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.