Friday, December 16, 2011

Ownership

As I've spent these past several weeks thinking and writing about gratitude, two points in particular have become particularly curious to me.

The first is the abrupt and explosive appearance of a movement of people all across the globe who are concerned with the ethical and appropriate distribution of resources. Now, I don't pretend to know enough about the Occupy movement to write about it in any real capacity, and I don't intend to here, but it is interesting to me that the real question on everyone's mind right now is about what we can reasonably expect to have. Or rather, how a certain minority has exceeded the amount of wealth a person can reasonably expect to posses. It's a movement about possession. About ownership.
I mean, even the name "Occupy" means to "take possession of". It's about who owns what, why, how, and whether or not they should. 

The second interesting thing that I've come across in my writing is that gratitude, as an emotional resource, applies equally to everyone no matter what their economic status is. Everyone is called to be grateful, rich and poor alike. Whether we are the 99% or the 1% we need to have the same orientation of gratitude toward our belongings. 

But today I want to talk about the greatest enemy to gratitude, and I believe happiness in general: that is the spirit of entitlement. Ownership. Possession.

Like I said earlier, I don't have any authority to comment on the occupy movement, but I feel obligated to mention a few things in regards to gratitude and entitlement. The movement, and it's opposition, are concerned with entitlement. The 1% feels entitled to the ability to accumulate as much wealth as humanly possible, by virtue of their skills, intelligence, education, background, luck, power, connections, etc. regardless of the economic conditions of others, and regardless of the moral atrocities that are committed in pursuit of that wealth. The 99% feels entitled to a more egalitarian distribution of wealth, or at least to a more reasonable gap between rich and poor - as well as the right to not be exploited by the obscenely wealthy. But the inescapable truth and irony that I personally have had a difficult time getting around are the demographics of the occupy movement. The movement, which originally began in the United States, is very diverse in age, race, religion, and surprisingly, income. According to a study by the Baruch College School of Public Affairs, 50% of the original protesters were employed full time, and 13% made over $75,000 a year. Not that this undermines the causes or legitimacy of the Occupy movement, but I can't help thinking, what about the billions of impoverished persons across the globe who live on less than 2 dollars a day?

The cry of the 99% for reasonable standards of wealth is admirable, but I can't help looking at the larger picture and think of the billions who go without food, water, adequate medical supplies, education, proper housing, etc. If the Occupy movement is about what we can reasonably expect to claim ownership over, what happens when we turn that magnifying glass on our own lives?

Today I'm going to leave the hard work of this post to C.S. Lewis and a quote of his regarding entitlement and ownership in his book "The Screwtape Letters." He has already said much better than I could, exactly the idea that I want to convey regarding entitlement as an enemy to happiness.

The book is a fictional collection of letters between two devils. The older more experienced devil, Screwtape, is here advising his young nephew, Wormwood, on using the concept of ownership to attack his victims. 

"Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury.
And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been
denied. The more claims on life, therefore, that your patient can be induced to
make, the more often he will feel injured and, as a result, ill-tempered. Now
you will have noticed that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to
find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal
unexpectedly taken from him. It is the unexpected visitor (when he looked
forward to a quiet evening), or the friend's talkative wife (turning up when he
looked forward to a tête-à-tête with the friend), that throw him out of gear.
Now he is not yet so uncharitable or slothful that these small demands on his
courtesy are in themselves too much for it. They anger him because he regards
his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. You must therefore
zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption "My time is my own". Let him
have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four
hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has
to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion
which he allows to religious duties. But what he must never be permitted to
doubt is that the total from which these deductions have been made was, in some
mysterious sense, his own personal birthright.

You have here a delicate task. The assumption which you want him to go on making
is so absurd that, if once it is questioned, even we cannot find a shred of
argument in its defence. The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of
time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon
his chattels. He is also, in theory, committed a total service of the Enemy; and
if the Enemy appeared to him in bodily form and demanded that total service for
even one day, he would not refuse. He would be greatly relieved if that one day
involved nothing harder than listening to the conversation of a foolish woman;
and he would be relieved almost to the pitch of disappointment if for one
half-hour in that day the Enemy said "Now you may go and amuse yourself". Now if
he thinks about his assumption for a moment, even he is bound to realise that he
is actually in this situation every day. When I speak of preserving this
assumption in his mind, therefore, the last thing I mean you to do is to furnish
him with arguments in its defence. There aren't any. Your task is purely
negative. Don't let his thoughts come anywhere near it. Wrap a darkness about
it, and in the centre of that darkness let his sense of ownership-in-Time lie
silent, uninspected, and operative.

The sense of ownership in general is always to be encouraged. The humans are
always putting up claims to ownership which sound equally funny in Heaven and in
Hell and we must keep them doing so. Much of the modern resistance to chastity
comes from men's belief that they "own" their bodies—those vast and perilous
estates, pulsating with the energy that made the worlds, in which they find
themselves without their consent and from which they are ejected at the pleasure
of Another! It is as if a royal child whom his father has placed, for love's
sake, in titular command of some great province, under the real rule of wise
counsellors, should come to fancy he really owns the cities, the forests, and
the corn, in the same way as he owns the bricks on the nursery floor.
We produce this sense of ownership not only by pride but by confusion. We teach
them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun—the finely
graded differences that run from "my boots" through "my dog", "my servant", "my
wife", "my father", "my master" and "my country", to "my God". They can be
taught to reduce all these senses to that of "my boots", the "my" of ownership.
Even in the nursery a child can be taught to mean by "my Teddy-bear" not the old
imagined recipient of affection to whom it stands in a special relation (for
that is what the Enemy will teach them to mean if we are not careful) but "the
bear I can pull to pieces if I like". And at the other end of the scale, we have
taught men to say "My God" in a sense not really very different from "My boots",
meaning "The God on whom I have a claim for my distinguished services and whom I
exploit from the pulpit—the God I have done a corner in". And all the time the joke is that the word "Mine" in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything. In he long run either Our Father or the Enemy will say "Mine" of each thing that exists, and specially of each man. They will find out in the end, never fear, to whom their time, their souls, and their bodies really belong—certainly not to them, whatever happens. At present the Enemy says "Mine" of everything on the pedantic, legalistic ground that He made it: Our Father hopes in the end to say "Mine" of all things on the more realistic and dynamic ground of conquest,
 
Your affectionate uncle
 
SCREWTAPE"

2 comments:

  1. I love that chapter... This is definitely key to finding out what keeps us, especially in wealthy societies, from gratitude. Thanks for the thoughts, Greg! Keep it up!

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  2. Tamara Yancosky-MooreDecember 16, 2011 at 10:22 PM

    This is very profound- the whole concept. I agree, and will think about it for awhile so that I can really absorb this well-written article! I have never really thought about the fact that my time is not my own. I have read The Screwtape Letters a very long time ago, and now I plan to go back and reread this book, again! This entire article is fascinating. Thank you, Greg!!

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