Practical Philosophy

The Mental Hoarding of Identities and Story

Sometime in the last decade — I don’t follow or care enough to tell you more exactly — America discovered and fell in love with the idea of hoarding. A “hoarder”, as you might expect, is a person who keeps stuff — everything from old newspapers, to packaging from old purchases, maybe metal scraps, collectable memorabilia, whatever — to great excess. The reasons there were (and maybe still are) about five different cable television shows about this phenomenon are not for this essay. But the core behavior of hoarding — and the fact that it’s so clearly seen as unhealthy and meriting either ridicule or correction — is.

Hoarding of physical goods is obvious, visible, and problematic. It creates unsanitary and largely uninhabitable physical spaces in which the room for the person is slowly crowded out by the collected items, whatever they are. It’s a health risk, a social risk, and most of all, it worsens the underlying mental problems that led a person to start doing the behavior in the first place. Having 50 delivery pizza boxes in a collection is a great reason to keep numbers 51 – 5000, for example.

Now the leap: a lot more people than make physical hoards have mental hoarding tendencies. They suck up things: for some it’s petty resentments, for others it’s every possible complimentary behavior or event seen as flattering. And many people walk around with a head full of this stuff — facts, memories, words, or phrases faintly remembered or very vividly recalled — that form the basis of how they see themselves and how they relate to the world.

People have a tendency to hoard feedback about their position and identity in society. They collect the knowledge that “Sue, Mom, Grandpa, Billy, and Sam all think I’m really smart” and build that into a narrative — “I must be a really smart little girl” — that they use to shape their future behavior. They hoard the feedback and let it constrain their actions.

Smartness is one of the more subtlety problematic kinds of identities people carry around, but there are many many others. Some other subtle candidates are being the nice one, the resolute one, the strong one, the social one, the pretty one, the moral one.  Some obviously problematic identities: the mean one, the wronged one, the shy one, the materialistic one, the fearful one, the dumb one, the quiet one, the gossipy one, the vain one, the worthless one.

The problem with this hoard of stories supporting some identity, or set of identities, is just the same as with a physical hoard. All the baggage of the story and the detritus of “This one time I was the first in the class to get the answer to an impossible math problem…”, “Once I figured out a solution so good…”, etc. is that it constrains you. Consider yourself smart and you shackle yourself to always having the right answer. Consider yourself shy and you shackle yourself to an identity as a uncommunicative wallflower.

These identities and the stories we collect to support them are our prison. The walls aren’t strong or fortified; but these stores form a permanent and fast moving layer of detritus that will shift beneath you like a sea of take-out food packaging you couldn’t bring yourself to throw away. They don’t explicitly confine you, but they do slow your movement and block your freedom just the same.

Hoarding identities, or identity-forming stories, is a problem that doesn’t make good television. And it also doesn’t seem so obviously problematic as a person who has crowded out their personal living space with things that most don’t consider valuable. But it’s just as stifling.

When a hoarder is out in a park, their collecting isn’t visible to the world. Mental hoarding is always as invisible to the outside world. But the damaging effects are the same. How much mental baggage do you carry? How much does it constrain you?


Living in Retrospect

“In retrospect, it was a bad idea.” “One day we’ll look back at this and laugh.” We all understand that our views on things are not fixed forever. That looking back on things with some critical distance from our actions we’ll likely see more clearly what was going on and what the wiser course of action would have been.

I think the best way we can hope to live is to always see events as we would see them with the critical distance of a few years. The goal of a mindfulness practice, I believe, is simply to see all things with the critical distance that time naturally provides for us much too late. Such that we can use our clear vision of how things really are to act wisely, rather than on to react to what we misunderstand to be unfolding.

This is both one of simplest ideas anyone ever had, and the most difficult. It’s simple. I pretty much captured all that I can about it in two paragraphs. And yet it’s difficulty is real. Even people who’ve dedicated 20 years to mindfulness, or living in retrospect, find themselves undertaking unwise actions from time to time. Actions that they later see quite clearly were inappropriate, and could have been handled better.

Experience and wisdom are shorthand for knowing what is right to do in a given situation. They’re generally born of an ability to see parallels to a previously encountered situation from which it is understood what is likely to work in this situation. But contrary to popular belief, I’m confident you don’t really need either age or experience to know how do something well. What you need instead is a clear vision of all the factors unfolding in a situation and all the outcomes that could occur. If one, even as a beginner, can see these thing clearly they have the potential to do as well as even the most experienced experts to take the best course of action.

When one makes no effort to accurately percieve what is unfolding and what would be a wise way to respond, they only ever come to an adequate understanding through time. But inattentive centuries will hardly make you better at creating intelligent solutions to hard problems than a few weeks of careful attention from someone truly dedicated to seeing clearly and acting wisely.

I am not here to promise that you can be an instant expert in everything if you just learn to use this magical skill I’m trying to tell you about. You can’t, and it would be idiotic for me to try to convince you. But I do know that you’ll learn a lot more if you place yourself mindfully in the situation you find yourself than if you merely move through the routines of your life as if you’re anxiously awaiting some destination you’ll never arrive at.

We have so many stories, jokes, and morality plays as a culture about coming to the end of your life and realizing something about the way you lived it. But we have the capicity, rigt now in the very moment, to have the same insight and clarity that we’re so often told only death provides. Most of us are simply so pre-occupied with other things to see that we’re really not treating our family fairly. That we really don’t care all that much about our job. That there’s nothing more important than the people we choose to spend time with. This is the value of mindfulness. The value of striving to live in retrospect.


No Going Back

Sometimes it hits. It’s rarely anticipated. That desire to feel that feeling you felt in the past. Maybe it was your first day of school, or your first kiss, or your first home run. Maybe it was that night when you did that thing, or that afternoon when you did that other thing. Maybe it was just that one time that you don’t remember very well but do remember fondly.

But you’ll never feel quite that way ever again.

One could, of course, question if you ever felt that way you remember yourself feeling. After all, memory is a flawed device that frequently deceives. It’s not only possible but likely that dinners at Grandma’s house were a little less magical than you remember them being. It’s hard to doubt that memories sometimes papers over the worst parts, colors in the bits that have faded with time, and generally makes events from your past look better than they really were.

But that’s a different matter. This is about how you’re no longer the same person you were ten years ago. If that’s true, you’re also not the same person you were five years ago. Or two years. Or a year. Or six months ago. Or three months ago. Or last month. Or last week. Or yesterday. Or 10 minutes ago. Or just a second ago.

This of course could lead us to ask, “Well, who are we anyway?” But again, that’ll have to be left to a different time.

The fact is, any feeling you had in the past was shaped by all the feeling you’d had until that moment. And the second you’ve had the feeling of first riding a roller coaster, you’ll never feel that way again. Your first experience of something colors the way you’ll experience that thing the rest of your life. So does that second experience of it. Every experience changes your relationship to those you’ve had and those you’ll have in the future. Some of these changes are probably for the better, some may not be.

The reason you’ll never get to relive that moment again is not that you’ll never be 12  or 21 ever again. It’s because you’ve already experienced that. And then you’ve experienced other things. And so you’ll never feel precisely that way ever again.

This can be a sad thought. It’s not exactly exuberating to think that you’ll never experience the joys of your childhood ever again. To think that you’ll never feel that way you did again.

But there’s no way to avoid it. You’ll never be that person again. You’ll never feel that way again. Time “marches on, whether we act as cowards or heroes.” We’ll never be the same again. There’s no going back.