A little over a year ago I was in Paris with AwHus experiencing, not romance as you would expect, but a sense of confusion. The renovation of our apartment had started a little before we had anticipated and we arrived home to find that we did not have a functioning bathroom anymore. Miscommunication with the contractor, etc., the details are not terribly interesting nor important. We rented a room in a nearby hotel and proceded to spend a week sifting through more than forty years of family history in order to make the apartment ready for the next stages of the renovation. That got me thinking about stuff, owning stuff, more specifically how owning stuff imposes responsibilities to said stuff. From boxes and piles of stuff to all the other things we own in life was just a short mental jump.
Lightness and loss
I grew up in Puerto Rico, the smallest island of the greater Antilles, and a heavenly paradise by any rational measure of paradisiacal landscapes. For the most part, living there was great, except for droughts and hurricanes, the patriarcal macho culture, poverty, limited life options, overpopulation, colonialism, the oppressive morals of the catholic church, and the nosy neighbors. There were lots of good things too, music and crystalline beaches, days of yellow, creamy sunshine year round, close family ties with a huge loving family, and the most fun-loving, welcoming and helpful people on the planet who just happened to be our nosy neighbors.
Hurricanes are a particular problem of life in the Caribbean but I was lucky to grow up without experiencing a direct hit from any major one on my island home. That was until 1998, when Hurricane Georges crossed the island from east to west. At the time I was living with my parents,—proudly!—the roof of our house was blown away and we lost a lot of stuff; not everything, but enough important things like furniture, appliances, and most of our clothes, to make life interesting. Nobody was hurt, and our community, church, work, the government, our extended family, everybody helped us recover, something for which we will be eternally grateful. I gained something special, the knowledge of how very few possessions I needed in order to live a reasonably good life.
That period right after hurricane Georges and before we had our home and lives back together has always been something difficult for me to explain. You’d think that we were destroyed, we certainly were shocked, but also happy to have each other and for the help and compassion of the people around us.—That is a summary of compacted circumstances. Though we were destroyed for a long time, after a while, we recovered our house and with that recovered some sort of happiness, but it was not as throwing a switch.—I remember the first time I came from my shelter in my aunt’s house to see what had happened to my parent’s house. The concrete husk of the house sat among a nest of fallen tree branches, the roof was gone, blown away about fifty feet down the road into the yard of one of our neighbors. A wood beam had gone through one of the living room windows when it collapsed, everything inside the house was soaking wet. The scattered debris and fallen utility cables blocked the way so it was impossible to get inside to try to rescue something. I felt homeless, confused, and light. This was my first experience with a thing that I am still grappling with, everything that I had owned owned me, when I let go of things it felt akin to loosing weight; difficult, painfull, and yet totally worth the pain.
Divested of most of my stuff and finding a new sense of lightness, of being unfettered, I could concentrate in getting my act together, finishing college, and eventually, moving out of paradise to look for new opportunities. Since then, I have lived in six different countries and I am looking forward to move to country number one of these days, somewhere in Europe, preferably. I still like materials things, but I have realized that I enjoy the admiration of an object more than its actual ownership. I try not to hoard things, and always end up giving away or selling cheap the good stuff that its not practical for me to take away to the next destination; things that shouldn’t go to waste but I don’t want to have them as a rope around my waist, pulling me back to places that would cut my adventuring days short.
Most people don’t understand that I don’t want random things to own me; they are not what make me, they are not really part of myself therefore they should not determine what I do or how much living space I need. Developing this way of thinking was a long-drawn process. Sometimes, in spite of myself, I feel attached to stuff. So why is it that most people are so passionately binded to things external to themselves?
Before I try to answer that question, I have to clarify that in this essay, I am going to make some assertions based on my personal interpretation of what I’ve read and learned in the last couple of months about this topic. Unless I provide reputable citations after a statement (such as textbooks or peer-reviewed articles), I am not talking about well-established academic philosophy, science, or psychology.
