In a rare moment of channel surfing the other night, I stopped on a show called "Hoarders". It features people, couples, families that, well, hoard stuff. And lots of it. To the point of social services being called in.
My eight year old, up past his bedtime, was oddly intrigued so we hung out there for a bit.
After the initial shock and awe of seeing the conditions under which people will allow themselves to live, I couldn't help but notice with some degree of discomfort that I could relate to their stories all too well. These people were well aware of the emotional reasons behind the accumulation of stuff, which, of course, is about far more than the stuff.
Like the woman who was still grieving over the loss of her father, and found her pain and emptiness relieved only by the arrival of the UPS truck. She and her husband were at risk of losing their three kids who had never even seen the bare floor.
And the other woman who had once lived in a state of poverty and hunger, so, as a vow to never experience that again, she bought tons of food on sale and hung on to it long past its usefulness, to the point of having rotting meat and vegetables all over her kitchen, basement ...
The young man, living with his alcoholic father, who just couldn't throw anything away, and was now on the verge of suicide, seeing it as his only option to get out of this hell.
I've never been this bad. But I've been there. As I heard their stories, and watched the pain they were going through as various organizers and psychologists were called in help, I understood all too well the justification that "I might need this someday".
Or, seeing some kind of intrinsic value in something that someone else thinks is useless. Or, as in the case of the 21 year old, feeling like if I threw away this 'thing' that my mom gave to me, it would imply that I don't love her, or that I'm ungrateful.
I was fortunate, I suppose, to marry a man that had little tolerance for my packrat ways. But I had hated him at times for his judgement of it, for his callousness in tossing my stuff in the trash... for rushing the process. There was a scene in the show when the food hoarder was defending her right to go through the basement freezer full of putrefying food before it was taken out to the dumpster. She was agitated and yelling at the people trying to help her that she had no intention of keeping any of it, and highly offended that they were assuming she would fight them on it, but still, she had to at least see what was there.
I know that feeling! That agitation and defensiveness. Like when the husband in the first scenario came home to find all of the crap being tossed out the attic window onto the lawn at his wife's request, and it nearly broke him, even though he knew it was for the best.
It's because this stuff IS more than stuff. It's personal. It's emotional investment, and a deep sense of security. It's a means of keeping our deepest and darkest fears at bay, even if we know damn well it's not rational. And when strangers (even the ones we're married to) waltz in and throw away our stuff without a second thought, it's like they don't care about us or what's meaningful to us. It's just stuff, they say. And part of us knows that true. But to that small scared part, this 'stuff' is our anchor.
I've held on to things for all of the above reasons, and more. Fear of lack, of scarcity; fear of feeling like I've squandered money or love; fear that I might be bored and lonely in the future; fear of feeling deprived. Fear that my kids won't know me if I leave no evidence of my existence. Fear, fear, fear.
I cried at points watching that show. I'm crying now. It's a conflict. None of those people wanted to live like that anymore. None of those people felt like they had any power to release this pattern on their own. But like with shifting any pattern, the level of intolerance has to outweigh the level of fear. The irrationality behind the reasons for holding on to this stuff has to be illuminated with that one brilliant question, "Is this true?"
Is it true that if I give away this gift from a friend, it means that I don't love and cherish them?
Is it true that if I hold on to this thing, I'll long for it desperately at some point down the road?
Is it true that if I toss this food that expired a month ago, I'll put myself at risk of starving a year from now?
Is it true that any of this stuff will ever protect me from feeling pain and loss and emptiness in the future? Is it protecting me now?
What will happen if I let this thing go?
Can I trust this present moment to hold all that I need....?
There is so much here, isn't there...?