Listen To Article
I thought she was dead.
Then I read an article in the New York Times a few weeks ago that she had planned a gala 90th birthday bash on July 3 that went terribly wrong. Two hundred and sixty people got food poisoning and were hospitalized. She still knows how to find the spotlight.
I am talking about Imelda Marcos. People from my generation will forever associate her with shoes. She had more than 3,000 pairs, different colors, different styles, shoes for any conceivable situation–more than she could ever possibly use. In addition to all the shoes, the closets of her palace in the Philippines were full with 15 mink coats, 508 gowns, 888 handbags.
Back in the day, Imelda’s shoes were the subject of many television features and newspaper articles. She became the poster-child of hoarders.
We all ridiculed Imelda and laughed at her expense in a similar way that we currently ridicule the people portrayed in the popular television series, Hoarders–now in its tenth season on A&E—and its copy-cat series, Hoarders: Buried Alive on TLC.
We shake our heads and say to ourselves: How is such excess possible? We say: My house may be cluttered but not like the houses of these people.
I may have laughed at all this at one time, but I don’t find it funny anymore.
Imelda and all the other hoarders are just extreme examples of what we all do in the current economic arrangements. I now wonder whether our public decrying of their behavior is in reality a cultural ritual, a form of scapegoating.
In ancient Israel, the priest would lay his hands on the head of a goat in the presence of the worshipping community, confess the sins of people, and send it off into the wilderness, thereby seeking to absolve sin and restore shalom to the community. Are we not engaging in a modern version of the same thing?
In the summer of 1986, my wife Judy and I were house-hunting in Holland, Michigan where I had accepted a position at Western Theological Seminary. In the course of about ten days, we walked through about twenty houses, built in different eras ranging from the 1890s to the 1980s.
Never before had I had access to so many houses in so short a time. I was fascinated to see how houses had changed over the years.
The Swiss-French architect and writer, Le Corbusier, once famously said that a house is the machine we live in.
After viewing so many houses, I would say that a better description would be: a house is the container we live in. Every room, every closet, and every garage got bigger and bigger as the years went by and never any of them empty. And when their container is full, people rent storage units outside of their town to hold the rest of it. Like every city in the midwest, Holland is now literally surrounded by such units.
To observe the closets alone was fascinating. Houses from the 1890s had bedrooms with no closets. Whatever articles of clothing people owned were placed in an armoire or wardrobe, now only to be found for sale in antique malls. Houses from the 1920s through the 1950s, like the one we eventually purchased, had bedrooms with one small closet, roughly 4 feet wide and 4 feet deep. Houses from the 1970s had bedrooms with large walk-in closets. Houses from the 1980s—beyond our price range—featured what was called a master bedroom complete with a private bathroom and a closet big enough to hold not only clothing but a couch for sitting and full-length mirrors for dressing.
Shiny, New Things
Why such acquisitiveness? It is actually not so hard to understand. For Imelda a shiny, new pair of shoes had the power to make her feel young again and to give her a rush of joy and happiness. But the happiness did not last, and she needed another pair, and another, until her acquisition knew no bounds. For others it is the shiny new boat or motorcycle or car.
I vividly remember buying my first car. It excited all my senses: the glistening silver-blue finish, the feel of the steering wheel in my hands, the unique smell of the newly manufactured interior. This car was talking to me, promising me freedom and happiness.
Of course, it was a liar. It provided me with none of these things. It was in the end what my father always called it: a bucket of bolts. The song that defines my generation was prophetic: I can’t get no satisfaction.
The promises of shiny, new things are ever before us. They are endlessly propagated by a multi-billion-dollar advertising industry and an economy that demands it. We listen to their blandishments and all too easily get caught up in ever increasing cycles of consumption.
When the high of the new pair of shoes wears off or the new car or the new house or the new restaurant in town, we move on to the newer, the bigger, the better and start the cycle all over again. It seems that the more we consume, the hungrier we become. In any other circumstance, we would call this an addiction.
Our extreme acquisitiveness does resemble an addiction, but we have to go deeper than that if we are to truly understand it and ever hope to overcome it.
There is currently a new, self-help movement afoot that is starting to address this issue. Dozens and dozens of books are being written offering advice on how to declutter your life and find inner peace. Thousands and thousands of people are discussing them. (See, for example, Deb Rienstra’s “Legacy Sorting the KonMari Way” and Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s “Burdens in Disguise: The Spiritual Magic of Tidying Up,” on The Twelve.)
In an upcoming essay, I will evaluate the effectiveness of this movement and examine decluttering as a spiritual practice.
“A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you’re taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody’s got a little pile of stuff. All the little piles of stuff. And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff. They never bother with that crap you’re saving. All they want is the shiny stuff. That’s what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get…more stuff!” (George Carlin 1986)
“A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” someone once said. I deliberately used the old rendering with the masculine pronoun. Here’s why. Men are mystified that women just have to have another pair of shoes. But before making fun of that, observe a man who just has to have that new power tool (or duplicate hand tool) or that one more pricey shotgun, though he needs neither. And yes, boats. I have eight. My sailboat, two inflatable dinks, three canoes and two rowboats. I don’t need all of them. Which one shall I get rid of? Hm. None just yet. David Myers in his book on affluenza talked about this and both he and his coauthor, talking about purchasing unneeded things and clinging to them wrote something like, “We agreed not to get into the subjuct of buying and keeping books.”