Losing Our Humanity Begins with the illusion of Ownership

Over the next few weeks, I want you to try an experiment. Pay close attention to the dialogue that takes place in your head as you talk to yourself. If you’re anything like me, then I’m betting you’ll eventually notice a pattern: When you hear yourself internally verbalizing some form of the phrase, “But that’s my (fill in the blank),” it will reliably indicate that the interior or exterior dialogue that follows is about to become decided uncharitable.

I’ve noticed this pattern in myself and others so frequently that it now holds the top spot on my list of human nature’s laws: As the illusion of ownership increase humility decreases. This pattern worked its way into my internal narrative yet again today. 

In my car, I had just rounded the last corner before my house. As I approached, I noticed a large, silver SUV taking up most of what I consider “my” parking space. The slot is closest to our house. It’s the one I us almost daily. Our own SUV, then parked in the driveway, should have signaled to the thief that I would again be needing my parking space when I returned.

I began to wonder “Who was this idiot. Who was this person who could be so inconsiderate, so thoughtless, so selfish?” Not a second later, the self-justifying stereotyping began: I might have understood if the trespasser was driving a Prius, like mine. But nope. It was an SUV. And not any old SUV. It was one of those masters of the universe monsters that says, Yeap, I own the world and you along with it. Such, arrogance…” Moments later, I caught myself, and stopped.

(Humility is not just important for adults: How to Teach Children to be Humble)

That entire internal dialogue took less than three seconds. Yet, the brevity of my questionable thoughts didn’t excuse it. The only thing to celebrate was that I hadn’t gone whole-hog down that internal rat-hole. What stopped me was having recognized this pattern over a year ago and then having noticed many instances of the pattern in subsequent months.

The Pattern

I first noticed it while walking outside during COVID with my mask on. It was a beautiful sunny day. I was happy to be outside. That is until the woman walking her dog on the other side of the street decided to cross onto my side. Yes, my side. I was clearly there first. The CDC was blaring daily to stay six feet away. Yet there she was, unmistakably on my side, walking on my sidewalk with the intent of passing less than a foot away. And why should I be the one to yield. I was there first: My space, my right, my walkway.

Where normally I would have said a cheery Colorado hello; instead, I literally held my breath and glared at her as she passed. Part of me wondered if she could feel the venom in my stare. But by the time I felt safe to breathe again, the other part of me was already deeply ashamed of the way I had behaved. Within seconds I couldn’t help wonder what had possessed me.

Soon I notice the pattern more broadly, not just on walks. I observed it in myself when some stupid 55 mph trucker decided it was time to cut me off in my 80 mph fast lane. I noticed it when my older son yet again ate all my chips, all my chicken, and the last of my oranges. Never mind that he’s a growing boy who, at fourteen, needs ever calorie he can get, calories I could easily due without.

I noticed the pattern when people began to waste my time, or my hard-earned cash, or my right to whatever. The moment my interior-self decided it was time to assert my ownership over any situation marked the moment my interior dialogue was about to became one I didn’t want to share with anyone I hoped would maintain a high opinion of me.

Ironically, the main reason I began to notice this pattern in myself was that it was the same pattern of behavior I had long ago noted in other people who  I considered to be on the wrong side of the aisle. Despite their protestations to the contrary, I never ascribed the same pattern to myself.

I now realize that the main reason I missed our similarity hinged on what we were willing to claim ownership of. It wasn’t that I lacked stark moments of feeling highly possessive over certain things nor did I lack the mean-spiritedness that often went along with those feelings of possession. It was that I felt ownership rights that differed from theirs. Plus, I thought my chosen ownership rights were clearly justified while theirs absolutely were not.

This willingness to claim questionable ownership over goods and situations – and the subsequent willingness to act badly as a consequence – is not an exclusively personal or American failing. Take 1938 Germany for instance. They wanted more room, they need more room, they felt the land was historically theirs, and they took it.  Or consider Russia and Ukraine today. Russia believes Ukraine belongs to it and it alone. Or at least Putin, as a stand in for the whole of Russia, thinks so. Even the question of what today’s world owes future generations is a question of who owns what and when.

Not Ours, If We Think about It

Maybe I’m more willing than some people to examine this questionable behavior in myself because it is so contrary to the way I was raised and to the mode in which I lived most of my early adult years.

Growing up in Colorado Springs, Colorado was the centerpiece of my childhood. The cultural traditions of that place were through-woven with Native American culture. My schools, my Scout masters, the museums we visit, the land itself — which possessed a daily beauty unmatched by any other place I lived as a child – all taught the same message: This place were you live is so much more than you should think of us yours. It is your duty to leave it better than you found and to pass forward that same sense of communal stewardship so that those who come after you will do the same.

We hated outsiders, who frequently came in and, ironically, acted as if they owned the place. We avoided hosting the 1972 winter Olympics because we feared that if people ever figured out what it was like to live there (because the cold really isn’t that cold in the absence of humidity and the presence of such amazing beauty) the place would be overrun and the ethic that kept the place pristine would evaporate, which it did in time, and by just that route beginning in the 1990s.

But Colorado was only a seven-year stay for me. As a child, I was a military brat. Almost every privilege we had was temporary – temporary housing, temporary authority, temporary shopping and dinning privileges. My dad being an officer afforded us such luxuries. But to say we owned more than ten percent of all that we took advantage of or command over during those years, would be a stretch.

I transferred into the same tradition, becoming an officer myself after graduating from the Naval Academy. From the beginning, all Midshipmen were trained to think of ourselves as servant-leaders, as stewards of our temporary possessions – of the multi-million and billion dollar vessels we sailed, drove, or flew and of the country we served.

I have few more poignant memories than the moments when my tenure at this or that base would come to an end, like at the Naval Academy hours after graduation. Duffel back in hand, I remember walking past the yellow line and the sign which warned, “No Visitors Beyond this Point.” With one final step, I understood that sign was now meant for me. Like a ghost looking back at a world to which it no longer belonged, the understanding swept over me that the incredible grandeur of the place that I had enjoyed for four brief years had been an incredible privilege, but not at any moment was it mine in the way many civilians imagine these things.

That departure and others from other bases felt like a kind of death. On each occasion, I couldn’t help but think how similar, how temporary, our place on this earth is. That for each of us there will come a time where we step over some indiscernibly line that marks this reality from the next, only to realize, if we hadn’t before, that none of this – bodies, homes, countries, right to life – was ever really ours to begin with. But only a gift, a grace. We are only temporary stewards of what God lends us, what He asks us to share and take proper care of. Humans, humus, dust-in-the-wind participants? Yes! Owners? Not in any real sense from a divine perspective. The moment we forget this fact is the moment we begin to lose our connection to what it means to be truly human.

Questions for Contemplation and Discussion

  1. Go to the online website Bible Hub and do a search for “steward.” Then do a search for “owner.” Who is usually associated, literally or metaphorically, with ownership and who is associated with stewardship?
  2. We are called to be stewards of the mysteries of God, stewards of God’s grace, stewards who must be above reproach. Even Adam was originally a steward. Is it an accident that in the Bible stewardship and servanthood are emphasized so much? Is it merely happenstance that a curse resulted the moment Adam and Eve overstepped their stewardship boundaries?
  3. Is it an accident or is it purposeful that in both the pop-cultural version of Christianity and in the political version of Christianity ownership and the rights and power that come with ownership stand front and center?
  4. What does it say when a society’s servant class are often seen as the dirty ones, the imperfect ones, the ones who need to remember their placer in the world? And what more does it say that Jesus considered himself as part of that class – a different kind of king, is the way he put it?

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