We watched a program last night called “Hoarders.” It is about the intervention offered people with – what to call it? – possession disorders? Ownership obsessions? Of course, it was pretty awful for these poor people. They have completely ruined their lives, their relationships, and their finances by hoarding. Some buy things they don’t need and stash them in their houses and apartments. Others drag home trash finds, ostensibly to fix up and resell or use. Some just keep everything, mostly food container trash, that is normally thrown away. The rooms in their dwellings become filled to overflowing, and they have to navigate by narrow pathways through boxes and piles. Of course it’s unsanitary. Of course it’s ugly. Of course it’s even dangerous. But they keep doing it unless they get help. Many refuse the intervention and therapy; they don’t want to get well.
Maybe it is because I had a sheltered childhood or because I grew up in a poor community, but I don’t remember any hoarders from my young years. There would be a hushed word among the adults sometimes about someone having to go to the nursing home because they weren’t able to care for themselves, that they hadn’t cleaned or taken out trash, but it was attributed, I think, to old age and infirmity.
I realize that I have known many hoarders in recent years. Some were extreme – piles of moldering clothes and furniture, broken appliances, derelict cars full of junk and garbage. Some were more subtle – packed closets and spare rooms, tables covered with packaged food, stationery, hardware, but always an excuse as to why it was there and how long it would stay. I mean situations beyond the stack of books, the newspapers on the way to recycling, or the art supplies on the work table. That’s just a sign of a busy life. This goes beyond the string-saving habits of our depression-era grandparents – how many of us have found their kitchen drawers full of bread bags and aluminum foil, good enough to re-use? That’s just moderate hoarding. I think there has been a huge surge in major, out-of-control hoarding, just as there has been an upswing in compulsive shopping.
This is more than a displacement disorder, a psychological aberration. It is, I believe, an indication of a pervasive spiritual illness in our culture. Owning is emphasized; status is more important than relationship. We are what we have. Instead of seeking friendships and stable family situations, we are encouraged to buy, to surround ourselves with the fruits of the consumer culture, sterile and even dead. (You can’t plant a toaster and get a toast tree.) Instead of personality we have veneers of sophistication, and when someone senses that their veneer is inadequate, they seek to build it thicker with acquisitions. Clothes. Make-up. Jewelry. Furniture. Cars. Electronics. When a person is so left behind in acquiring status and sophistication that they feel their relationships are terribly inadequate, then they may develop an acquisitions disorder, turning to accumulation of possessions to compensate – “I am nothing, so I must have everything.” They literally build a thicker wall against the outside world that is so threatening.
Many people suffer this to some degree. It may get very focussed – buying only designer label clothes, for instance, or an obsession with collecting a category of item. These people are already overidentifying with objects, transferring their personalities to things. They lack essential relationships and in this, they lack trust of others. Even God can become a possession to them, as they acquire religious objects, Bibles, spiritual artifacts of many descriptions. They are too frightened to have a true, trusting relationship with their Saviour, so they sometimes try to own Him in small pieces. They will often fall for a prosperity preacher, expecting that God will provide more acquisitions as a reward for faithfulness.
Our culture does not emphasize generosity and true charity. The commonality of goods is refuted by most of the mainline denominations. Tithing is over-emphasized, as if ten percent is all that God could possibly expect of us. The ekonomia of the house of God is that we provide from our own substance for those in need, not just for the heating bill and the rector’s salary. It will take more than ten percent to make the world equitable. It will take everything. We have to stop being hoarders.
The Lord left us the keys to the Kingdom. We don’t use them, though. We are locked out by lack of love, lack of warm charity, lack of relationship, lack of shalom, that peace which is the peace and wholeness of God.