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The Problem of Hoarding and an Apostolic Answer: “Let All Things Be Done Decently and in Order.”

August 27, 2013

Life is comprised of a series of choices—some are significant, while others appear to be rather trivial. But even less-than-wise choices about trifling objects can add up and create a situation that can hamper us in life and can alter the place where we live into a state of chaos that in turn has a debilitating affect on the state of our soul. And so the trivial turns out to have an unexpected significance with unanticipated consequences. Regardless of the decision’s seeming importance, decisions ought to be made in a thoughtful, orderly fashion that is consistent with our deeper beliefs and values, so that our surroundings and our soul are in a state of harmony, or as Saint John Chrysostom put it, so that “nothing is without proportion and everything is in order” (Homily 34 on Hebrews, PG 63.234).

For those who hoard, decision-making is a particularly nettlesome problem.  In addition to viewing possessions as extensions of themselves and their security, hoarders tend to have difficulty in making decisions about what is necessary and what is superfluous.  The decision-making process becomes thwarted and convoluted because the hoarder is not able to separate himself from the object about which a decision must be made. Sentimental value, possible uses for the item, the need to avoid waste, and other such considerations make the simple decision—keep it or discard it—increasingly complex. And in that decision the radical voice from the gospel is usually never heard: “Take nothing for your journey, neither staves, nor scrip, neither bread, neither money; neither have two coats apiece.”
Psychologically speaking, the hoarder often needs help recognizing 1) that the self is not identified with possessions, 2) which possessions are necessary and which are clutter, and 3) that avoidance will only lead to more clutter and more confusion about what is necessary and what is not. This awareness about hoarding certainly has a spiritual dimension. First of all, we should not identify ourselves with what we have, but with God Who should have us, in other words, that we belong to God. Secondly, avoiding dealing with problems and passions shows a certain lack of trust in God and willingness to change. The story in the desert fathers comes to mind of the young man who had to weed a large field despaired of the field, laid down, and did nothing, but when he was instructed to weed only an area the size of where he was laying, he found in time that he was able to weed the entire field. So it is with our soul, so it is with clutter in our homes as well.

Psychologists, of course, have much to offer in dealing with the problem of hoarding. Therapeutic interventions for hoarding include a) learning how to solve problems, b) learning how to make decisions and tolerate mistakes, and c) learning how to categorize and put objects out of sight. The helping hand of a therapist or a trusted friend may allow the person who hoards an opportunity to step back from the clutter and re-assess the reality of the situation.  The awareness that life as it is in the hoarding state has become unmanageable is the first step in recognizing avoidance is no longer a viable alternative.

In order for any substantive change to occur in the life of the hoarder, decisions must be broken down into manageable, small pieces.  For instance, if a hoarder has a particular issue with newspapers, magazines, and books, a trusted friend or therapist may start with newspapers as a good first step.  Since most news articles are archived online, there is no real need to keep newspapers or news clippings.  Once the hoarder is able to recognize that such newspapers can be accessed via the internet, the decision to discard old newspapers may become much easier.  (In addition, the internet already categorizes the relevant articles by subject and date.)  Once this is successfully accomplished, the hoarder may be able to move on to magazines which he’ll find is very much like newspapers, i.e., most of the magazine articles can be accessed online.  Finally, after two successful experiences in dealing with the problem of hoarding, the hoarder may be emboldened to tackle the stacks of books he’s accumulated.  The first step in the process might be to sort the books by subject matter and relevance to one’s personal tastes and needs.  Once this is accomplished, the hoarder may be encouraged to think about how often the books are needed for future reference.  If a certain book has been read and is not necessary for any future reference (novels, for instance), the book may be put in a pile to be donated to a library or a school.  The books that are deemed necessary for future reference are kept and stored neatly according to subject matter.  While this is just one example of dealing with the decision making process, it provides the hoarder with the ability to make incremental decisions as well as the confidence that the task is not insurmountable and the positive sense of accomplishment outweighs the earlier sense of fear and foreboding in thinking about discarding that which had been hoarded.

Each time a decision is made and the action necessary to accomplish the goals of the decision are realized, future decisions become that much easier to make.  The avoidance, hesitancy, and foreboding at the thought of making such a decision diminishes and the hoarder regains a sense of control over his life. And most importantly, even in this small, but important area of life, the Apostles advice is being followed, “Let all things be done decently and in order.” Saint John Chrysostom notes that “Nothing builds up as does good order, peace, and love; even as their opposites tend to tear down. And this applies not only in spiritual matters, but also in all other areas one may observe this. Thus whether it be in a dance, or a ship, or in a chariot, or a camp, if you confuse the order, putting what should be above  below and below above, you destroy everything and turn everything upside down. So let us not destroy our order, nor place our head below our feet” (Homily 37 on Corinthians).

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