Inside the Great Mystery that is,
we don’t really own anything.
What is this competition we feel then,
before we go, one at a time, through the same gate?
─Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi
I heard Christopher Merrill read this snippet of a poem on Iowa Public Radio. I just love Rumi, the way he always seems to be pointing towards a freedom that’s there for the taking, as if finding heaven were as easy as turning your face towards the sun. What I love most about the poem, though, is the second line, Rumi’s insistence that “we don’t really own anything.” Before you accuse me of being a socialist or a communist, though, let me just say I own lots of things: a car, a bike, a house. (Maybe I should put “own” in quotation marks?) And if someone else were to come along and insist that I didn’t really own anything at all, and therefore they were going to take my house and car and bike away and thereby relieve me of my non-ownership, I would strongly object. “The bike is mine,” I would say, without too much reflection upon any great mysteries. “Hands off.”
So now that I’ve established my belief in personal property rights, what can I say about not really owning anything? As Rumi has it, it all comes down to death. The same gate. One at a time.
Isn’t it remarkable that a man as wealthy and successful as Steve Jobs died? Isn’t there something appalling about that, about the fact that with all the wealth in the world he still had no control over his own body, no power to stop its dissolution? Right now, there are homeless men in their 70’s, eating sandwiches, turning their faces towards the sun, stretching out on the grass for an afternoon nap. Aren’t they now kings of the universe in comparison? Isn’t it amazing really, considering all that he owned, all that he controlled, that Steve Jobs didn’t own his own body? Does non-ownership get any more frightening than that?
I don’t mean to scare anyone. But if we don’t really own our bodies, then what do we own? I’m calling into question neither the legal fact nor the practical necessity of ownership: I love my house and I want to keep it. What I am calling into question, though, is how much I in fact own my house (or maybe even how much it owns me). How true is the psychological impression of ownership, that unmistakable feeling of this-is-mineness? The house is legally mine, yes, and I’m glad of that, but actually, truly mine for keeps? My body, my house, my car, my bike. Aren’t they all on loan more than owned?
Cultivating that attitude of loanership rather than ownership seems like the best kind of insurance policy, in a way. If, as Julia Alvarez writes, it’s “good to own,” it might be even better to borrow with the utmost gratitude, to recognize that you are not your body, not your house or your car or your clothes. And if by some turn of events everything were lost, you might still have everything left.