developed a sense of how they belong in the universe. They have lost their footing, spiritually and socially. Perhaps they are trying to build a new world for themselves.
Not all can admit to or even find a good reason why they gather in what they do not need. Some aspect of relating has been damaged; why perhaps is less important than how to cope with the damage. Hoarders need to learn to rebuild human relationships. They have transferred the emotions of love and trust and support to objects, denying or bypassing the real relationships of spouse, children, family, friends.
Sometimes they see themselves as rescuers, bringing home objects and animals no one else values. They have a special understanding of the needs of the animal, the rejected item, a sense no one else has of its worth. The tragic part is that the object and the animal usually suffer from this “rescuing,” warehoused, forgotten, even damaged. The objective is not meant. The ontology of being a hero is inadequate. “I will refinish this table, repair this lamp, clean this pie plate, and it will be valuable again. I might even sell it.” But it doesn’t happen. Worse are the hoarded animals, whose rescuers are unable to meet even basic needs, such as food and water and shelter. These people are despised by communities; no one wants them to move next door. I’ve known one that kept a house way out on a dirt road, far from her own home, and warehoused kittens and stray dogs there, until local landowners noticed something wrong. The house, no longer habitable, had many dogs and cats, alive and dead. She stopped by on occasion to give them food and water, but there was no heat, and no ventilation. The town in which she lived became so uncomfortable for her that she chose to move, next door to my sheep pasture. Within days, there was a large Rottweiler mix looking through my fence. I promptly called the town office, and the dog was removed. She couldn’t stop, and the law had to keep a constant watch on her. She thought it was her right and her duty to rescue animals; but she couldn’t connect with the fact that she could not care for them.
Her vision of herself in the universe just didn’t work. She was a quiet, morose woman, not an inhuman monster. She didn’t know any better, as my mother would say. In her mind, the state was wrong, she was right. They didn’t understand. Certainly, she never meant harm to an animal, but she couldn’t help it. Financially, physically, perhaps emotionally, she was not capable of providing a good home.
Hoarders live in a world that excludes others and the pain they can cause. It is a world that is safe, but only to them, and sometimes it is not even physically safe. They risk illness and injury from precarious collections, rodents, mold. The way they see themselves is not in touch with what is happening around them. They may desperately try to change that, by bringing more into their lives, but it always fails.
I call this a spiritual disease because it causes such brokenness. It is culturally based, I believe. The natural need for security becomes broken, over-emphasized, or dominant to a degree that overwhelms the person’s spirit. Their focus becomes merely earthly, concerned with what they have now, concerned with their own safety and security. They are immobilized, unable to protect others, or provide for the needs of those they love. They may continue to go to work, buy food, pay (some) bills, but what is needed most – a strong, loving connection – is made with objects and not the loved one.
Compulsive shopping is sometimes an aspect of hoarding. Beyond the basic needs and the reasonable wants and little luxuries, hoarders accumulate. They often love the shopping experience. They love the hunt, the find, the bargain, or the positive sense of importance they feel when they buy luxury or high-end items such as clothes and shoes, or books and art. They reward themselves with a purchase when they feel they deserve a treat. Where I might have a glass of wine or a chocolate bar, they will buy a $200 sweater. There may be an addiction phase to this kind of hoarding, with the rush and high of purchasing and owning more important than the good sense of saving one’s money or paying the bills. (I have yet to meet a kleptomaniac hoarder, who steals the objects of desire. They may exist, but they may get caught before it becomes too ingrained. Kleptomania may have more to do with power, control and defiance than with ownership and accumulation. Then again, they probably aren’t going to admit what they do in my presence.)
Do hoarders yearn for simplicity? Do they see the damage being done to their spirit and psyche? Only occasionally. Most of them can’t imagine living without possessions surrounding them, even when they wish to have some order and reason in their lives as they grapple with the illness. Is this a growing epidemic in culture? I have the uneasy feeling that it might be; that it is the obvious and grotesque disease that simplicity tries to address.
For those who are new to the blog, or who have never read the homepage or looked through the archives, you must be aware of one thing before you go on:
I am a priest.
