There are long stretches of the California coastline where you can’t get to the beach without trespassing. The wave-washed rocks and strips of sandy beach lie beyond reach, somewhere behind the walls and gates of those whose money has bought themselves a view of the ocean for their own personal benefit. I don’t see such behavior as driven so much by the wish to exclude others as by some curious lack of pleasure in things one doesn’t own title to. It’s like not being able to enjoy the presence of a beautiful woman or a marvelously expressive work of art or an ocean landscape without your enjoyment being diminished by lack of possession.
Yet, while the idea of owning things is real enough to those who think in such terms, the actual owning of anything is questionable. We’re all here for a finite duration, and as it’s often said, “You can’t take it with you.” So the best one can claim for ownership is that it constitutes a term lease on the use of certain resources and properties. But since everyone in the world depends upon these same resources and properties, and since these resources were already here and in use when I arrived on the scene and will be used by others when I’m gone, it’s folly to think that any of it is mine.
It might be a harmless enough folly to imagine that we actually own things if we didn’t take our ownership rights so seriously and if we weren’t so readily capable of destroying what we “own” in order to keep it. In the minds of most Americans, rich or impoverished, the possession of property rights is nearly synonymous with freedom and personal autonomy. It’s an unfortunate confusion that leads to the worst and most violent of our behaviors. People will readily kill each other over the ownership of things, mistakenly equating possession with freedom. The notion that I can do what I want with the things I own leads to the ambition to purchase individual freedom through acquisition, as if freedom were a commodity to be bought or stolen or fought for as the need might be.
Henry David Thoreau, who understood literally and intimately the self-canceling consequence of linking freedom with property, observed that wherever he happened to be at the moment the landscape radiated around him accordingly and that he already “owned” everything in sight as fully and completely as one holding legal title might. “Enjoy the land, but own it not. Through want of enterprise and faith men are where they are, buying and selling, and spending their lives like serfs.” A freedom that relies on exercising control over territory has the diametrically opposed consequence of enslaving us to the very means we employ. We are left struggling to acquire through indirection what we already directly possess.
E. M. Forster in his essay, “My Wood,” tells of having bought a small property in the English countryside, and then proceeds to ask, “If you own things, what’s their effect on you? What is the effect on me of my wood?” Among several psychological effects of owning a wood, one such effect is worth quoting here at length for its obvious relevance to the adverse relationship between freedom and territory:
“It makes me feel it ought to be larger. The other day I heard a twig snap in it. I was annoyed at first, for I thought that someone was blackberrying, and depreciating the value of the undergrowth. On coming nearer, I saw it was not a man who had trodden on the twig and snapped it, but a bird, and I felt pleased. My bird. The bird was not equally pleased. Ignoring the relation between us, it took flight as soon as it saw the shape of my face, and flew straight over the boundary hedge into a field, the property of Mrs. Henessy, where it sat down with a loud squawk. It had become Mrs. Henessy’s bird. Something seemed grossly amiss here, something that would not have occurred had the wood been larger. I could not afford to buy Mrs. Henessy out, I dared not murder her, and limitations of this sort beset me on every side. . . . . Nor was I comforted when Mrs. Henessy’s bird took alarm for the second time and flew clean away from us all, under the belief that it belonged to itself.”
In the end Forster sees no help for his predicament other than “I shall wall in and fence out until I really taste the sweets of property.” And a bitter sweetness it is, having finally contrived to literally imprison himself within the confines of his purchase. Forster’s ironic portrayal of the effect of land ownership on the human psyche is perfectly accurate as far as I can see. And he leaves us as an alternative the teasing image of the bird that can’t be walled in or fenced out and, like everything else, belongs to itself.
I hold my entire life on loan in common with everyone else. If I can dispel from mind the vanity of possession and relax my grip on things, passing on whatever comes to hand, I will come in time to know things for themselves and not as belongings of any sort. Ownership is anathema to true freedom not because ownership is evil as such, but because ownership is an intrinsically divisive delusion that inevitably leads to grasping and coveting.
To own something is to be owned by it. To free myself, I must let go.