Wednesday, June 30, 2004

It's Mine!

Demi and I recently went to the beach. Well, at least that's what I thought we were going to do. In my California mind, this included packing a backpack with a good book, sunscreen and a blanket. "What's all that for?" Demi asked. It appears that on this coast, going to "the beach" meant to visit the beach, but not necessarily lying on the sand listening to the crashing waves.

The compromise was to put the backpack in the trunk, "just in case we needed it." We never did. We never touched the sand. Primarily this was because in order to access the surf, you had to stop at these booths and PAY A FEE to get to the beach. I found this absolutely outrageous. I refused to pay.

Maybe I'm just cheap. Or maybe I've been spoiled by growing up with miles of California coastline free to explore whenever I got the urge. Or maybe I'm outraged by the idea of personal property including the sand and the waves.

I've never quite understood the concept that someone could "own" something. Demi blames it on my Native American blood. Since I was never raised in that culture, I doubt that is the source of my confusion. Probably I scratch my head over some folks getting so excited over property rights due to my life experiences of traveling from owning no more than the clothes on my back to having a new house, new car in the driveway, etc. in an upscale neighborhood on the central coast of California. As I recall those memories, I find a clear correlation between the number of things I owned and my feelings of peace. The less I own, the less I have to fret about.

There has to be some compromise between the extremes, of course. If I don't provide for my creature comforts, each day can be consumed with trying to find food and shelter. As in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, some basic security needs have to be met if one is to ever move on to addressing self-actualization needs.

Beyond this is the issue of ownership being fueled by fear. This has been going on since we lived in caves. If you wanted something your neighbor had, and you had a bigger club, you just took it. The invention of the wheel and the domestication of the horse made these acts of pillaging more enticing, as now you could cart away the entire contents of the cave, instead of being limited to what you could carry in your arms. As "civilization" evolved, we find the emergence of walled cities to keep "them" out and "us" in, and standing armies whose life's mission was to protect our property (for a fee, of course). Are we doomed to live life in fear of marauders? Should our best energies be expended towards protecting what is "mine" and scheming on how to acquire what is "yours"?

In the Old Testament, we find the curious tradition of "the Year of Jubilee." Every seven years (in other places, every fifty years...a revision most likely pushed forward by property owners) all the land reverted back to its original owner. Debts were forgiven. Everyone got a fresh start. The concept of ownership, and the importance of commerce, was kept in its proper perspective; just a game to keep folks entertained.

The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the early Christians held all property in common. Some of the earliest Church Fathers spoke harshly against the concept of private property:

From St. Ambrose (4th century):

How far will your mad lusts take you, ye rich people, till you dwell alone on the earth? Why do you at once turn nature out of doors, and claim the possession of her for your own selves? The land was made for all; why do you rich men claim it as your private property?

...Nature produced common property. Robbery made private property.

...It is not with your own wealth that you give alms to the poor, but with a fraction of their own which you give back; for you are usurping for yourself something meant for the common good of all. The earth is for everyone, not only for the rich.
From St. John Chrysostom (4th century):

It is not for lack of miracles that the church is stagnant; it is because we have forsaken the angelic life of Pentecost, and fallen back on private property. If we lived as they did, with all things common, we should soon convert the whole world without any need of miracles at all.

For 'mine' and 'thine' -- those chilly words which introduce innumerable wars into the world -- should be eliminated from that holy Church . . .The poor would not envy the rich because there would be no rich. Neither would the poor be despised by the rich, for there would be no poor. All things would be in common.
From St. Basil (4th century):

While we try to amass wealth, make piles of money, get hold of the land as our real property, overtop one another in riches, we have palpably cast off justice, and lost the common good. I should like to know how any man can be just, who is deliberately aiming to get out of someone else what he wants for himself.
Behind most of these quotes is the concept of good stewardship; all belongs to God; we are but stewards, caretakers, during our brief sojourn in this realm of material realities.

But I don't want to travel too far away from the practical benefits of avoiding grasping too tightly to that which I claim as "mine." Let me give one example of how such grasping can be harmful on a personal level. In 1994, when Ford came out with the new Mustang, I had to have one. I loved that car; it is by far the best machine I have ever owned. I washed and polished it every week. On my day off, I would drive for hours, just for the joy of its performance. It was an amazing car. I could take each curve at exactly twice the posted speed with no danger of it breaking loose or flipping over.

But, it was not practical for a family of six. After two years, I had to let it go. It was as if I was giving up a part of myself. Yes, I actually went through a grieving process. Isn't that bizarre? Devastated by losing a hunk of metal.

Just as bizarre as someone claiming they can own a patch of hot sand and the waves that crash upon it (actually, the Atlantic waves don't really crash, do they? They kind of just thud).

So, we didn't walk on the hot sand, or let the waters of the Atlantic cool our feet. If the price of such an activity is that I must pay for it, that I must claim some right of ownership of these natural resources, personally, I'd rather not.

This is a bit of a convoluted message. Maybe a final quote, the source of which I cannot recall, will be helpful. My life experience has taught me that in regard to "things" (which includes ideas, or, as some prefer "intellectual property"...now there's an even more absurd idea, but I digress...) the best approach is "to be open to everything, but attached to nothing."

Since some might find that quote a bit "new agey," I'll offer another one, this time from Thomas a Kempis;

Use things temporal, but desire things eternal.
And one final one, which Matthew attributes to Jesus;

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also...

...Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these...

...But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
J.

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