The Material Self
Answers about human behavior are often more complicated that we would like, and also way more interesting. For example, it appears that people don’t always make the distinction between the fundamental unit that might objectively be considered the self (like their bodies and personalities), and things external to themselves that form part of the intimate reference framework of their identities (e.g. owning a book or a car). According to the philosopher William James, the various ways in which people think about themselves constitute “the empirical self”, and one of the components or aspects of this empirical self is “the material self”, which encompasses objects, people or places that we designate as my or mine.1 In his book “The Self”, psychologist Jonathon D. Brown goes on to explain and expand W. James’s philosophy, and discusses several interesting consequences of this material self and why people have strong emotional responses to their possessions. One of the most interesting for me are experiments that demonstrate the principle of “mere ownership” or “endowment effect,” in which people consistently evaluate in more positive terms objects that were owned by them than objects of similar value that were not owned by them. For some people, material possessions might be a form of extending their lives beyond their natural lifespans; some psychologists had argued that inheritances, in addition to enjoyment of valuable things, represent an attempt at immortality by passing family possessions to the next generation. In general, people tend to react to material loss in ways very similar and with the same intensity as their reactions when experiencing more significant loses, like health, or the loss of a beloved person. If that doesn’t blow your mind you need to think about it a little bit more. Somebody, let’s call her Mrs. X, can potentially be as devasted to lose her car as of loosing a leg or loosing Mr. X.
It is not only physical objects or the people in our lives that we consider part of our selves; anything that can be called my or mine includes, additionally, things like political ideas, knowledge, social status, and all kinds of intangible beliefs. That possibly has to do with why it is so difficult to change somebody else’s opinion. You are not trying to change a point of view, you are trying to change a fundamental aspect of a person, the psychological equivalent of changing height, weight, or skin color. Even if the person is really motivated to do it, it might still be virtually impossible. If the person doesn’t want to do it, you might as well be suggesting that they ought to cut their own hand for a higher purpose. Most people will tell you to go and do something creative with yourself.
Reciprocal Ownership and Needs
Things, places, people, form that mirror in which we attempt to recognize ourselves. When we let go of an old t-shirt, a broken car, or an untrustworthy friend, what goes away is a little piece of our sense of self; in that context, it is natural to feel reluctant to let go. I argue, that it doesn’t always have to be that way. We can learn to define our empirical selves in other terms beyond possessions or circumstances that we want to perceive as static but are not. I believe that the first step is to understand what I will call reciprocal ownership, or everything you own, owns you, if you allow it to. But how does that make any sense? After all, I can buy a house—hypothetically—but a house cannot get a mortgage to buy me.
Take for example a different object, something smaller, simpler, less powerfull than a house. Let’s take something like a decorative doll, one that was given as a gift. If I receive such a gift, I have to maintain it, clean it, find space where to keep it, and if it went to waste I would be responsible for making sure it was disposed off in an appropriate way. Not only that, if I have to move to another country and I decide that the doll is important enough, I will have to pack it and pay for it to arrive in the new country. If I move again, as I am inclined to do sometimes, I will have to repeat the process. Make this enough times and the doll will cost me probably twice or three times as much as the person who gave it to me paid for it. And if I am deeply attached to this doll and it gets lost in one of the movings, I have to pay an emotional price. In that way, a doll has a significant amount of power over me, my decisions, my emotions. I am the owner of a gift, but the gift exerts significant amount of power over me, even influencing where I go and how I spend my money. There is a reciprocal ownership between me and a simple inanimate object, and if it gets deep enough, that object can become as much a part of me as my face or my intestines, at least in my subconscious mind.
I argue that, in general, there are two kinds of material or psychological objects, those that satisfy concrete needs, and those that satisfy perceived needs. And this is where is gets tricky, because concrete needs are not necessarily physical needs, and perceived needs are not always psychological or emotional needs. A thing easy to classify, the house in one of the previous example, fulfills a very concrete need for shelter; the doll fulfills a rather dubious psychological need of two people, the giver and the receiver, and neither of us might die of exposure to elements without that doll. What makes a need concrete or perceived is not so easy to define but I will attempt to do so.
What is a concrete need? I want to use a wide approach here; concrete needs are things that we need to survive such as food, shelter, medicine, water, but also things that are indispensable for our quality of life and general wellbeing, like meaningful relationships, a sense of purpose, or regular exercise. Notice that this definition includes things that materially affect the body as well as things that psychologically affect the mind, and that it implies immediate and long-term positive effects on our wellbeing. They can also be things that we do not need for our immediate survival but that greatly enhance the quality or facilitate our daily lives, like a wash machine or hiring somebody skilled to do our taxes.
What is a perceived need? More than the opposite of a concrete need, a perceived need is a thing that we believe we need but we objectively don’t. These things tend to make us happy or contribute to our wellbeing only in the short term, sometimes they are even actively harmful, and are mostly things that we want but had confused with need. Things like the last electronic gadget and designer clothes, drugs, or alcohol, but also an unnecessary excess of concretely needful things. (For example, having several cars. Hello! How many can you drive at the same time?) Perceived needs tend to act as external symbols for qualities we possess or wish for other people to believe that we posses, for example jewelry, expensive electronic gadgets, sports cars. Perception of a need is a powerful thing, there are billion-dollar industries out there founded on the principle of making us think that we need this or that, that we can somehow acquire beauty and happiness if we just buy some specific objects or services. The degree of their success indicates that they successfully connect with a part of our minds and our social constructs that is a key part of our overall sense of self. Due to this, I argue, that perceived needs can exert a more pervasive reciprocal ownership on us, in more definite and sometimes destructive ways, than concretely needful things.
