A Grand Delusion

A delusion is a false belief that is tenaciously held in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Delusions are not the sole property of clinically insane individuals; they are the common lot of humanity. Despite the suffering they cause, the vast majority of human beings continue to live under the influence of one or another set of delusions.  The worst of our delusions are those that become so ubiquitous as to acquire an aura of facticity.  They go unchallenged because they are not seen as false by any of the significant individuals around us.  In effect, we confirm one another’s delusions by acting as if they were true.

One of the most pernicious of these false beliefs is the delusion of ownership.  This delusion emerges in childhood when we invest words like “my” and “mine” with too much reality.  Since the significant individuals around us appear to be functioning under the same delusion, they do not challenge our misuse of these words.  Soon, we start taking these words not as useful metaphors or convenient fictions but as accurate indicators of the way things really are.

The delusion of ownership is associated with a long list of symptoms, each of which leads to further suffering.  If I believe that something belongs to me, that it is “mine,” then I feel justified in holding that (1) it’s mine because I deserve it, (2) my worth is a reflection of its value, (3) nobody has the right to take it away from me, (4) if I lose it my worth will come down, (5) I am free to use it any way I please, etc.  A large number of human predicaments, from neuroses and political conflicts to global climate change, can be traced to one or another manifestation of the grand delusion of ownership.

We frequently derive our sense of worth from what others say about us.  What others say about us is often related to how many things we own, or can own if we choose to.  This is no longer a subtle or unconscious phenomenon but has permeated into ordinary language in a blatant way.  When we hear a sentence like “how much he/she is worth,” we immediately know that the number of zeros in a person’s bank balance are at issue, not his/her moral qualities or character traits.

Not only our sense of worth, but in the final analysis even our sense of personal reality has become bound to the delusion of ownership.  I own things, therefore I exist.  If I lose some of them, I am diminished in the hierarchy of existence.  If I notice that you own more than I do, then I immediately feel small in relation to you.  This may lead to a sense of resentment.  Even if I own more things than you do, I still feel a gnawing dissatisfaction because the world dosn’t know this yet.  In order to feel real and worthy in the eyes of the world, I must display my property in one form or another, letting everyone know that I do, in fact, own more than you.  I have now become the object of other people’s admiration and jealousy, therefore I exist.

Yet, no human being ever owns anything.  Things do find their way into our possession and we do use and enjoy them for a while, but eventually they degenerate or are taken up by natural processes of recycling or they move into the possession of someone else.  As soon as we realize the movement of time across eons and millennia and even across decades, the fictive nature of ownership is exposed.  Yet, entire economic systems are built on the unreal foundation of this very fiction.  There is, of course, a limited use for this fiction in the legal system and in the proper functioning of social relations, though even here we find the devastating tendency to take this metaphor too literally.

To imagine ownership as real is possible only by pretending that time is unreal, that change does not exist.  It is only by making time stand still, only by refusing to acknowledge the reality of perpetual change in the universe, that we delude ourselves into thinking that we own anything at all.  On the other hand, if neither us nor what we possess and use is here for ever, if the only constant in the world is change itself, then we are mere custodians, guardians, trustees, stewards… anything but owners.

Like toddlers in a day-care center, we are allowed to play with the toys but we can’t take them with us at the end of the day.  Someone else owns them.

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