“What you own owns you”

The adage that what you own owns you is never more true than when applied to my mobile phone. This small device reminds me to renew my library books, warns me of forthcoming birthdays and appointments, prompts me to make calls, wakes me up in the morning and tells me it’s time to meet Tigger from work. It holds my shopping list and records my expenses. I wrote the whole of my “Cornwall 2006” page on it. It even sends texts and makes phone calls. If I forget to take it with me when I go out, I feel bereft.

I have other property as well. There is a sort of shop rail thing with clothes hanging on it and a drawer of pants, socks and towels. There is a couple of plastic crates containing books and miscellaneous objects such as software distribution discs and all those knickknacks that I never use but can’t bring myself to throw away in case I need them one day.

On the plus side, I do not own a house or a car. I once owned a car but have never owned a house. This means I live in rented property and travel by public transport or by Shanks’ pony. The idea of owning a house fills me with with vicarious dread. Owning a car was bad enough and keeping the damn thing running cost a small mortgage. Public transport is a lot less hassle and a lot better than you would think after listening to the complaints about it.

I am told by mystics that the truly spiritual can be wealthy without loss of spirituality because they do not allow their property to own them. Allow me to be sceptical. It seems to me that our property alters us in both gross and subtle ways. Worrying about your mortgage payments is an obvious example but the simple possession of wealth cannot fail to affect you in ways that you might not suspect before you acquire it.

Am I then advocating that we emulate the sanyasin and renounce all personal property? I don’t think so. We need to meet certain basic needs in order to live and if we are not prepared to meet them, then we might as well commit suicide. Apart from such radical solutions, can we meet our needs other than by owning property? What about living communally: all property would then belong to the community, not to me personally. But isn’t this also ownership, because I still participate in the community’s ownership of shared resources?

Alternatively, I could, like the sanyasin, give everything away and live on charity. However, there is surely a paradox here: someone has to own the food that I receive; we can’t all be beggars otherwise there would be nothing for beggars to beg for. I am therefore still owning property albeit through an agent. So this doesn’t seem to be a solution either.

It seems to me that the ownership of property is merely life itself in microcosm. “No man is an island, entire of itself,” wrote John Donne. The idea that we move through life like an actor across a stage, independent of the canvas scenery, is false. Life is a continual transaction between me and the environment. Whether I buy my food from the supermarket or pluck wild berries from the brambles ultimately comes to the same thing. In modern parlance, I am a stakeholder in the environment and profit from it.

Asceticism then becomes a kind of game, seeing how closely you can approach the ideal of owning nothing but without ever achieving it. It seems to me that the sensible thing is to give in gracefully and accept to live with a modicum of comfort without being enslaved by what you own. Is even this limited goal achievable? Probably not, but in this as in much of life, we reach the point of diminishing returns when it becomes pointless and downright foolish to push the game any further.


About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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8 Responses to “What you own owns you”

  1. Oscarandre says:

    I think you get close to the answer (an answer?) in your last paragraph, Silvertiger. I believe that the trick, as expressed by some Buddhists, is not in the avoidance of owning of things but in the avoidance of attachment to the things we own.

  2. ggwfung says:

    I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty much a slave to my laptop. 🙂

    to Oscar – ownership does bring certain responsibilities. You might not be attached to your home, but owning one you need to be concerned about maintaining it, paying the mortgage, insuring it. It is those burdens (real ones) which can drain and distract the mind.

    what a beautiful article Tiger!

  3. SilverTiger says:

    To Oscarandre: Yes, I have flirted with Buddhism and agree that “detachment” is one way to approach the pain of ownership and relationship but I don’t find that an attractive path. It seems to me that the joys of life also come from attachment. If we are to be detached from everything, it hardly seems worth living.

    To ggwfung: Glad you liked the article. I don’t own a laptop – yet – but have to admit I love gadgets, so who knows about the future!

    Email SilverTiger

  4. Oscarandre says:

    I hope this doesn’t sound like a semantic nonsense…I think of lack of attachment or being unattached as different to detachment. Detachement, to me, implies lack of involvement and engagement. I think it is fine to enjoy the things we own and to engage with our worldly lives (as you say, otherwise it would be hardly worth living). Perhaps what the Buddhists are getting at in the notion of being unattached is that we should be able to give these things up readily if we are able to attain peace/truth/enlightenment. I guess it is just the oft repeated wisdom of the ages warning us of the dangers of aquisition for its own sake and the inevitable hollowness of materialism. Perhaps a Buddhist could comment? I am out of my depth, I’m afraid.

  5. SilverTiger says:

    I think you are right: I did question the word “detachment” as I wrote it. I should have paid more attention to the prompting! It isn’t quite the right word. I think writers on Buddhism often talk about “non-attachment” which, though clumsy, perhaps gets closer to what is meant.

    The Buddha’s agenda was to find ways of reducing the dukkha that is the common lot of mankind. This untranslatable word means something like “suffering caused by craving and desire”. Practising “non-attachment” is intended to produce serenity. I think that although the Buddha did not propose strict asceticism (he promulgated the “Middle Way” between asceticism and over-indulgence), his programme presupposes a frugal lifestyle that many of us would consider too limited. It seems to me that the “normal” life of work, family and friends implies “attachment” (we call it “commitment”) and that it takes a particular kind of temperament to find happiness in the Buddha’s scheme. We must remember that the Buddha’s ideal person was the monk.

    I think that only a minority of people can follow this path with success. Even Buddhism asserts that it takes many lifetimes to reach the goal. Those of us who don’t have many lifetimes to devote to the task have to employ other means in the search for serenity.

    I don’t believe it is possible to find happiness but that if you are lucky (or perhaps wise), happiness will find you. It helps, I think, to reduce the causes of unhappiness, hence my interest in things that cause conflict such as ambition, bad relationships, and, as here, ownership.

    Email SilverTiger

  6. Oscarandre says:

    Thanks, Silvertiger – very educative! As a final comment re living in the material world, I have always enjoyed Woody Allen’s comment “Do you like this watch? My grandfather sold me this watch to me on his death bed.”

  7. SilverTiger says:

    Humour is a peculiar thing and deserves to be studied. I have never liked Woody Allen or found him funny though I recognize that his remarks fit the category “humour”. Are we hard-wired for humour or are we “taught” humour by our culture? Is that why different nations often don’t see the funny side of one another’s jokes? (Maybe Woody Allen is too “American” for my English sense of humour.)

    Humour is used for entertainment but also seems to have a practical use such as defusing tension at moments of danger or dispute. Is that its role or is it simply used thus because it happens to be available?

    Do other animals “tell” jokes, I wonder?

  8. Oscarandre says:

    I am posting a piece on humour in the next couple of days, funnily enough…My own sense of humour was formed by an almost exclusive diet of English comedy and for a long time I could (like so many other unfortunates) quote most of any Monty Python film verbatim. Recently I was given a box set of old “The Young Ones” DVDs and enjoyed that all over again. Lately, I have enjoyed “The Office,” so well done that I alternate between laughter and embarrassment. As for Woody Allen, he has given us a lot as a film-maker and is, I think, a keen obsrver of human foibles.

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