A priest has specific roles in her vocation. We preach, teach, celebrate the sacraments, heal the sick and we prophesy. We sometimes chastise and we sometimes correct.
If we haven’t dealt with our personal demons before we get to ordination, they can burn us out.
I have had a few negative comments that I am critical and harsh, and I maybe pick on people who need help instead of admitting my own faults.
Some of my faults are no one’s business but mine and God’s. This is not a confessional forum. Other faults, well, I admit to them quite freely. I am vain and over-organized, for two. I am austere to the point of minor pain. I have a quick temper and a quick, eloquent tongue.
Sometimes we jump to negate someone’s prophetic voice because it hits close to home. My hoarding posts seem to be the centre of that activity. Obviously, hoarding is a major problem, just as waste of resources is a major problem. Some of you have been helped by what you have seen here, others have written me privately and I have helped them. Others take a “helpful” tone that is not helpful and may disguise their own concern about their problems. Well, okay, we all do that sometimes.
But if you need help just say so! I will not publish your comment if it is too personal or painful. I will direct you to the help you can get. I will not criticize you directly. I may criticize behaviours, but not the person. In my last hoarding post about paper hoarding I may have sounded critical, but I opened up about a failed relationship and why it failed. I may have had some culpability but even my very conservative bishop agreed that I was not at fault, and would not bear the blame. Sometimes people are blameless and get hurt.
Compulsive hoarding is a very serious disorder. It ruins lives. It ruins marriages. It ruins families. It can be a killer, either because of the depression leading to suicidal behaviour, or by actual exposure to illness and injury. It needs to be recognized as the hazard to well-being that it is. I am speaking out to help heal, not to tear down. I failed with one very important person in my past. He would not accept the help offered, and it was like living with an addict. No one is expected to surrender their emotional well-being to the slavery of an addict’s habit. You don’t have to live with that.
Am I making up for my failure? In a way. But I don’t want other people to continue to suffer. The first step forward in finding a cure for an illness is getting a diagnosis. We don’t always like what the doctor has to say, but if I’ve got cancer, I want to know. I don’t want to hear, “It may be nothing.” I’ve had cancer twice, and early intervention saved my life.
Hello, out there. If you need help, say so.
And pray for me, a sinner.
Priests and ministers, academics in general, are notorious paper hoarders. Books, theses, correspondence, magazines and journals. They accumulate like snow in a blizzard.
I lived with a paper hoarder. It was a nightmare for me. The furniture and kitchen countertops were inundated. One room filled up with all of the above; even grocery and restaurant receipts were saved. I would valiantly try to wade through and file, throw out, and archive. It was a full-time job. There were too many “Why?” moments, when I didn’t know why something had been saved. Had the letter been answered, the bank account balanced, the student papers graded and recorded? Was there something important in all the junk mail envelopes? Were the receipts for a reimbursement?
I wouldn’t get answers, because decisions about keeping the paper had not been made. I finally bought some large storage tubs, sorted things by year, and dumped it all in the basement. But that didn’t end the accumulation. The only way I got out from under the mountain of woodpulp was to end the relationship – which was in bad shape for other reasons as well.
I thought the whole situation was insane. It was certainly unreasonable, and it was not conducive for sustaining a long term relationship. I called it “messy.” It wasn’t until recently that I began to recognize it as hoarding.
The non-hoarder always lives with the hoarder. It is never a matter of mutual space, or the non-hoarder having any space of his or her own. The hoarder takes over, a camel in the tent, but by bit. (I would shout, really shout, “Don’t put that there! Take it away! Throw it out!” I would shake when I came home from seminary and found the dining room and kitchen tables covered with paper and books. It was that frightening and overwhelming.)
The worst part is that hoarding paper seems to have a cachet to it – as if the hoarder is saying, “Look how intellectual I am! I have books, I have every paper I’ve ever written, I get journals in the mail.” It is also tied, as is a lot of hoarding, to the inability to make decisions. There is a fear of punishment if the appropriate receipt or notebook or copy of correspondence can’t be found. Of course, it can’t be found, because it was never properly stored; the decision wasn’t made to keep or toss. The only decision made was to stockpile, drop it on the stack with others,until a decision is made. But that is a decision in itself.
