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.