Neatness: A Sign of Godliness or Compulsion?

Occasionally, when I was a child, I’d come home from school and find my clothes, books, crayons, drawing pad, and a stuffed animal or two, all piled high in the hall. My mother had had enough of my mess and decided to shame me for all to witness. The procedure humiliated me, alright, but it did not teach me to be more orderly.

When I attended 8th grade at the Lycee de Forest in Brussels, Belgium, my class elected me secretary. It was a backhanded compliment. My classmates admired the speed at which I had mastered French as a second language, my spirited self, my compositions and my loyalty. They were also appalled by my mislaid homework, atrocious spelling, lost gloves and similar mishaps and felt that having me take care of the entire class would teach me to be better organized. I was an excellent class secretary, though I continued to manage in my own disorganized way.

Today my conscientious parents would have realized that I was neither lazy nor stupid, but suffered from ADHD (Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder) and dyslexia characterized by creativity, poor spelling, and outstanding grades in certain subjects coupled with below-average performance in those that bored me. So I coped with my problems on my own, avoided Ritalin and psychological labels, became self-reliant and learned to think “outside the box.” Even now, I tune out when somebody tries to explain how to use a new gadget, preferring to teach it to myself. My learning disabilities, however, left me with a deep vulnerability about my performance.

I have learned to be pretty good at what I do. My home is filled with unique art, none of it that costly. I never break the bank, but my clothes are attractive. I even manage to accomplish highly detailed tasks. For years I wrote a highly successful 1200-page pharmacology textbook for nurses that listed thousands of drugs, their dosages, mode of action, side effects, and manifold names. I am exacting in my research and my own difficulties enable me to explain complex concepts in simple terms. Just as so long ago my classmates at my French high school recognized my abilities in spite of my apparent disorganization, the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), my professional association, awarded me their lifetime career achievement award in 2012.

I have learned to be almost neat. Whenever I can afford it, I hire people to keep me sorted out. Still, being almost neat it is a great effort. My desk, filled with exciting projects, is a disaster zone—I straighten it once a week before my housekeeper shows up. Once she leaves I rummage through her neat piles to find the scraps of paper on which I recorded crucial information, or the checks that pay the bills.

When I entertain, I worry more about the neatness of my apartment than about the food I serve. The latter usually is novel and excellent, and dinner invitations to our house are treasured. Instead of lapping up the compliments, I sometimes apologize for my house, which rarely is as neat as that of my friends.

I simply cannot fathom how people have picture-perfect homes. What do they do with the junk mail that arrives every day, the appeals for whales or wolves, or the homeless, or hungry people, or cleft-palate children? I keep these for a while, wondering whether to contribute. What do they do with half-read magazines, the plastic bags, jars and wine bottles, batteries that need to be recycled, the credit card slips that need to checked against the monthly bank statement, the clothes that need to be mended or given away, the left-over food? Most importantly, why do I feel so guilty that my home is not as neat as that of my next-door neighbor?  Why does the world treasure neatness and cleanliness?

The grass seems always to be greener on the other side and I should stop envying my neat friends. According to Google, excessively neat people get chastised as much as us mess pots. Their behavior too runs along a spectrum. They can be middle of the road, or they can be compulsive, obsessive, freakish, or clutter-phobes who need to see a shrink. In our Freudian world it is hard to win!

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