Thou Shalt Not Waste:Reduce, Reuse, Reclutter

Recently, I moved house, because 2020 wasn’t stressful enough. 

A trek on par with that of Hannibal and his elephants ensued. Friends and neighbours gaped aghast at the endless moving vans, three wheelers and scooters of boxes that zoomed across the Xianlin compound in the summer rain. Maybe you should consider decluttering, a friend said.

Diogenes syndrome. A well-recognised behavioural disorder in Spain, newsreels regularly trot out footage of elderly dishevelled types with newspaper towers and kilos of ketchup sachets and complimentary toothpicks neatly strewn about every corner of their homes. As I stared at the Minecraft cartons tottering in every corner of our new house, Diogenes syndrome, which amounts to hoarding and self-neglect, is what sprung to mind. I sat amidst towers of boxes that blocked out the sunlight and wondered for the first time, how a nomad like me had managed to amass so much stuff. 

This most recent move has exposed the epic levels my hoarding has taken on. Stacks of newspapers, fancy dress hats, feather boas, letter pads, books; this is the load The Hoarder must bear. Literally so, if one is trucking it from one house to the next. 

The syndrome is named after a Greek philosopher. Diogenes of Sinope. He was born in 405BCE and lived a shamelessly unconventional life. Bansihed from Sinope for defacing currency, he made his way to Athens, where he ridiculed the conventions of civilised society and lived a frugal life. 

One of the founders of the philosophical movement known as Cynicism, Diogenes practiced what he preached. Coming from the Greek word for dog, Cynicism involved a rejection of modern desires, in favour of a simple, down to earth lifestyle; a dog’s life. Diogenes maintained a low opinion of human beings. Most people are vain, lazy, ignorant, and blindly obedient”, he said. One day, he wandered around the marketplace in broad daylight, carrying a lamp proclaiming, “I am searching for a man”. He did not find one, he announced; all that he saw were mindless sheeple, inoculated to the joys of life by social norms and ideals, artificial value systems that stripped a man of his ability to live a contented life. 

Diogenes believed in the essential good and virtuous nature of humankind. He was also of the opinion that for the most part, his fellow humans were marred by their futile and exhausted efforts to keep up with the Jones’.

Ancient Cynics believed that each individual should strive to transform their life so as to achieve freedom, self-sufficiency and happiness. Diogenes boasted that he was an autonomous individual, living according to his own ideals. He was a debonair Cosmopolitan, in his own book, unfettered by the conventions of any particular place. 

Free from the shackles of societal and cultural norms, he slept in a pot in the public marketplace, used public places as his lavatory, onlookers bedamned, and urinated on those who would deign to throw him a bone. His only possession was a wooden bowl, until one day, he saw a child drinking water from his hands, and promptly tossed the bowl away. Diogenes stoically believed that social norms, practices and values were absurd and as ridiculous as they were arbitrary. His school of thought later gave birth to The Stoic Philosophy. More on that in another ramble…

By indulging in the simple pleasure of life, Diogenes escaped the chains of fear and desire imposed by society. When he wasn’t seeking out pain and suffering, or delighting in his liberation from the thralls of riches, power and social acceptance, Diogenes rolled in the scorching hot sand or walked barefoot in the snow, blissfully enjoying his life without a pot to piss in. 

It’s ironic, therefore, that the hoarding syndrome bears his name. Hoarding disorder impacts from 2-6 percent of us humans, though some estimates rise as high as 20 percent. In 2013, the DSM5, the holy book of psychiatry, recognised compulsive hoarding as a diagnosable mental disorder. Studies also suggest that Chromosome 14 is linked to hoarding symptoms, which means that it is genetic. The average age for first symptoms to appear is 13, but for seeking first treatment, it is 50. Hoarding even has a scale, from 1, which is minimal, to 9 which is floor-to-ceiling piles of stuff. I am dancing between a 4 and 5/6/7 by the looks of things. Not terribly worrying, yet.

Clearing out my grandmother’s house last summer should have been clue enough. Piles of photographs, scraps of paper, books, teacups and Tupperware looked suspiciously familiar. Similar stacks of stuff flowed into boxes as I packed up one abode to move to another. When I unpacked the 12th tin of coconut milk, I began to wonder just how deeply the famine mentality had multi-generationally scarred my psyche. Diogenes would have laughed in scorn at this useless material attempt to control the chaos of being.

Though we make every effort to reduce our plastic use at home, packet upon packet of wraps, spices, kimbap, cheese, meat, cereal, yoghurt, shampoo, detergent, fabric softener and soaps various emerged from the cardboard jungle. I was confronted by the excess of our pantry, the excess of our species.

The bare necessities of life now encompass a plethora of material arms. I can’t tell you how many boxes I unpacked. I won’t. The masks were the last thing to emerge. 

Encased in plastic packs of ten, the canvas tote bag from which bulged crackled with single use plastic. Personal Protective Equipement (PPE) is now floating in the sea or strewn along the roadsides, scattered around the roads, parks and playgrounds like sky-blue rectangles of sky, dropped from above. My children hauled them out of the sea in Phuket by the dozen, until my vocal protests on the grounds of personal safety made contact with the Cognitive Mother Ship, and we all agreed to take ourselves and our lesson on to a new location. One noticeable difference in Hainan this summer was the much-improved environmental aspect of its pristine Eastern beaches. Not a mask nor cigarette butt in sight, it is but further proof of the green push of latter years, on behalf of our host country. 

The fact remains, however, that the pandemic in 2020 has caused an incomprehensible surge in Covid Waste, according to the French NGO, Operation Mer Propre. Sources say that single use masks and latex gloves now bob about more frequently, and more numerously than jellyfish in the seas. With a lifespan of 450 years, these masks can only spell further environmental devastation. And at 13 million tonnes per annum before “The Rona”, the consequences of a further surge in plastic pollution currently entering our oceans is enough to make you weep.

In part, my hoarding tendencies come from this moral commitment to rescuing, recycling and reducing waste.  I can’t throw out a thing. I can’t. Any time I use single-use plastic unwittingly, I feel a stab of guilt. A wise friend of mine recently told me, it’s not about rejecting it completely; plastic is a part of modern life. But we can make a difference by using it wisely, by being conscientious about refusing single-use environmental scourge, by taking action whenever and however we can.

We can wash our hands more often and refuse the bottles of hand sanitiser that are now floating in the ocean in the mask and latex soup. We can educate ourselves, and shake off the shackles of conformity, making choices that aid rather than abet the planet.

Vote, speak out, invest in a metal straw. Do everything and anything you can to be a force for good in your world. Time passes by so quickly, but the legacy of Covid is still in our hands. Let’s not make the part of it that was on our faces be what is most remembered. 

And if you ever need a mask, or some letter paper, or coconut milk, mine is the house with the cardboard boxes out front. 

First Published: The Nanjinger, 11th September, 2020

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