Ownership is in the DNA of the USA. As a nation we were born to shop.
“Life, liberty and the pursuit of property,” is how the Declaration of Independence was originally written.
Our nation’s founding was quickly followed by the Industrial Revolution and Lincoln’s Homestead Act. With this mass production of goods and subsidized home ownership, the American Dream was quickly in full bloom.
But not everyone was positively impressed. Sioux chief Sitting Bull lamented, “The love of possessions is a disease in them.”
So what does this obsession with ownership say about us? Are we human beings or humans buying? Does the love of possessions make our lives better off or just cheapen us?
Our wisdom literature is replete with warnings against materialism. Jesus said that life cannot be measured in possessions. And Krishna stated, “Pleasures from external objects are wombs of suffering…no wise man seeks his joy from them.”
By the age of 30, most of us have figured out that owning material things as a path to happiness is just an illusion.
Even so, it is a challenge breaking free from that continual urge to buy more stuff. We are constantly summoned by the Madison Avenue drumbeat—Buy. Buy. Buy…it will make you happier, cooler, sexier…
And the awful truth is that buying stuff actually does make us happier—for a little while, research has shown. But that research also reveals that the happiness soon fades, and we end up back where we started, at our baseline happiness.
So we are ever feeding, but never full.
The problem is that we are trying to fill a spiritual hole with material stuff, but no amount of cool new stuff, no matter how much we acquire, can give us inner peace.
Hindu leader Dada Vaswani put it this way: “If you have everything the world can give—pleasure, possessions, power—but lack peace of mind, you can never be happy.” Or, as someone else once said, “Rich people are just poor people with money.”
Personally I’ve had a few prosperous years when the economy was booming, but the way my wife recalls it, I was a lot more stressed than happy.
I’ve concluded that the problem isn’t so much owning things as it is the false hope and pursuit of things that ultimately cannot fulfill.
Pursuing illusions leads only to disillusionment.
Indian spiritual master Sai Baba offered the following insight: “Do not be misled by what you see around you… a playground of illusion, full of false paths, false values and false ideals. But you are not part of that world.”
The second illusion of ownership involves life’s intangibles: reputations, job titles, knowledge, achievements, coolness, fitness, love-lives, fashion-sense, and Facebook.
We own them when we take pride in them, imagining that they define us and bring fulfillment.
So we compare our intangibles with those of others, we create a social pecking order, and we think we get some kind of reading on who we are. If we are satisfied where we fit in, we feel okay. If not, we may feel anxious, become competitive, and strive to move up in the order.
Worse yet are those who use position for personal power and financial gain.
But position and rankings are fluid—you can be top dog one day and an underdog the next. Ego-tripping up and down the socio-economic ladder, it turns out, is not a recipe for personal joy and peace.
Ownership of intangibles as a path to happiness is just another illusion.
As Marianne Williamson stated, “In our natural state, we are glorious beings. In the world of illusion, we are lost and imprisoned, slaves to our appetites and our will to false power.”
And the final illusion: These molecules belong to me.
I say “molecules” because all physical property is matter, and matter is ultimately made of atoms and molecules.
To understand the illusion, think of the universe as a big prom where atoms are continually changing dance partners. An oxygen atom can dance with hydrogen to form a water molecule (H2O) for one song and dance with iron to form a rust molecule (Fe2O3) the next.
Chaperones (property owners) do their best to prevent corrosive and combustible combinations, but to no avail. Iron and oxygen are determined to dance, and there’s no stopping them.
It’s like that beautiful new car you once drove off the dealer’s lot. It got rained on, turned into Fe2O3 and quickly landed in the junk yard.
Because matter is always changing, Eastern mystics for millennia have said that the world of matter is an illusion. That didn’t make sense to the Western world until we discovered atoms and molecules.
It seems a stretch to claim ownership of molecules when they are ultimately beyond our control and outlive us by a considerable margin. It’s more like we pay to use them for as long as they cooperate. The case for ownership is further stretched by the problems of loss, theft and breakage.
The fact is, molecules are ultimately beyond our control.
And knowing that the human body also is molecular, and therefore an illusion, ownership turns out to be one illusion claiming control of another illusion…weird!
In any case, ownership of molecules is reduced to absurdity, and it seems safe to say that “matter” is really a misnomer…because it doesn’t, much.
Consumed by consumption and possessed by our possessions, we completely miss living a rich life.
Author and philosopher Iris Murdoch offered this advice: “We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task in life is to find reality.”
Author: Tim Hulst
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: John Henderson/Flickr