Have you watched A&E’s Hoarders? I’m sure you have. Some might say it’s the standout of their reality show stable, i.e. their not inconsiderable explorations of “low anthropology” (see also: Obsessed, and Intervention). Talk about a show that rips the mask off of the human condition. It’s a mess!

While the messes themselves are disturbing, their impact is compounded by the fact that most of the people profiled on the show do not succeed in overcoming their difficulty (note: hoarding is commonly classified as a form ofobsessive compulsive disorder). But every once in a while, an episode ends well.

And so it is with the story of Steven, from Season 1 Episode 2. You can watch the episode below. It’s pretty grizzly/gross but also very much worth it. Steven’s story begins at 10:28 à 15.49, picks up again at 25:52 à 30:35, resumes at 35:36 à 36:47, and finally finishes at 40:36 à 43:50:

To my way of thinking, Steven’s half of the episode offers a helpful illustration of grace. Everything centers around the organizational expert, Dorothy, who is brought in from the outside to help Steven with his hoarding. He will be evicted if he cannot clean his apartment, and yet he cannot seem to do it.

Enter Dorothy. When asked if she wants to see the mess, she plunges right into the middle of it, pushing past the door that barely opens. She is unafraid and yells out: “I see a path!” She focuses entirely on Steven and not on the trash heap itself. Dorothy seems to be an incredibly sensitive and capable person, which, in my experience, is a rare combination of strengths.

The most profound moment in the episode comes when she cleans out the bathroom. She has to use a crutch with a rag wrapped around her face because of the stench. And yet, as she speaks about it, her entire concern is for Steven. She seems to be worried primarily about the embarrassment he must feel about the mess he has made. It’s such a surprisingly sweet emphasis, especially given the horrific scene she discovers.

For most of cleaning, Steven just sits in the hall. Dorothy does almost all of the work, while establishing a very touching therapeutic relationship with her patient. In order to keep him from feeling bad about his lack of involvement in the rescue, she lets him scoop two shovel-fulls of trash into a box at the end of the job, two shovel-fulls which make up perhaps 1% of the finished job. Also, she occasionally asks him to comment on whether or not he’s pleased with the way things are unfolding.

The exchange between the two of them is undeniably moving. On one end, there is the humility of Steven, a man completely humbled and broken by his own compulsions. On the other end, there is the remarkable selflessness and unflappable compassion that emanates from Dorothy. Sure, there’s a little bit of New Age flakiness coming from Steven, but she lets him have it, even works with it, in order to bring about the new life we see him enjoying at the end of the episode. He has come a very long way, and yet, of himself, has done almost nothing. The work has been done for him, on his behalf by another.

Along similar lines, you might also consider these comfortable words, written for hoarders like you and me:

“Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy-laden, and I will refresh you.” (Matt 11:28)

“This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (1 Tim. 1:15)

“If any man sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:1-2)