Paper Hoarding

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.

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8 thoughts on “Paper Hoarding

  1. My husband and I are somewhat hoarders. He books and papers, me mementos. It’s frustrating. He keeps telling me I have too many things, yet keeps buying more books and papers. But since mine are “things” and his books, plus it’s his house, he rules and out mine goes more than his. He even keeps books he doesn’t like to remind himself he’s read it and didn’t like it!

    • One man’s trash is his wife’s treasure! Perhaps you need a plan, as to what to keep, what to toss. Isn’t it funny how when sailors move ashore they start to save things they once jettisoned without a second thought? And your souvenirs (kids’ schoolwork, something from your travels) look to him like so much junk, and at the same time you think, “Why is he keeping a copy of String Theory and Genetics? I thought he hated the book!” Is there a compromise? You get to keep flat mementoes and photos in scrapbooks, he keeps a list of books read and his opinions of them in a journal? I mean, you have a nice neat way of looking at the past with the family, he has something at hand that he can take to the bookstore before he gets another copy of what he has already read.

  2. I am really enjoying your posts on hoarding! They are coming at the perfect time for me and really helping me on so many levels. I am currently dealing with ‘paper hoarding’ as I found sooooo many magazines when I started to clean and organise my front rooms, I even found a decorating mag from 1991…so out of date, why was I keeping it? I must have had a reason when I put it away but I have long since forgotten. My boyfriend is also a hoarder which makes it difficult LOL. I put something out to throw away and he takes it to his house (which I hope to one day share with him when we marry). Anyway just wanted to let you know how much your posts are helping me!

    • I inherited a pile of “good” magazines from my mother, bought case slips for them, put them on bookshelves and finally realized just how much all that paper weighed when I had to haul it back out of the basement, with the prospect of loading it all on the truck to move. It went in the trash! You may have to sneak the discards to the tip before your beloved has a chance to go through them!

  3. I am a chaotic seminarian. Therefore…you can imagine the amount of paper I have. It’s true, you’re always afraid to let go of last term’s papers. Especially if you did particularly well. It’s like a prize. Or the handouts professors give. Maybe you can use it one day, again! Oh the rationalization that goes on.

    • I rarely kept the handouts, unless I could ascertain that I would use them again. I did use a few. The only notes I miss now are from History of Christian Thought. I used my notes for several years, but lost them in a move. The professor is now deceased, and unless one of my former classmates would willingly photocopy her notes for me, they can’t be reconstructed. So now I have to do fresh research.

  4. I am a paper hoarder. I’m going to be 80, and think if I don’t keep everything, I won’t remember what is important & what is not.It’s so out of hand, my boys will hate me when they have to clean things out. I really want to have a nicer looking home. I know I’ll be dead,but I hate what I do. Please help me know that these things are not really important. The boys live in another state, and come here once a year-all the papers go in a box, and I never get back to those boxes. I really hate what I do-I am slow, but not stupid! Of course being a paper hoarder, might mean I am stupid! I don’t know what to keep–I have a schizophrenic daughter (not living with me,) but I do keep things that pertain to her(and a lot more stuff that I know I don’t need. How can I really know what is not important? Lu

    • Get someone to help you, someone you trust. You will argue everything, but be willing to listen and give in most of the time. Things to keep: Deeds, titles, current insurance documents, birth, marriage and death certificates, citizenship papers, proof of ownership, stock certificates, current bank information, tax returns and supporting documentation going back 7 years. Old bills, old bank statements, magazines, newspapers, church bulletins, store fliers: ALL JUNK. Throw them away. Keep family photos and meaningful letters. Keep one small box of sentimental stuff – theatre programs, children’s drawings, souvenirs of trips. One small box of family mementoes, one two-drawer filing cabinet of important papers, a box of family photos and letters should be enough. It will be hard, but you can do it.

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