Sunday, July 11, 2010

Our Obsession with Ownership

I just divested myself of a large portion of my “household” to allow me the freedom to go wandering ("not all who wander are lost…"). It felt good. Very good, in fact, which surprised me a little. It got me thinking…

Why is our culture so obsessed with ownership? We see something that is beautiful and we “want it”. It is not enough to enjoy it; we must have it.

Surely, the most beautiful and precious things in our lives are those we don’t—and can’t—possess. The wind, the trees, the sky. The air we breathe. The sunset reflected over a crystal lake. A perfect moment. The unconditional love of a precious friend or the love between child and parent. The hypnotic notes of a musical piece. The exhilaration of having achieved a dream.

I used to kid my son about buying my dream car, a Mini-Cooper. He shook his head and told me I should look at a Z4 instead. Ironically, just as he started to see me in a Mini-Couper, I began to realize that I no longer obsessed over it; what gave me the most pleasure was to see them. I didn’t really need to own one or even drive one. So, in fact, having other people own the Mini-Cooper was preferable to me owning one. When I thought about this a little bit more, I concluded that a true altruistic act—any act of kindness— provides the same good feeling. It arises from a similar outward perspective. When you make someone else happy, it makes you happy.

Let's not mistake this “feeling good” altruism for some sort of selfishness, as some scientists and anthropologists suggest. The reward of “feeling good” when you have contributed to someone’s betterment and/or made the world a better place is a universal acknowledgement that you are following a true path—God’s path—one that promotes universal beauty and love. This is the opposite of selfishness (whose serving of self at the expense of others is a soul-emptying gesture). The key is whether the act is at the expense of others or to the betterment of others, regardless of whether it is at the expense of oneself or how it makes one feel. Altruism does not presuppose personal suffering. This is because altruism enriches the soul. Selfishness does the opposite; it empties the soul. When someone acts out of selfishness, she ironically achieves the opposite of her intent. She is poorer for all her riches. She owns so much but true riches elude her. This is because you cannot own happiness. You cannot capture it and keep it in a cage. You cannot buy it and own it. Ironically, happiness, like love, comes by giving it away. This is the secret of true altruism. And it is something that other animals already “know”.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

One of your best here, Nina. I found it very profound. It is also true that not all who wander are lost.

SF Girl said...

Thanks, Jean-Luc... Much appreciated.