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The hoarding instinct

When does preparedness turn into something sinful?

When Russian hackers paralyzed the Colonial Pipeline, America got a preview of what might be in store. Panic buying drained gas pumps from D.C. to Florida: a real-life drama of the inflation many analysts predict. Supply-chain disruption could lead to other shortages: sugar, meat, grains. Think the fuel crisis was bad? Just wait for the tuna crisis, the cornflake crisis, and the pasta crisis!

Such news triggers an impulse to hurry to Walmart and buy them out of Kleenex. After all, if inflation hits the roof, money won’t be worth beans and the smart move would be to invest in nonperishables—like beans. After collecting an amount sufficient for you, go ahead and buy more because if you need it, others will need it too, and when they can’t get it, you might be able to trade it for something they have, and it’s a win-win. You’d be helping your neighbor! (By shortchanging her of something she couldn’t get earlier because you bought it all.)

A year ago in March, we all tsk-tsked at people walking out of grocery stores with carts loaded with toilet paper. But if some prophet had whispered in my ear that essential paper products were about to become very scarce, would I have been tempted to do the same? Maybe just a couple of 48-roll packs instead of a pallet-load, but still—didn’t I have a duty to my family? Everyone else could take care of themselves.

Prepping for emergencies is prudent. But when does it cross into outright hoarding?

In competition for scarce resources, missionaries were no more altruistic than mechanics.

In Langdon Gilkey’s memoir Shantung Compound, published in 1966, the author describes his two years in an internment camp in Northern China during World War II. Japanese guards did not starve or beat Gilkey and his fellow expatriates, who were civilians. But food was scarce and conditions cramped.

The camp was a former missionary station, now run-down and stripped of anything useful. At first, Gilkey was impressed by the ingenuity of his fellows in making do and sharing labor. But in time the warts began to show. Two incidents in particular showed him how intractable human nature could be when looking after itself.

As head of the housing committee, he was responsible for assigning people to living quarters. He soon discovered that, through an oversight, 11 single men were crammed into one room while nine occupied another of similar size. The solution seemed obvious, but when Gilkey asked the nine to make room for one more, they all, to a man, refused to give up any of their space. Gilkey, who had assumed that humans were basically fair-minded, was sincerely flummoxed.

The second incident threatened the entire camp. One miserable January day the gates opened to admit donkey carts piled with care packages from the American Red Cross. To half-starved inmates—most of whom were British with Americans, other Europeans, and Asians mixed in—this bounty of Spam and jam came straight from heaven. After calculating 1,550 packages against 1,450 recipients, the Japanese warden declared that every individual would receive one package, with an additional half going to each of the 200 Americans. The Americans cried foul: The goods came from their Red Cross. Ergo, it was theirs to distribute as they saw fit. When word from Tokyo finally broke the impasse, the Americans got less than the original plan had allotted them.

“These conflicts … made me think a great deal more deeply about men and their life in community, and about the kinds of beings they really were”—neither as rational nor as fair as Gilkey had supposed. And in the competition for scarce resources, missionaries were no more altruistic than mechanics, only more subtle in rationalizing.

When the hoarding urge strikes, I think about that. I remind myself that we survived double-digit inflation in the 1970s, and that blowing my nose on handkerchiefs rather than tissue only costs a little extra laundering. Most of all, that God who sees every sparrow fall won’t forget me. Closed fists can’t give, but neither can they receive.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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