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How much wealth are you hoarding?

Nov 20, 2005 Success, Sunday Nation

Hoarders seem to attract universal opprobrium. We are all scornful of what we imagine the hoarder to be: a scheming shopkeeper who amasses essential foodstuffs while people are starving. But is that really what hoarding is? How much wealth are you, specifically, sitting on that could be serving the world around you?

The BBC has a TV programme called Life Laundry. Here, a householder agrees to open up his or her home to a crew of investigators and cameras. The idea is to unearth all the things that are of no real use to the subject: old records, tatty clothes, leftover construction materials, photographs and mementoes, souvenirs, floppy disks, books we read as children – the list is endless. In every case, the person in question has some irrational, emotional attachment to these objects that prevents him from disposing of them. And so they fill up space: cupboards, stores and sheds, attics, underneath beds, everywhere and anywhere. The hoarder is usually finally convinced to let go by the BBC team and, as part of an emotional purging, has all the excess baggage in his home cleared out.

We have many reasons for hanging on to unnecessary stuff. We have emotional attachments to our pasts, and need reminders and keepsakes so that we “don’t forget”. We tell ourselves that we are prudent beings who imagine that we will need all these things again, and don’t want to spend unnecessarily in the future. At the root of it all, however, is a misplaced attachment to things. Material objects represent all that is good in life to most of us: all of our thoughts, concepts, feelings, ideas must be manifested in the tangible items that we own and cherish. It is easier to believe in things that you can see and fondle.

And so the stuff accumulates. It accrues and amasses. It gathers and collects. It fills corners and crannies, hideaways and living spaces. The space it takes up is not merely physical, however: ultimately it fills up our hearts and minds, and leaves no space for higher thought or activity. We’re too busy stashing, storing, maintaining, recording and collecting. Who has the time to think about or do anything else?

The unnecessary clutter in your life isn’t just about junk: there are things we all own that are of great utility – just not to us. Many of us don’t mind throwing out scrap, but we all have no-go areas: cherished collections of books and music, perhaps – most of which we will not read or play ever again, but will keep accumulating.

The whole subject of hoarding may sound odd in a country where three out of five people live in deprivation. Where most people struggle to have a permanent abode, let alone a collection of possessions. But my target audience is the thirty per cent of you who control 70 per cent of the wealth of this land. It is you who must assess what you’re holding onto, and why. That is not to say that the poor have nothing to let go of; most of us, no matter how modest our possessions, have things we don’t use that others could.

Life has meaning as a flow, not a stock. Nothing is permanent. We know this to be true all around us. No material thing lasts. Everything is born, grows, flourishes, fades and is extinguished. The things we make and buy all slip through our fingers like so much dust some day. Even our own bodies are just molecules collected together in particular patterns, and some day the forces that bind us will also pull us apart and scatter us.

So what’s with all the collecting stuff, people? What for? Everything is dynamic. We are in constant interchange: of energy, thoughts, ideas, matter. Everything must circulate in order to have meaning and impact. If it stops circulating, it coagulates. If it stops interacting, it stops being. So it is for all of us.

Yet from birth we are conditioned to disobey this fundamental law of nature. We are habituated to think of ourselves as individuals, isolated and alone, pitted against the world in a winner-takes-all race. We are trained to acquire skills that help our own development, to build a career that helps us to accumulate things, and then to place those things (and ourselves) behind four walls, away from the grasping hordes who would seek to take the things (and therefore us) away.

And so, instead of measuring the worth of people by how well they participated in the dynamic interchange that is the essence of our universe, we measure it by counting the things they accumulated. Not by how well they gave and received the gifts of life, but by how well they gathered things to their bosoms and hid them away. We are a baffling species.

If you are a reasonably well-to-do man with a stable income, count the number of shirts and socks you have in your wardrobe. If you are a woman similarly endowed, count the number of shoes. Then walk around (with your eyes actually open, this time) and count the number of people you see with torn shirts and no shoes at all. If you are like most well-off people, you will discover a new 80:20 rule of life: that only 20 per cent of the things you are hoarding are of any immediate use to you; that as much as 80 per cent could be given away without affecting your standard of living in any real way.

It doesn’t just end at things. What skills and abilities has life given you? Are you giving any of them back? If you are a top accountant, are you teaching it to anyone else? What good is that skill if it dies with you? If you are a lawyer, could you perhaps stop arguing with your learned friends for a moment or two and teach a few poor people how to protect their rights and entitlements? If you are a top businessman, are you just going to die making more profit than others or are you going to transfer your trading knowledge to anyone other than your heirs?

It does us no good, this hoarding and stockpiling. It makes us selfish and insecure, unkind and unattractive, angry and frightened. The writer Jerome K. Jerome warned us more than a century ago: “We must not think of the things we could do with, but only of the things we can’t do without.” There are good reasons for this. Too many possessions are like a crown of thorns for our own heads. They are useless lumber that we pile onto our backs thinking we will impress our peers. They make life cumbersome and unmanageable, anxious and dangerous. He put it well: load the boat of life lightly, and it will be easier to pull; you will have time to “think as well as to work”, and to “drink in life’s sunshine.”

Do yourself a favour this Sunday, and conduct a life laundry. Open up the windows of your life and let things enter and leave like they should. You will be all the richer for it.

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