Normally my wife and I don’t watch television. I prefer to watch movies. However, when I can find some quasi-educational television programs, I will give them a try. We don’t have cable, but we do get numerous movies via our annual subscription to a streaming media company. I’ve been abstaining from “enjoyable” movies during Lent (how hardcore, right?), so if I watch anything lately, it’s documentaries. (Well, when I can get a break from my daughter’s fixation with “the big purple dinosaur.”) On a lark last week, once the kids were asleep, my wife and I started watching an episode of Hoarders. (Okay, so my standards for “quasi-educational TV” are pretty dubious.)
After being brought nearly to tears in almost every episode we skimmed/watched, I had an insight as to why it’s such a popular show. Obviously, much of the appeal of the show is getting to gawk at other people’s dirty laundry (literally). But there’s a depth beneath that voyeuristic bathos. (Hardcore Pawn, by contrast, is nothing but bathos.) The reason Hoarders is popular is because it is fundamentally not about people’s garbage, but about families in a nation which is not about families. When the new normal is redefined every TV season, family is a word honored only in the breach. We’re all in it for ourselves, and we’re assured that we can rely on ourselves.
Every episode features at least one relative of the hoarder, and the story is almost always the same: X knew that Y had a messy house, but “didn’t know things had gotten so bad.” This raises the obvious question: how can family members let their own kin sink into such isolation and squalor? Each case is unique enough to be compelling, yet there is a common thread which give the series an almost iconic gravitas: X let Y sink because Y can live like he wants and adults can take care of themselves. The eye-popping reality, of course, is that Y cannot take care of himself at all.
You don’t have to be Emile Durkheim or Peter Berger to grasp the problem: the Puritan-libertarian roots of the American ethos, when unmoored from the religious matrix which alone makes subsidiarity sustainable, has grown into a forest of dysfunctional families which are probably best described as a group of mutually best acquainted strangers. Only some cases of hoarding, as shown, are clearly struggles with idolatry–especially, for example, the woman who hoarded thousands and thousands of dolls. More often the struggle is one of compensation. These persons, some of them of already precarious mental health, find themselves increasingly, or perhaps suddenly, isolated and ignored by those persons on this earth among whom they should feel most at home. At some point, in other words, they find themselves at home, but alone–ensconced in material shelter and privacy, and yet inexpressibly vulnerable and isolated. This is the mechanism driving hoarders, I believe. The absence of family is vicariously filled by the presence of trinkets and garbage. These poor souls are literally filling the void of their domesticity with the comforting, irresistible, unflagging and nonjudgmental intimacy of junk. They are quite literally finding love among the ruins. And yet all the while we can see how they are like a bird feverishly and implacably knitting its nest as it falls in the void.
The spiritual depth involved in such considerations is what makes Hoarders more than prurient voyeurism. There is an eschatological urgency to every episode, and an almost messianic high when The Crew has disinterred the hoarder’s life from a catacomb of his own making. As I say, I’ve only seen a few episodes, but I was struck more than once by the undeniable savor of deliverance at the end of a clean-up.
17 He sent from on high, and took me: and received me out of many waters. 18 He delivered me from my strongest enemies, and from them that hated me: for they were too strong for me. 19 They prevented me in the day of my affliction: and the Lord became my protector. 20 And he brought me forth into a large place: he saved me, because he was well pleased with me. (Psalm 17/18)
To judge by the reactions of many hoarders on the show, it’s no exaggeration to say that the arrival of those clean-up crews is the advent of angels of hope.
While I am not saying that Hoarders is a Christian show, of course, I am saying that its popularity feeds on a submerged Christian instinct: for communion, for freedom, for light, for purity, and for deliverance. If nothing else, it is a superb heuristic for understanding the spiritual life, and, believe it or not, gave my Lent a shot in the arm. We are born into a fetid, sprawling refugee camp. Our parents were hoarders of their own choosing. Their (and our) detachment from God is synonymous with attachment to idols and false securities, and vice versa. We know we belong to a family, under a good Father, and yet we find ourselves estranged even from ourselves. We grow up among, and then ourselves add to, a world of discarded glory. We have abandoned ourselves to an illusory self-sufficiency, yet deliverance is never far off. The angels of God await our whimper from the slag heap, at which point the engines of grace–the Sacraments–come pouring in to deliver us from our free-falling bird nest. If, however, we refuse to detach ourselves from our trashy idols, we shall be wedded to them forever when all such filth is tossed into the incinerator. Nothing unclean shall enter the presence of God; no one obstinately isolated–turned in on himself–shall enjoy the fellowship of the Trinity and the worshipers transformed by triune love.
Do not give up on Lent. Do not isolate yourself from the Church. Do not resign yourself to living among intellectual, moral, spiritual, nor even physical junk. We were made for more. We are not alone. We are not abandoned. Call in the angels. Send in the trucks. Get the rot out. Pour out the filth in confession, flush out the infections with grace, and replace the fetid scraps of sin with the eternal nourishment of the Eucharist. At the final hour, we are either hoarders on life rafts going over the falls, or we are boarders on the Barque that shall never fall. In that sense, hoarders die whores, while boarders die brides.