To hoarders, belongings are physical anchors in a stormy world. Hoarders might otherwise lead functional lives, but according to experts who spoke at the conference, many derive security from having their keepsakes always in view.
“People who hoard tend to live their lives visually and spatially, instead of categorically like the rest of us do,” said Randy Frost, a psychologist and co-author of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, in an interview with Fresh Air. They sort things by location, rather than importance. When he asked one hoarder where her electric bill was, she responded “on the left side of the pile, about a foot down.”
Far from being dirty or disgusting, hoarders might actually be too careful. A common manifestation of OCD is scrupulosity, or an extreme fear of wrongdoing. For example, a highly religious person with OCD might have a fleeting, blasphemous thought one day—”What if God is actually terrible?”—and obsess for days about what thinking it means.
[M]y moderately smug disdain is directed at the writers and “experts” who breathlessly report and analyze these trends—especially when, as is the case in the New York magazine piece, consumerism is highlighted as a contributing vice. “Ours is a spendy culture,” one subheading announces with vague judgmentalism while surrounded by ads for Tiffany and Burberry. “It’s expected that as you earn more, your lifestyle should swell accordingly . . . . If you can’t Instagram or Facebook or Snapchat your material progress, it might as well not exist.”
My question is: Why on earth would we expect anything different? Our culture gives us no compelling reason to resist the allure of conspicuous consumption. We have gutted society of any institutional recognition of, let alone support for, traditional virtues, and yet we vainly expect people to live virtuously. It may be impossible to improve on C.S. Lewis’s concision: “We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
Now, the virtue I’m thinking of here is not the old-timey Puritan concept of thrift. Thrift can certainly be virtuous, but it can also emerge just as much from a preoccupation with wealth as conspicuous consumption does—a preoccupation with economic status in the future rather than the present. It’s an idea that is easily co-opted by a secular culture where class is considered a reasonable proxy for moral worthiness.
I’m thinking instead of the relatively unknown and little understood virtue of detachment. We shouldn’t be too surprised that detachment has been largely forgotten; more than almost any other virtue, it relies for its coherence on the public recognition of the divine that secularism has systematically purged from our society. Detachment from worldly goods and concerns only makes sense if there’s another world to which we owe our loyalty.
Perhaps the most well-known description of detachment comes from Jesus himself in the sixth chapter of Matthew’s gospel: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” Secularism solves this dilemma elegantly by erasing God. Only mammon remains.
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We’ve gutted all the social and spiritual foundations of a healthy relationship with worldly goods, and there’s nothing our hordes of life coaches and inspiration mongers and financial therapists can do to replace them. It’s foolish and even a little cruel to expect a society of slaves to mammon to resist their master.