By Avishag Kaufman
The TV is on. The screen, all 60″ of it, is littered with junk–stacks of old newspapers, piles of phone books, lawn bags full of trash, broken furniture, cardboard boxes. The camera pans out and you realize…”This is somebody’s front yard!” The realization turns into shock and disbelief as the camera takes you INTO the building. Dirty dishes are piled high in a rusty sink (neither of which have been washed in who knows how long). Clothes, boxes, empty (or half empty) fast food takeout containers thrown everywhere in a room so crowded with junk that there’s barely room to put a foot in, let alone move around in. And worst of all – cats…tens of them. Some seem merely famished, other look obviously diseased or maimed, and some are even dead (or dried up)! The camera zooms in on the old lady of the house. She’s confused – what is everyone fussing about?! Why are they taking her things out of the house?!
The title of the program flashes on: “Hoarders.” It’s now a pop culture phenomenon that we watch as a guilty pleasure in the comfort of our homes. We cast our judgement as we watch these people lose everything they hold dear in front of us. But are they really so different from us??
I start wondering: when does a person stop being a “collector” and become a “hoarder”? Where is this effusive point? Where is this invisible line?
I know someone who collected phonebooks for decades – not just from her area, but from around the world. She could reason about why she kept them, too—I mean, you never know when you’ll need them, right? Does this sound familiar? Another person I know collects friends. Once she meets someone, she keeps in touch forever, it seems.
The hoarder on TV felt secure in her clutter, perhaps the way a baby feels safe in a swaddle during those first days of adjusting to the outside wide world. Is it fear of the immensity of the outside world that makes her create a tighter confinement, a smaller parameter? Clear boundaries? I don’t know.
I don’t have phonebooks piled up in my closet. I do have other things I find hard(er) to say goodbye to. We all do. Do you have clothes from over a decade ago that you’ve been planning to get rid of and never did? How about books you’ve read that were just “ok”–nothing you’d describe as a classic worth preserving? (Guilty). How about artwork your 27 year old child has made from pre-K to High School?(Guilty…again) Plastic containers in your pantry? Gift baskets from 20 Christmases ago? Ribbons? Is your pantry stocked well enough to last you through World War Three? Do you keep food in the fridge long after the expiration date? Your freezer?
What is it, then, that makes us hold on to what we hold on to? Take those old clothes that are out of fashion or that you haven’t been able to squeeze into for years – is this nostalgia for a “better” time in your life? Clinging to your younger, skinnier, fitter self? If so, what light does that shed on your value system? Do you value your looks more than your other, less physical/material achievements like intellectual spiritual growth? Are you having a hard time with the concept of “aging gracefully”? Are you holding on for fear of lack, the way people who grew up poor have a hard time spending money even when they are financially more secure? Or are you like those who remember being hungry and consequently have a hard time leaving food on their plates, or worse – throwing it away? Are you having difficulty just giving things away, for free, thinking that you could actually make some money if you were to sell them?
Why am I dwelling on this issue? Because this difficulty in “letting go” of physical possessions is indicative of how we conduct ourselves and is bound to manifest in other areas of our lives–behavior, relationships, career choices, and so forth. If you think this is an exaggeration, take a closer look in the mirror and ask yourself: Can you give something (an object, money, your attention) without expecting a return? Do you give charity easily, even without the coveted tax deduction, or any recognition? Can you easily let go of the past, of old grudges, or do you hold on to old grievances, because they give you a sense of “identity”?
Maybe you think that this doesn’t apply to you. Maybe you feel you are quite the opposite because you have to, almost compulsively, get rid of the old: you buy new clothes to stay in fashion, you continually upgrade your phone, your computer, your car…maybe you even have the urge to move to a larger, fancier home. If this is the case, maybe it’s true that you do not hold onto objects like hoarders might. Maybe you’re holding onto something else less tangible–a thought-form, a belief about yourself, a self-image that compels you to do just that. What do you think?
It is fascinating to realize how accurately our external, material world mirrors our subconscious mind, our thought patterns, our “programming”, our ideas and beliefs about ourselves. My friend may be collecting friends because of fear that if she does not initiate the contact and maintain it, she’ll become irrelevant and left alone. Others, on the other hand, who obsess about the hottest brand names, or the newest electronic device and struggle to “one-up” their friends, or at least “stay in the race,” may do so in order to feel respected or “valued.”
But this is important.
Start small. Next time you walk into your closet, or your pantry, just ask yourself: am I a collector, or a hoarder? Am I exercising free will in my life, evaluating what serves me and getting rid of what (and who) no longer does, or do I constantly avoid making choices, letting things (or people) get into my space, accumulate there, and never challenge their presence?
I don’t know about you, but I am not waiting for spring-cleaning. I’ve already started.