I think the worst form of this is when the paper accumulator becomes so immersed in collecting that thievery takes place. There was a book written a few years ago called A Gentle Passion: Bibilophiles, Bibliomanes and the Eternal Passion for the Book by Nicholas A. Basbanes. While it explained the book passion, and had vignettes of famous collectors, it has special note of those who stole the books and manuscripts they wanted for their collections. Book theft is a common problem in libraries. I have often gone to a librarian to report a book permanently missing from the stacks. I was once charged for books that I had borrowed, and had been stolen from me. I even knew who had them. Of course, that got nowhere with the librarian, who was heartily sick of his books disappearing into private collections.
I have known many people who could not recycle a newspaper or magazine. They let them pile up. “There’s a good recipe in there,” they say when you go to discard. “So cut it out,” I say. (Although this doesn’t always work. I had a housekeeping job once for a woman who had kitchen drawers stuffed with clipped recipes. Not one or two, but four drawers, more recipes than you could use in a lifetime. She also had steamer trunks full of gift wrap saved from many Christmases and birthdays, slowly turning yellow and dusty.)
“I’m going to read that someday,” the hoarder says of all the newspapers, books, and magazines. “That’s got a project in it I’m going to try next year.” Maybe that’s true; but when the “next year” project magazines start to take over the basement, back bedroom or stairs, then it is time to assess – is this becoming hoarding?
Hoarders live with a constant anxiety, that they won’t have what they need to survive. They can’t really define what that is – they are just aftaid of it. They are afraid of authorities chastising them for being unprepared, for being ignorant, for failing. They want to be in control of their lives and their space. Unfortunately, that means taking over the lives and space of other people, forcing them out.
There is the physical danger of hoarding, that rodents, insects and mold will infest the collection, or that the accumulation will catch fire, or the hoarder will get trapped or injured. But there is the emotional danger of hoarding,that relationships will get damaged beyond repair when the attachment to things becomes greater than the attachment to people.
Giving up our love of the worldly is always hard. When that love of worldiness manifests as an inordinate love of what will decay, what moth and rust will destroy, there is serious danger of spiritual harm that will only be cured through prayer and intervention.
All right,that is an oxymoron. Either one chooses to hoard, or one chooses not to hoard.
So why do we end up with so much stuff? I know I write about this a lot. It is certainly on my mind.
There are different reasons why we accumulate. Some of it is the ants putting away for the winter. In the temperate and boreal zones, one has to if one is going to survive the winter. Food doesn’t grow year round. And that might be the root of all hoarding. Save for the winter, set aside for the lean times.
But our saving goes well beyond that point. Even as we know as Christians that we must trust the Lord to provide as long as he chooses to keep us here on this earth, we don’t quite believe it. Even if we see the miracles of abundance, and the loving kindness of God, we don’t think it will always work for us. (And we do know about famine; still, a few cases of tomato soup out in the garage will not stave off a deep period of starvation. Individually, you simply cannot plan that far ahead.)
Years ago, I knew a couple who were on the leading edge of the survivalist movement. Their cellar was full of canning jars of food, beans, rice, dried vegetables. They had flour and powdered milk. They had batteries and lamp oil. They had hardware and lumber and ammunition. They also had a volatile marriage that eventually went to pieces. I helped their daughter clean out the house.
The food was unusable. Most of it had rotted because of improper storage. The batteries were leaking and dead. The lumber was warped; the hardware rusty. It is simply impossible to set aside everything you might need two or three years down the road. Besides, if the Big One happens, some mean dudes with bigger guns are going to come and take everything away from you. Maybe they’ll let you live, and you will be digging up bugs and roots in the forest anyway.
We cannot plan for every contingency.
But even if one is not a survivalist, we still end up with food and goods we cannot use before they go bad or are useless. Food rots in the refrigerator or goes moldy in the cupboard. We didn’t pay attention; we failed to think ahead a little bit. We shopped impulsively and then realized that we simply don’t want to prepare artichokes.
