owned

Have you ever thought about what it means to say that you own something?
  • (a house) A: “Are you a home owner?”  B: “Not totally – the bank owns most of it.”
  • (a rock) A: “Hey give me my rock back!” B: “I saw it first, it’s mine!”
  • (land) A: “Hey, American Indigenous tribes! Welcome to your new home – we like to call them ‘reservations’!” B: “New home? What’s wrong with our current home?”
  • (etc.)

In one very real sense, humans simply see things and claim them for their own.  Whoever gets to the bit of land first ‘claims’ it – the kid who sees the rock first can say it’s ‘mine’ – etc.  We snatch up bits of stuff (trees, iron, land, water, air, animals, other humans, etc.) and declare them to be ‘mine’/’ours’/etc.

Without some concept of ownership/possession, things such as ‘trading’, ‘sharing’, ‘buying/selling’, ‘stealing’ and ‘borrowing’ have no meaning at all.  But still, everyone I’ve ever known lives their life as though the concept of ownership is actually meaningful.  We get insurance, car alarms and watch dogs for our houses, cars and veggie gardens (or if you’re protecting ‘your’ nation, you probably get a military with bullets, explosives, tanks, ships and planes, etc.).  We all take ownership seriously.

Philosophically, ownership is based on a distinction between our (subject) ‘self’ and at least one (object) ‘other’. I have a friend/acquaintance who believes that there is no real ‘other’ to reality – that all reality is ‘self’ (if we’d only just develop/cultivate our collective self-awareness, etc.).  Not only is the concept of any kind of relation-ship (which is always between a ‘self’ and an ‘other’) made impossible, it also negates any meaningful notion of owner-ship.

The only sense of ownership which can even possibly/partially be retained on this view would be a sense of a collective, universal ‘self’ which ‘self-owns’ everything…  or should we rather say ‘self-owns itself’??  Any division of reality into ‘this’ or ‘that’ part(s) which then comprise a whole(s) is necessarily a division into which the self/other distinction instantly leaps.  As you can (hopefully) see, even if some people find it fashionable to speak/write like this, I’ve not yet met anyone who finds it possible to live like this.  Actually, one can’t even go very long speaking/writing like that without contradicting themselves – probably sooner than later.

Not surprisingly, I find the Judaeo-Christian tradition/philosophy/worldview to be far more useful, reasonable and intuitive.  It takes personal and corporate human ownership seriously, but places them both within the context of ultimate or divine ownership.  The stuff we ‘have’, we are really only ‘looking after’.  Our universe, our planet, our rocks, our trees, our skies, our seas, our beasts, our beauties, our race and races, our brains, our bodies… our entire world belongs ultimately to the Creator God, who entrusts it all to us as stewards to look after it.

The charge to the primal human pair in the Garden of Eden story reflects humanity being given its job description or vocation:  “Tend and keep the garden.”  We are given the task and responsibility to do everything from astronomy and economics to biology and electronics; from sociology and psychology to ecology and geology.  God’s world of space and time, of matter and meaning, of black holes and bonobos, of planets and people, of sex and supernovae, of courtrooms and cancer wards, of playgrounds and prisons, of bluebirds and babies is to be cared about and cared for.

4 thoughts on “owned”

  1. Dale,

    Your friend’s notion of there being no real other is quite Eastern. I think that – quite the contrary to relationships being impossible – it is only when we realise that there are no real others that relationship becomes whole. For it is only when we treat others and everything within “Gaia” as part of our self that we are in right relationship to these things.

    I love a quote from an equally brilliant Movie Fight Club: “The things you own end up owning you”

  2. Simon,
    Yes, my friend is Buddhist, so naturally would have an ‘Eastern’ flavour – though not all ‘eastern’ thought is identical. And I’m sorry, but I’d have to say that if there are ‘no real others’, then it’s not so much that ‘relationship becomes whole’ as much as that relationship becomes nothing. And as for being in ‘right relationship’ to things, I think it is essential to retain respect for (and appreciation of) the ‘other-ness’ of those things.

    As for the Fight Club quote, however, I love it!

  3. Dale,

    I really would invite you look further into Buddhis/Eastern practise. I belong to a practical philosophy club and it has really opened my eyes.
    If you think about the relationships in your life, Dale, I’m sure you will be able to see that it is in your closest relationships that the me/you line is most blurred; identity is the most fused. And the more identity is fused, the more empathy is there. In this way, it is as our identities with people become fused – our blurring between them vs. us – that we can truly have empathy, and have right relationship to people.

  4. Simon,
    I appreicate you sharing your perspective.
    I still think the notion of no ‘other’ is still problematic – indeed impossible. Relationships are about sharing – experiences, posessions, feelings, etc. The more that is shared, the deeper the relationship is. You can’t share deeply or become ‘one’ with thousands of people. ‘Marriage’ (consumated by the physical sexual union – whether or not a paper is signed or ceremony had) is a unique instance where the two are also one.

    I like Tom Wright’s description of Love in that Love a) respects the objective ‘other-ness’ of the beloved (i.e. not forcing/coercing itself into/onto the ‘other’ or vice-versa), whilst b) remaining in rich, subjective relationship to the beloved; Love ‘transcends the objective/subjective divide’.

    My closest relationship is with my wife. We remain individuals, but we share so much that there is a ‘one-ness’ as well. Both-and.

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