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“Hoarders,” a new reality show on cable TV, tracks the struggles of individuals who accumulate so many materials possessions that their houses are uninhabitable. Faced with divorce, eviction, health inspectors, child welfare services, or financial ruin, they are forced to call in professionals to help them clean out their residences. Tragically, many of them are unable to let go of enough stuff to even make a dent in the mess.
I understand the temptation. I am a recovering hoarder. While my house never reached the stage of those portrayed on this show, I told myself the same lies: “Someone could use it,” “It could be recycled,” “I might need it,” or “I hadn’t read it completely.” Fortunately or unfortunately depending on how one looks at it, I had a house with a double garage, large attic, and full basement, which allowed me to keep most of my hoard out of sight. I also had a nagging husband who periodically forced me to de-hoard.
My recovery began when I decided to give a talk on thrift to my Bible group. I carefully searched the scriptures expecting to find God’s blessings extended to those who saved everything. Instead, I found a consistent theme that had somehow heretofore escaped my notice -- a condemnation of greed. I had never considered the possibility that a word as ugly as greed might refer to me. After all, I didn’t want riches or fancy things; I was content with 50 plastic bags from the grocery, 200 old magazines, plastic containers of clothes that no longer fit me, toys my children had outgrown, broken appliances, hundreds of single socks that had lost their mates.
I did not see my problem as an undo attachment to stuff, but as a lack of storage space. If only I had larger closets, a bigger kitchen, more containers, the problem would be solved. I was like the man who thought he needed bigger barns. Our Lord told us not to worry about tomorrow, but my hoard of stuff was a monument to my fear that some time in the future I would be so poor that I would be forced to wear ten year old clothes with major rips and lost buttons.
The more I searched the scriptures, the more I was convicted. I was greedy. I was addicted to stuff. I didn’t trust the Lord to supply my needs. Once I understood that my sin was greed, I spent one year de-hoarding my house. In spite of my insight into the sinfulness of my habits, it was not easy. Every decision hurt. I had to tell myself over and over: these things are stealing my time. My excess could be used by the poor. My family is more important than my stuff. Over the years it has gotten a little easier, but the temptation to keep excess is still there.
After I had my hoarding under control, I noticed that many good Christian women -- women who said their rosaries every day and went to daily Mass -- were hoarders. They considered themselves pious and virtuous, and those who hadn’t seen their houses might have agreed. These women worried continually about their family’s salvation. Their husbands did not go to Mass; their children had left the faith. The reason wasn’t hard to see. These women’s examples turned off their families. Their husbands and children pleaded for a clean space on which to eat dinner. They were embarrassed to bring friends into the chaos that was their home. These women could not see that they were choosing stuff over family. They were allowing fear of the future to control their lives.
Watching the hoarders rationalize their refusal to get rid of excess, it was obvious they were blind to the damage they were doing to their families. One of the women on the “Hoarders” program had her children taken by social services because of the unsafe conditions in the home. Desperate, she allowed a professional team to clear out the house, but she wasn’t able to let go of 1,400 boxes of miscellaneous stuff. It was clear that in spite of her tears, she valued objects over her children. Social services refused to return the children. Her husband divorced her. In spite of the help of a therapist and a professional organizer, she wasn’t able to break free.
This type of hoarding is a serious, difficult to treat mental illness. Those who suffer from it may, outside the home, appear normal, but when faced with the prospect of letting go of excess, they are paralyzed. If their stuff is disposed of by others, they may mourn for months, or become enraged.
While most of us do not suffer from compulsive hoarding, if we are irrationally attached to excess, if we trust in possessions rather than the Lord, we need to confess our greed and ask for help in finding freedom from stuff.
Dale O’Leary is an internationally recognized lecturer and author of “The Gender Agenda: Redefining Equality.”