Hoarding, Paperless Offices, Attachment and Detachment

As a child, I remember learning that there was value in having everything in moderation. Most people who I know who are truly happy have come to a place where they feel they have "enough."

"Enoughness" is a very elusive concept in an age where we are taught to want more, more, more, and also work in environments that ask us to have less, less, less.

While some believe "you can not be too rich or too thin," we have seen first hand that, in the case of Bernie Madoff, and the epidemic of anorexic models in the fashion industry, one who lives by this philosophy does so at great risk.

We also receive contradictory messages, as we are inundated with options for a simple handle for a kitchen cabinet, at Home Depot, then go to work in paperless offices, where the "clean desk police" forbid any pens, photos of loved ones or even plants in ones workspace. (Despina Moutsouris wrote a very powerful article about the sterility of the modern day work environment in a past issue of this newsletter.)

Decision making can be a hard process to start with, but how much harder is it to decide "what is right" or "what is right for YOU," when presented with overwhelming choices and things or being mandated to have nothing at all? Too many choices or no choice does not lead to finding a happy middle ground.

These contemporary examples teach us, you CAN get too much of a good thing. Or perhaps, even more accurately, taken to an extreme, a good thing can even turn bad.

"Hoarding" has become a very newsworthy topic, as a growing number of people "hold on" to what an insider might judge as "anything and everything," from used paper cups, to old pillows, to newspapers and even trash. When there is so little emotionally to hold on to, people are attaching to stuff, rather than other people or life's pursuits. As I read through a series of articles on hoarding, one theme that emerged is that "people are fickle, stuff is always there." So, the hoarder feels safer holding on to things than people.

One can rationally argue that holding on to things, especially "useless" things, and too many things, does not really provide safety, and can even lead to illness or death, as in the case of Homer and Langley Collyer, "two pack- rat brothers who for four decades crammed their Harlem mansion with heaps of debris, "until Homer died of starvation and Langley was smothered by a heap of debris.1

Yet, as I remember learning in college Psychology class with the cloth and wire monkey experiments2, when you are deprived of real love, touch, care and human contact in a consistent way, unimagineable sources of pseudocomfort become not only acceptable, but even essential.

On the other end of the continuum, when we hold on to nothing, as is mandated in the sterility of the paperless office, we are emotionally and spiritually anorexic, even dead and certainly numb. We become so detached, nothing matters. Our emotional bonds are fleeting. Everything is short-term or just for now. Our virtual world, where little is physical and tangible, and so much is transient, does not support our investment of emotional or historical energy into creating treasures and keepsakes to pass on to future generations.

If a volcano were to bury a major city like Chicago, New York or Boston, and archeologists were to dig up the ruins many years into the future, what they would discover first is our technological infrastructure – plastic and metal from computers and wires, and not the more personal communications, and treasures closer to the heart of human beings.

Even in the here and now, people do not do the "work" required to build and sustain healthy relationships, because what is not easy or convenient is too easy to dispose of and replace. So, we attach to things and detach from our hearts and human beings who could be loved ones. I guess, some of us are cloth monkeys and others of us are wire monkeys, and the legacy we pass on to our children will include attachment disorders, without models or experiences of what we really need emotionally, spiritually, physically and practically to feel we have "something to hold on to" that will sustain us in a healthy way.

If we do not find ways of getting regrounded in the basics of being a human being – where the emotional and spiritual intangibles count for as much as power, status, money, and things, we really do not have anything to hold on to . And we will continue to come up with addictions of unhealthy, compensating attachment or stark, depriving unhealthy detachment.

Human beings seem to be the only animals that take hoarding to a pathological extreme. And I suspect humans are also the only animals to take starkness and detachment to pathological extremes as well. Perhaps that is why so many of us are realizing the importance of our four-legged friends. They are angels in our midst, trying to help us come back to a place of balance and peace.

1. From "The Psychology of Hoarding" by Mary Duenwald, Discover Magazine.

2. In the cloth and wire monkey experiments, baby monkeys were taken away from their mothers, in order to study attachment patterns. Some of the baby monkeys were put in a cage with a "wire mother monkey," offering a cold, comfortless structure to hold on to. Others were put in a cage with a "cloth mother monkey," who, while inanimate, was at least soft, and therefore, most comforting. The studies found that the comfort of the cloth monkey was important in contrast to the starkness of the wire monkey. As a college student, I felt the loss for all baby monkeys, because even a soft cloth "pseudo-mother-monkey" is a far cry from a baby monkey's living, breathing, loving mother.

© 2009 Linda Marks