Owning It (or Not)

By Jana

Perhaps because I live in Southern California and feel the constant threat of fires, earthquakes, tsunami-floods, and theft, I have ambivalence about most of my possessions.  When a friend dropped a large glass serving bowl while she was helping in my kitchen, I didn’t bat an eyelash.  When an acquaintance needed to borrow a car for an evening, I handed him my keys without giving it much thought.  I do the same with books, clothing, gear, etc.  In my mind, if someone else has the need of my stuff, it makes so much sense to share it with them.   For example, I loaned our tire chains to a complete stranger awhile ago and never got them back and I really don’t care–I imagine that he’s getting good use of them and they were just dead weight in my trunk (I rarely drive in snow).   I also have this larger sense of none of my “things” really being mine–sure they are in my house and I paid for them, but sharing them with others only makes the having of the stuff more meaningful to me.  Even at the risk of losing some of what I share.

It is, perhaps, the unique circumstances of my life that leave me feeling that I don’t own my body, either.  Sure, I can keep it healthy and care for it.  But having lost my leg to cancer at a young age taught me that even our bodies are not ours.  There are circumstances in which we lose control of them and of their functions.  We can, of course, keep free of physical addictions and do all we can to maintain health.  But that can be taken from us at any instant.

I don’t have a sense of owning the people in my family, either.  Although I think I used to feel that way.  Perhaps the biggest lesson of my early marriage years was realizing that my spouse owns himself and it is not my role to control or micromanage his behavior.  Sure, I can depend on him, invest emotionally in him, and feel secure in our relationship.  But I don’t own him.  And the same goes for my children, too.  I teach them and guide them, but they are not “mine”–their decisions and choices are theirs alone.

I could say that I own a certain sum of money that sits in my bank and in my retirement account.  But even that, to me, seems subject to the happenings of the economy and the solvency of institutions that are out of my control.  I do my best to be responsible for my life, but larger forces could easily render my life savings, my food storage, and/or my employability negligible.

So what do I own?  For the most part, I own my actions, my beliefs, and my choices.  I usually also own the consequences of my behavior.  I own my memories (for now, but might not always due to old-age or injury).  I own this moment in that I am choosing to sit here at this keyboard and in sharing my thoughts with you rather than doing something else.  But I don’t own all of my time–much of it is dictated by my work and family circumstances.

Do you ever think about what you own?  Do you ever struggle with the desires to own your self, your family, or your life?

Photo by John Remy, taken earlier this week in the Newport Back Bay


Jana is a university administrator and teaches History. Her soloblog is http://janaremy.com

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10 Responses

  1. Alisa says:

    One of my coworkers just pinged me and said, “Have you read Jana’s post today on Exponent? Beautiful.” And I agree with him. 🙂

    I needed this post this week to help me let go of some stuff. It’s been a week of setbacks financially for me, unanticipated things relating to home repair. I have learned about how quickly we can lose things. What a blessing, then, it is to have these things while we have them, even if the control over them is not ours.

  2. m&m says:

    I think about this a lot, particularly when it comes to not being able to control others (for all we talk about agency, it’s human nature to want to get in the way of agency, imo, if we are threatened in some way). And experiencing chronic health problems has helped me realize that there are some things about my body that aren’t fully in my control, like you said.

    My way of talking about it is using the words “the illusion of control.”

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  3. Caroline says:

    This doesn’t go to the heart of your question, Jana, but reading your post made me think about how I struggle with owning too much stuff. (I know, what a problem to have – particularly compared to people in other parts of the world who desperately need more stuff.)

    Managing stuff is difficult. Finding places for it, constantly picking it up. It’s gotten exponentially worse since having kids, and I’m inspired by those that are able to really control accumulation of things.

  4. mmiles says:

    I really like this post Jana.

  5. Emily U says:

    I do think about what I own. Far too often in the negative and ungrateful light of what I don’t own.

    I really aspire to look at “stuff” more like you do, Jana.

  6. Thank you for this lovely reminder to pause in my scheming every now and again, and just be present and thankful. I’m reminded of a recent National Geographic article about one of the few remaining hunter gatherer cultures. A group of people in West Africa whose name I suddenly can’t recall. Anyway, they have no concept of personal ownership, nor any real need to dwell on the past or the future. Nothing owned means nothing envied or fought over, and present-tense living endows them with an eerie lack of worry that unnerves perpetually frazzled visitors. A lot of magical things have come about as we evolved from our nomadic roots, but there’s certainly a price to pay. I’m often not vigilant enough in remembering Emerson’s observation: “things are in the saddle and ride mankind”

  7. Ziff says:

    I really like this post, Jana. I half-wish I were less attached to my stuff than I am. Certainly I’m nowhere near you in ability to let things go. But I think I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older to accept the reality that every thing I own I will own for some finite amount of time likely far less than my life expectancy. And I’ve gotten better at getting rid of things I don’t need, don’t use, forgot I had, etc.

    One class of things I hang onto tightly is my data. I have endless computer files including thousands of pictures (mostly of my kids) and journal entries and notes on books I’ve read and ideas for blog posts and of course thousands upon thousands of files for work, and I hate to ever lose a bit of my data. Those are the things I worry about most.

    Regarding people around me, I think I just haven’t come to a point yet with my wife or kids yet where we have such different goals that it really forces me to realize by experience that I don’t own them. I know that I don’t, you know? but I kind of know that in my head but not in my heart. So I’m sure that will be a shock.

    I’ll have to keep you in mind as a shining example, Jana.

  8. mb says:

    “Sure, I can depend on him, invest emotionally in him, and feel secure in our relationship. But I don’t own him. And the same goes for my children, too. I teach them and guide them, but they are not “mine”–their decisions and choices are theirs alone.”

    Thoughtful post. Well said.

  9. Jana says:

    Ziff (and others):
    I should say that I’m not perfect in non-attachment for ‘stuff.’ But it seems to me that recognizing how meaningless (or futile) ownership can be, frees us from a lot of frustration & heartache.

    And, I should also add that the values that my spouse and children hold close are (fortunately) close enough to mine that they are rarely a source of friction in our relationships. A time where this has been an issue doesn’t really spring easily to memory. Of course it’s possible, and likely, that that will change someday.

    It is so freeing for me to tell my children that I honestly don’t have particular expectations for their career paths, their choice of life partners, etc. It’s exciting to discuss the possible options with them and to see them explore some very exciting avenues–far more exciting even that what I would have imagined for them…

    Ziff: I won’t even tell you how many backups I keep of my dissertation-in-progress. But suffice it to say that I am a wee bit paranoid about that one thing–more so even than family photographs! 🙂

  10. Kelly Ann says:

    Jana, this is beautiful. I admire your approach. I personally cling to too many things. Lately though, I am trying to claim my identity independent of things which is truly rewarding.

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