Hoarding: It’s a Maslow Moment

What empty shelves tell us about ourselves

Much has been written about the hoarding phenomena that has accompanied the pandemic — I’m pretty sure there will be a vast catalog of memes when this is all done. Maybe someday, in retrospect, they will seem funny. Right now, it can be pretty disappointing to witness the retail carnage that seems to precipitate each visit to the grocery store. In trying to understand what’s happened to an otherwise civilized people, two things come to mind.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken our sense of what’s dependable and real. And as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs reminds us, we are only as good as the certainty of our food supply. Threaten our basic needs, and it’s a race to that fall-out bunker at the bottom of the pyramid. Like good little squirrels, we start to pack away supplies to make us feel better about the unknown future.

Also, there’s a lesson here from the oil crises of the ‘70s, when cars would line up at gas stations for hours in order to fill their tanks and spare gas cans. The trick was, there may have been ample fuel to meet basic needs — as much as every day in the previous week — but suddenly everyone wanted to have a full tank at the exact same time.  Millions of barrels of gasoline that had been part of the retail sector inventory were suddenly transferred to  consumers’ vehicles. The distribution system couldn’t cope with the surge. And while few people were intentionally hoarding, the effect was the same. People who didn’t need a full tank were depriving those who had no fuel at all.

What does this have to do with us in the pandemic-riddled world? Most people aren’t TRYING to hoard. They are just doing what humans do when our sense of normalcy is threatened. They stock up.

There’s an amusing essay in The New Yorker by the brilliant writer David Sedaris that I find more illuminating than some more serious news articles. After admitting that he is a failure at hoarding, Sedaris writes, “It helps to look at which shelves are bare. That teaches you, I suppose, what you should be hoarding.”

His ironic remark raises a question worth considering. What should we be hoarding right now? What will you wish you had in reserve when your “shelf” — perhaps your emotional resilience — seems empty? I want to hoard memories of time spent with my family. I want to hoard appreciation for the many, many people in my company, as well as clients, who have been generous and gracious under trying circumstances. I want to hoard so much gratitude for the healthcare workers, grocery store workers and first responders that I never run out, and never forget to share that gratitude throughout the many years that lie ahead.

I am optimistic about the future, but I know it will be a whole different future than I expected two months ago. What will we need to thrive there? It’s time to take stock.

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