Buddhists believe that possessions get in the way of spiritual growth. Too much clutter agitates the mind and prevents the calm necessary for deep self-reflection and meditation, and represents attachment to things of the earth instead of the soul. This bumps right up against our consumer culture, in which success and worth are measured by the amount of stuff you have. New stuff, better stuff, the coolest stuff - the more of it you own, the more prestige you have.
We do, however, recognize the drawbacks of such a system. On TV, along with all the commercials urging us to buy things, there are myriad shows to help people organize, sort, clean, and divest their homes of all their accumulated detritus. All of us know (and some of us may be) packrats, people who cram their attics and basements and garages with all kind of odds and ends, people who never seem to throw anything away. But there is a difference between being a packrat and being a hoarder. Packrats can be hard to live with if you are neatnik, but their lives aren't hampered by their stuff. Hoarders, on the other hand, collect and keep anything and everything, useful or not, broken or not, hygenic or not. Severe hoarding is recognized as a mental illness, life-crippling and difficult to treat. It is the Buddha's worst nightmare.
When I was a sloppy little girl (now I'm a sloppy big girl), my neat and organized mother used to poke her head into my bedroom and mutter dire predicitions that I would end up like the Collyer Brothers. Homer and Langley Collyer are names that are perhaps losing their resonance, especially outside of New York, but their junk-stuffed Harlem brownstone riveted the nation in the late 1940s. Long before Mission: Organization and How Clean is Your House?, the Collyers were the first celebrity hoarders, and their collection of junk was of epic proportions.
Franz Lidz, in his 2003 book, Ghosty Men, tells the strange and sad story of the brothers. Born in the 1880s, Homer and Langley Collyer were the sons of a Manhattan gynecologist and a woman who traced her family roots back to the Mayflower. Their father abandoned the family, and the boys lived with their mother until she died. They both graduated from Columbia University, Homer with a law degree, Langley with a degree in engineering. There doesn't seem to be any evidence that Langley ever actually held a job, but Homer practiced for a while as part of a firm, specializing in Admiralty law. Not for long though: one day, he just stopped showing up. By the 1920s, with both their parents dead, the Collyer Brothers had become a odd fixture in their old Harlem neighborhood. After going blind in 1934, Homer did not leave the brownstone, but Langley would venture out at night in his endless pursuit of junk, dressed in ratty late Victorian garb and dragging a cardboard box on a rope in which to haul his treasures home.
Langley in the 1920s
The brothers had few run-ins with the law over the years, mainly because of their increasingly filthy and cluttered yard and because they refused to pay real estate taxes until the police showed up to evict them. Finally, on March 21, 1947, police received a phone call from a mysterious and never-identified "Charles Smith," announcing that a dead body could be found at 2078 Fifth Avenue, and that the dead body belonged to Homer Collyer.
2078 Fifth Avenue, March 1947
Police attempted to enter the house and were immediately driven back by both the stench of decaying food and God knows what else, and by the junk piled to the ceiling. In addition, Langley had set up a rabbit warren of tunnels and passageways, all of them Byzantine in their complexity and some of them booby-trapped with heavy suitcases full of newspaper and books. Word got around the neighborhood quickly, and soon the streets were filled with spectators. At midday, Homer's body was found, curled up on the floor, "his right hand near a shriveled apple, a container of rancid milk, and a copy of the Philadelphia Jewish Morning Journal from Sunday, February 22, 1920." According to the coroner, he had died of neglect. Langley was nowhere to be found.
One of Langley's booby traps
Note the pipe organ and the picture of Dr. Collyer
The police spent the next two weeks clearing out the brownstone, hauling away over 100 tons of junk, some of dating back to the brothers' father's medical practice in the 19th century. Piano innards, old books, Victorian clothing, feral cats, anatomy skeletons, musical instruments, car parts, dressmaker's dummies, bicycles, gas chandeliers, a cache of weapons and ammunition, scrap metal, broken radios, and on and on and on. On April 1, while the clear-out was still going on, Homer was buried in the family plot; still no Langley. A nationwide manhunt netted some elderly look-alikes, but the real Langley remained elusive. Finally, on April 4, Langley's rat-eaten body was discovered about 10 feet from where Homer had been found. Dead at least a month, he had been killed by one of his own booby-traps.
So, what's the life-lesson here? I don't think my room ever got to this level -- certainly, no one was ever injured by falling Madame Alexander dolls or David Cassidy posters, but it certainly gives me pause now. Is this how I'm going to end up if I keep procrastinating about cleaning the basement? Why do we keep certain things, anyway? It's just stuff (although my stuff is good stuff; Rick's stuff is just junk). Shamanism propounds that physical things are inhabited by spirits. Maybe we are afraid we'll be haunted by the good stuff that might get tossed with the useless stuff. Obviously, all that stuff fulfilled some deep psychological need in Homer and Langley, but after sixty years, how can anyone know or even guess what that need was? The Collyer Brothers remain a strange and strangely compelling footnote in New York history, perhaps more relevant to our cluttered 21st century lives than we realize.
Well. Before I get so tangled up in a philosophical yarn ball I can't move, let's lighten up. Here's George Carlin on stuff. Watch it, then go clean your room.