I recently posted a piece on material simplification. This was one of several posts exploring the idea that simplification is the most important psychological task of late adulthood. Material simplification, as described by theologian Lewis Joseph Sherrill, consists of “distinguishing the more important from the less important, getting rid of the less important or relegating it to the margin; and elevating the more important to the focus of feeling, thought, and action (from The Struggle of the Soul, p. 130).” The previous post was on disposing of many of our material possessions. This post will be about failing to do so. What does it look like to avoid material simplification, and what motivates such avoidance?
Worst off are those who hoard. Hoarding disorder is a psychiatric diagnosis characterized by urges to accumulate, difficulty discarding things, and a cluttered living space. Hoarding is more common in older than younger adults. One large study of older adults who met the diagnostic criteria for hoarding disorder (as reported here) found that 69% were women and 85% were white, unmarried, and lived alone. Unfortunately, living by oneself makes it easier to simply keep accumulating, without anyone to object, “what are you holding onto that for?”
The causes of hoarding appear to be complex, apparently involving some combination of poor emotional regulation, information processing difficulties, attachment issues, or dysfunctional beliefs about objects. It usually starts fairly early in life, worsening in later years. An interesting article by Mark A. Chidley, a family counselor, suggests that hoarding may result from frozen grief. He suggests that the person sustains a loss, is unable to cope with the loss, and turns to physical objects as a replacement for whatever or whoever was lost. This line of thinking sees hoarding as a coping mechanism, albeit an ineffective one.
Hoarding lies on a continuum. On one end are people like the eccentric brothers Langley and Homer Collyer, whose bodies were found in 1947 in their 12-room New York City house “surrounded by over 140 tons of collected items that they had amassed over several decades.” Then there are hoarders who are overwhelmed by stuff but still can discard something from time to time, then those who aren’t quite hoarders but have too much accumulated to ever invite anyone into their homes, and finally there are the rest of us. Yes, all of us are on the continuum somewhere. As James Wallman put it in his book Stuffocation (as excerpted in Salon):
“Who hasn’t, in the middle of a clear-out, kept something ‘just in case’, even though they haven’t used it for years? Who doesn’t have clothes that they hope will fit or become fashionable again one day? Who doesn’t keep DIY parts or sports gear they haven’t used for years because you never know when they could come in handy? And who hasn’t, when challenged, said, ‘But I like it!’ out loud, as if that were enough to explain why something is worth keeping?”
Sherrill suggests that older adults who surround themselves with possessions do so from a longstanding personality disposition, namely a propensity to find one’s emotional security in the “world of things.” Eventually, this tendency can take over the entire personality:
“For as life draws toward its end the self in this instance seems to identify more and more with its things until the self, as it were, is finally concentrated into, and absorbed by, its possessions (page 138).”
This is itself a form of simplification; everything other than possessions falls away, so that one’s stuff dominates the psyche. This seems not so much a coping style as it does a love. St. Augustine talked about rightly ordered love, by which he meant that virtue and happiness comes from loving people and objects in order of their true importance. To put things we own ahead of people or God is to love wrongly, to love our stuff out of all proportion to its true value. Having our loves out of balance may not end as disastrously as it did for the Collyers, but it certainly won’t end well.