What’s the radical center between a neatnik and a hoarder? A clutterbug — an organized clutterbug, to be exact — is someone who spends at least one hour every week organizing, filing, recycling. Why radical? Because a neatnik can be obsessive, compulsive and anxious. Hoarders can suffer from a debilitating, depressing deprivation complex. It’s pretty radical to hit the middle.
A kind friend heard my confession that my office was stacked with higher and higher piles of files, a situation I described as out-of-control and unmanageable. Then there were the stacks of books on the floor — books that wouldn’t fit in overburdened bookshelves — including a stack of unread books on uncluttering. I was amused but somehow couldn’t laugh.
My friend listens. That’s her best gift. She also gave me a magnificent wooden organizer that could give me a start on cleaning up the mess. I promptly put the organizer on the top of files that were leaning into each other — braced by the disappearing wall behind them — until that too began to collect its own assortment of magazines, snail mail, catalogues and diverse accoutrement. In an unguarded moment at the end of a stressful day, I surveyed the scene with parallel hits of horror and hilarity. The next day I made an urgent appointment with my long-term psychotherapist. It was time for a change.
Twelve-step program friends say, “If you think you have a problem, you have a problem.”
I realized in a series of therapy sessions that I was addicted to stuff, that my life had become unmanageable. I came to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity and turned over my life — again — to the higher power that could restore me to sanity.
My psyche had already been cluttered with piles of unconscious stuff that Maxwell, the therapist, had helped me surface, organize and file. Now, again, in a new chapter of work, he gently invited me to consider how the deprivations of my parents and grandparents, hungry in the Depression, could be part of my compulsion to save everything.
“I might need it.”
“It’s too valuable to throw out.”
I could decide to take one hour every week to organize, file and recycle as a start to my recovery. I could decide never to handle a piece of paper more than twice. I could remind myself frequently that the U-haul does not follow the hearse. I could decide to avail myself of tons of other good advice in my books on de-cluttering.
Sitting in the middle of the mess, recycling box close at hand, I was quickly distracted by articles I’d torn out of The Week, which got me wondering about other addictions. Wasn’t the United States of America addicted to spending money it doesn’t have? The news is just a tad sobering. We’re borrowing so much money we’ve exceeded the debt ceiling of $28.4 trillion. Every year for at least two decades now, we’ve spent hundreds of billions more than we have to spend. Annual spending just for interest payments on the debt now approaches $1 trillion. Aren’t politicians who put spending on a credit card, without realistic ability to pay the balance, simply reflecting the profligacy of constituents’ credit card habits?
On the other hand, are we not trending into a neo-feudalist empire in which the strings are pulled not by puppet politicians but by plutocratic oligarchs? When the tax reform bill of 2017 widened loopholes, it added trillions per year to the growing debt, not from spending, but from an addiction to cynical social-Darwinist greed that put less in the U.S Treasury and more in the pockets of people who don’t need it.
So, now, even though the titans of Amazon made billions last year, its CEO Jeff Bezos paid no taxes. And why is it that we put up with a system that taxes billionaire Warren Buffet’s administrator at a higher rate than him? Where is there media attention to this side of the unbalanced national budget? And why do we think we can continue to pour untold hundreds of billions per year into a military that shows over and over again how ineffective and damaging our military might is?
Addiction appears in as many colors as Vermont trees in autumn. Recovery, if it comes at all, begins with personal awareness, serious growth and greater sensitivity to the social sins that mirror our personal blindness. Somewhere beyond deathly denial is the recovery of a people, the recovery of a planet in dire need of sane leadership that hits the radical center between profligate spending on the one hand, and greedy self-interest on the other.
Michael Caldwell of North Wolcott is a member of the international ecumenical Iona Community.