Wednesday, May 9, 2012

You Don't Even See It!

People get used to things in their lives very quickly - we adapt.  So an abandoned motorhome in the front yard can miraculously become invisible in a matter of months.

The other day, something embarrassing happened to me.   I had gotten a package, and I opened the box in the front hall, and, being excited about the product, left the box in the hallway, next to a chair.

Two weeks later, a friend comes by and as they come in the door, they say, "Nice cardboard box!"

I had forgotten the box was there, even though I walked by it every morning.   In a rather short period of time, it had become "part of the landscape" so to speak, and I stopped noticing it.  It had miraculously become invisible.

It was only when an outsider viewed it, that it rematerialized and came into sight.   A fresh pair of eyes that realized that empty cardboard boxes were not a regular part of my décor.

And from this experience, one gets an inkling how hoarding disorder gets started.   The hoarder doesn't "see" all the garbage in his home - it miraculously disappears before his very eyes.   They see an empty home, and visualize the empty rooms.   The junk isn't there - or isn't "that much" or much of a concern, anyway.

But similar things can happen with much larger objects, such as abandoned cars, motorhomes, or boats.  I have a neighbor with an abandoned SAAB in the driveway - a hoary old 900 Cabriolet, which was sort of cool back in the day.  However, there is a three-foot hole in the convertible top, and despite their best efforts to cover it with a series of torn bedsheets (which seem to disintegrate over time) the car is now filling up with water after every rainstorm.

Worse yet, they have an empty garage, not three feet in front of it.   You would think they would park this eyesore in the garage, if they were trying to "preserve it" as a "classic" (which it likely will never be).  But no.  And for four years now, every day I drive by, I see it slowly disintegrate in their front yard.

In fact, I've been looking at it for so long, it is starting to disappear from my mind as well.  It is only when the latest torn bedsheet blows off it and into the road that I notice it.

Why does the human mind do this?  Why do we adapt to our surroundings so quickly as to not notice major changes in our environment?    And is this a good or bad thing?

To some extent, this is indeed a survival skill.   Humans need to adapt to new conditions, and our minds quickly rationalize whatever madness is going on around us.   What was new and miraculous only a week ago is now blasé.   It was reported that, when the first New York subway line opened in 1904, it took only hours before native New Yorkers treated it with indifference, boarding and departing, as one commentator noted, as if they had been doing it their whole lives.

And for city dwellers, change like that is taken in stride - it is necessary to adapt to conditions over time.   But in other instances, gradual adaptation may work against us.   As a client once noted to me, "If you throw a frog in boiling water, he'll jump out.   Put him in a pot and slowly raise the temperature, and he will sit there until he cooks to death!"

And as such, gradual conditions can accumulate in our lives that we don't "see" until it is too late.   When Hitler wanted to dispose of the Jews, his plan was not a sudden one, but a gradual one - introducing more and more restrictions on their daily lives, allowing them to get use to them, and eventually moving whole populations to ghettos, and finally the camps and death.   And at each stage along the way, there were some who adapted and thought, "Well, this isn't so bad!" and then shouted down the alarms raised by others - who could see where this was all leading to.

In your personal life and personal finances, the same thing is true.    You wake up one morning and realize you are 50 pounds overweight, usually after some sort of health scare that brings it to your attention.   But for many folks, even this doesn't occur.   If you see a family of severely obese people (and we see this a lot in Georgia) they probably would tell you, if asked, that they don't perceive themselves to be "that fat" - after all, everyone in their family, as well as all their friends, look the same way.

It becomes invisible, in short order, as they don't spend a lot of time looking in the mirror, particularly in profile.  And men can convince themselves that their man-boobs are "pecs" and women that their giant fat breasts are "sexy" even if they drape to their waist.

In our financial lives, a similar thing occurs.   We take on more and more debt - and then forget about it, as if it never was there.   It becomes invisible.   I recall talking to some middle-class people about this - we were commiserating over a few beers at how many hundreds of thousands of dollars we owed in mortgage loans, student loans, lines of credit, car loans, boat loans, etc. - and the common comment I heard was, "Well, I just try not to think about it that much!"

Granted, I felt the same way, when I owned several investment properties, and tallied up one day, all the mortgage debt I had (well over a million dollars).   It was best just "not to think about it" although at least in my case, that debt was secured by the Real Estate - and was being paid for, in the most part, by income from rents.

But of course, with our personal residence, such was not the case - we had over-mortgaged our own home to "take out cash" to pay off other debts, and this worried me considerably.    And on our street, others confided in me that they had done the same stupid thing.   "I try not to think about it," one homeowner (making a six-figure salary) confided to me, "I've resigned myself to the fact that I will never pay off my mortgage".

Ouch.  Perpetual debt that is never paid off.   Isn't that really a form of slavery?   And yet so many people go along with this - and think this is a normal way to live in life.   They quickly adapt to this condition, as they would to an abandoned motorhome in the driveway or a cardboard box in the hall.

How can we break free of this adaptation to conditions that are against our own self-interest.   It isn't easy to do, as it appears to be hard-wired into our brains.   But one way is to get a fresh perspective on your life - and to think, really think, about things and what you are doing.   "Putting it out of your mind" is about the worst thing you can do.  And taking action now is the best.

The neighbor with the abandoned car could take a few minutes to push the heap into the garage - or 10 minutes to list it on Craigslist and get rid of it.   It really is that easy.   But stasis and inaction sets in.   And likely, they are convinced the car is a "rare classic collectible" and don't want to "just give it away" - even though at this point, the entire interior is little more than a mildew factory.

And that is probably the second enemy we fight in our brains here - the self-justifications we use to remain inactive.  "I'll have a use for that cardboard box, so don't throw it away!" we say to ourselves, and the first step toward full-blown hoarding begins.   "Maybe we'll start up the old motorhome and take it on vacation!" Dad says, not realizing that the motor, not having run in three years, isn't going to start, and the coach will need two new batteries.

Realizing self-justifications for the idiotic reasoning they are is one step to alleviating this problem.  And the largest of these self-justifications is, of course, "I don't have time to deal with that right now, I'm busy!"   But you can deal with things, in small increments, sometimes, and get things done.   Realizing there is a problem - that needs to be solved - is the first step.

Getting a fresh perspective on your own life is one technique, which is why going on vacation is a good thing.  You come home and say, "What is this cardboard box doing in the hallway?"   It materialized, out of thin air.

And mentally, this also means listening to other viewpoints, instead of getting normative cues from the television and your equally-as-broke friends.   When everyone in Foreclosure Estates Mews talks about what great deals they got on their home equity loans, you may be tempted to thing that this is a good idea, and in fact, "Normal".   You may adapt to the idea that more and more debt is good, frequent-flyer-miles cards are a bargain, and that your credit score is the most important thing in your life.

And perhaps that is why I started this blog - to reinforce in my own mind that these are not normal things - that perpetual debt is not right, nor desirable.   That it is possible to build wealth, over time, if you spend a penny less than you make.   

That is the norm I am trying to adapt to.