Or we never get the old things out as new things come in; the old stuff gets pushed to the back and forgotten. This is as true of newspapers, magazines and books as it is of food. We don’t cull as we go, and we end up with more than we can use or store. Remember, it’s always cheaper to throw stuff away than buy storage for it, and if you are buying or renting extra storage space, then you really must examine your priorities.
Collecting is a big hoarding category. Shoes, handbags, artwork, fishing rods, rare books, dishes – well, the list is endless. Some people seem to need to buy everything they see in a certain category. “Hey, look! This t-shirt has a basset hound on it! It has to go in my collection!” Why? I once ended up with nine teapots, purchased by myself or given to me as gifts. (“Let’s get her a teapot! You know she collects them!”) I didn’t mean to collect teapots, they just wandered into the house and stayed, like kittens. Maybe at first I had some misguided idea that I need extra teapots, for the different tea parties I was going to give. I haven’t given a tea party in about twenty years. People come by and drink tea, but not at specific times appointed.
Canadian women are famous for collecting teacups. They end up with cupboards and cabinets full of ornamental teacups they never use. And then the cups get passed on to daughters and granddaughters, who have their own teacups. Eventually, floors collapse under the weight of cups and saucers.
Then we can’t get rid of them. Every little thing in the house has sentimental value, and if we throw it away, we are throwing away good memories. But memories belong in your head, not taking up shelf space, using up resources, and hanging around your neck for the rest of your life like albatrosses.
I got into a discussion lately about stuffed animals, and how many children accumulate. Honestly, how many stuffies does your child need? One? Two? The bedtime toy and the companion toy, if it is not the same thing. They don’t need closets and cupboards full.They don’t need their own storage space in the basement or attic. Get rid of them already! Someone pointed out that clean stuffed toys are in demand at nursing homes, to comfort patients and provide little gifts on occasions. While a pediatric unit in the hospital won’t want used toys unless they can be sanitized, a geriatric or rehabilitation unit might. Call and find out. Maybe you have something else they can use, as well. (Teacups?)
Spring clean. It’s time. For my Australian and New Zealand readers, it’s fall housecleaning. Get rid of stuff. Wipe down every shelf, every drawer, vacuum every square inch or centimeter of floor. Know what you own; don’t let it own you.
I suppose we all want to save things – we are even encouraged to do so. Organizing systems, closet inserts, storage units – even scrapbooking and archival memento boxes are all about saving. We want to hang onto the past in some way.
I’ve said before that I am notoriously unsentimental. I don’t save things. Saving things that have no purpose makes no sense to me. I have memories in my head, not in a box in the closet. Let’s face it – those scrapbooks and old photo albums will mean nothing if we develop Alzheimer’s syndrome. There will be nothing to connect the artifacts and photographs to.
Saving things for memories is editing the past. Instead of those messy memories and bad feelings you might still have about incidents, family, or places, you can edit them down to just the good parts by judiciously saving only certain items. You can create a sanitized past in your memory books and albums. You can keep only the good times.
I don’t mean that is what always happens. But the temptation to clean up your ugly past (we all have some ugliness back there) is too great for many people. I, who don’t keep many mementos, must actually try to forget things. I can’t just make a book of the pretty times and go over that until the story is rewritten in my head.
I don’t talk about the past much, unless it is with close friends or my spouse. God forgave me my sins and errors a long time ago, and will continue to do so as needed, provided I can ask Him. And that’s up to me. God forgets as He forgives. The Book of Life is full of Life – not sin and error and the death of the soul. The Christian who dies in grace, forgiven of sin, will find that the Book of Life is the Book of Love – God’s love for us.
The past is not important. The present is. This is the house we live in – today. Hoarders and savers are trying to keep up appearances, at least in their own minds. They want to be successful, want to be secure, want to be in control – and doesn’t Jesus tell us not to worry about those things, that our treasure is truly in heaven, not on earth?
And the future is just a fantasy. There is no future. Things will happen, yes, but they will barely be in our control. What we want is rarely what we get. God gives us, when we ask, what is right for us. Rooms full of goods, no matter how much they cost, ever compares to the treasure of the Lord.
Keep your things in perspective – the Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed is the name of the Lord.