Forms of Reciprocal Ownership
So how can one identify the effects of reciprocal ownership? Is reciprocal ownership only about owner-material object or does it imply something more? There are different types of reciprocal ownership relationships and I think they are deeply related to W. James’ empirical self concept in some ways.
The first reciprocal ownership, and the most obvious to observe and easier to let go, is that of material objects. In the previous examples with the house and the gift doll we saw a way in which material objects own their owner but there are other, more subtle ways that we can think about. For example, in many western countries you have to pay property taxes for your house. This can determine not just were you can afford to live, additionally, if you are able to keep that house. If you turn it around it can determine the destiny of you and your family. Talk about power! And with it, our sense of identity, who we are, where do we belong.
Then there is technology.—Aha! You knew it! Here comes the Luddite. Not at all.—One way in which technology owns us is by limiting the scope of what we think we can or ought to accomplish. And that is a whole lot story and another full essay. In many ways, we think we have the fantasy of being what we see on TV, but beyond that, we have become accustomed to think that we are what we see flashing, fast and indefinite in our computers and smartphones screens. These are things that own us but they are not our mirrors, at the most they are ghost reflections of our wants and needs that somebody told us we cannot be happy if we don’t satisfy them easily. What we see, what we hear, the stories that we tell ourselves, all of that imposes a baseline of circumstances under which we assume happiness or unhappiness must occur, we are captives of expectations that have no base on reality.
The second form of reciprocal ownership is that of land and places. We have our country and we belong to our country. We believe that we are free, in countries that proclaim to love freedom but we are free only to the extent that were are anonymous and ignored by the powers that be in whichever country. AwHus was one of the las generation of young French men who had to do mandatory service in the French army. As it turned out, he liked it very much; it was during a time of peace, he had a great time, made friends, and didn’t loose too much time. But the fact remained, he was not the owner of himself to make a different decision. That law has been long derogated. I think that is a very obvious example but there are other, subtler ways. Like people insisting on staying in places that offer no personal or economic opportunities because it is their place, their land. There is a sense of safety and national identity tied to a certain piece of land, the land of the ancestors, who was here first? Who has the right to come and who needs to go? I own a piece of land and I become that piece of land. I give it a name and I call myself by the the demonym of the name I created for the people of my land. But the pure scientific truth is that our species evolved in this planet for this climatic circumstances and we belonged biologically almost everywhere because we are able to adapt to almost everything. The geopolitical implications and mechanics are a whole other can of worms.
People can also own you, not like in slavery, although that certainly is still a problem in some parts of the world. When I say own you, I mean define you in such a way that limit your choices. Family, friends, tribes, groups, people from the same country or ethnic group, people in which midst you find yourself, all of them had expectations of what you should be and how you should behave, regardless of wether these expectations are reasonable or practical, or even in line with their best interest or yours. To belong is to behave, to behave against your better nature is to be enslaved, owned. Even your pet has a say on how your house is kept and run, the strongest reciprocal ownership can be between people and pets.
There is one final type of reciprocal ownership that is almos as powerfull as all the other types combined. Our believes and world views own us more strongly that many other material or psychological entities because believing is seeing. And we build layers and layes of gossamer filters made of our convictions between us and the empirical reality that is only imprecisely perceived by our senses. Believing in something makes it real, at least inside our heads. And being owned by this believes in an inflexible way has been the cause of so much strife and suffering and, puzzlingly enough, of compassion, art, and discovery.
In summary, it took me a bit of personal discomfort to start thinking about the relationship of humans with their possessions. My own experiences with hurricanes and being a serial expat led me to study more about the psychological constructs that might be implied in this mind-bending relationships. I found answers that only partly satisfied me and used them as a starting point to develop the concept of reciprocal ownership; some things are clarified but some others are just confusing and require more questions and answers, more books and months, possibly years of study to become clearer and more satisfactory. This essay is just the beginning of this exploration.
Links and references:
About property taxes and gentrification:
About other sources:
- 1. J. D. Brown, The Self, 1998 Taylor and Francis Group, LLC, ISBN 0-8058-6156-4, and citations thereof.