Thursday, November 26, 2009

turkeys, eagles, and letting go of things

"You can't soar like an eagle when you are surrounded by turkeys" (Harry Markopolos, Senate Banking Hearing, Sept. 10, 2009) except on Thanksgiving! In India, we don't have thanksgiving, partly because we give thanks everyday. I remember going to the local temple everyday... and being surrounded by the blessings of thought, reflection, and community prayer. In Canada, thanksgiving takes place on U.S. Columbus Day and the turkeys do come out much like American thanksgiving; a harvest festival involving pilgrims and natives thanking nature for that year's bounty together, from what I understand.

I am still new to American culture, having become an immigrant only recently and many of the rituals appear foreign to me. The values around the idea of giving thanks however, is one that resonates deeply. The idea of assisting those who do not have, or thanking those who have made great sacrifices for our comfort comes naturally to most of us. Indians for instance hold great honor in welcoming anyone in need into their homes and feeding them any day of the year. This is particularly important because part of the culture requires Hindus to give up their status and belongings and seek enlightenment at some point in their lives.

The need and importance of a Thanksgiving day is underscored by its contrast to consumer culture in a land of plenty. Here few people starve and pray for daily bread as they do in some lands, even though there is enough food to feed all 7 billion of us. The lack of food that does develop has little to do with availability and more to do with hoarding behavior.

Attachment disorder is a significant aspect of hoarding behavior. We have seen so much hoarding behavior of late, from the extreme frauds of the Madoff type to the squandering of immense wealth at the expense of the common American by large institutions and government. It is interesting to note that those with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder of the Madoff variety) are also prone to hoarding:

A psychology professor at Smith College estimates that 2% to 3% of the population has OCD, and up to a third of those exhibit hoarding behavior (Cohen, 2004). This appears consistent with 2% of the world's population holding 50% of its wealth.

The 3-part definition of clinical hoarding is as follows:

1.The acquisition of, and failure to discard, a large number of possessions that appear to be useless or of limited value (Frost and Gross, 1993).
2.Living spaces are cluttered enough that they can't be used for the activities for which they were designed (Frost and Hartl, 1996).
3.Significant distress or impairment in functioning caused by the hoarding.

Hoarding has three components:

1.Acquiring possessions compulsively - compulsive buying, or collecting free things.
2.Saving all these possessions and never discarding.
3.Not organizing and maintaining all the saved possessions. (

I am surprised by the 2-3% figure as what I see around me appears to show a greater amount of hoarding behaviour. There is so much on TV and in the media that suggests the push toward acquisition, although most of it also pushes toward discarding what is acquired so that more can be acquired and then discarded. I suppose what is most suggested is temporary attachment to things acquired. In some ways this could be a profound message. Some of the oldest principles and values espoused by humanity stress the temporariness of all we experience and an acceptance of this temporariness. The study above appears to suggest that OCD type attachment to possession comes from an insecurity in the person stemming from a lack of attachment to the real. Hence objects and possessions and even money can act as a substitute for real attachment to people such as parents or other loved ones etc. One would think also that such hoarding behavior may also show up in extra-marital affairs, because of the inability to truly attach. All are antithetical to the messages of Thanksgiving.

Giving thanks and the experience of gratitude involves attachment. And attachment to other people, animals, even the earth in a profound way is a remarkable attribute of human experience. It is because of a deep attachment or love for what and who is important to us that we also can let them go. This letting go is different from the discarding of things that every advertisement beckons us to do. True attachment is important to meeting up with that expansive sense of attaching to the larger universe, in line with the Hindu aspiration of enlightenment. What are we talking about? It takes a little love in one's life. Without real love and the creation of such bonds, it is hard to give thanks.

It is no wonder that when we think about holidays like thanksgiving, we think about family and being with those we love. The sense we have of being showered with blessings enables us to give love to others who may not be as fortunate, or who may simply be situated differently (if we don't want to pass such self-absorbed judgment on the state of others in a different economic, health, ability, or opportunity bracket).

So if you are walking about on this holiday and not OCD (or if you are afflicted with this condition try to get over it for a few days of the year) go out and spare some change for those in need, maybe even give away a few things to someone who could really use them!

-- GDK

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