Moving Away From the Possessive
When my now-adult nieces and nephews were young children, I kept a small collection of games, books, and toys at my house for them to play with when they visited. Most of them were purchased for a quarter at yard sales over the years, and I’d picked up a few of the books at a nearby used bookstore. But what my stash lacked in shiny newness, it made up for in being rarely used. These were the toys the kids played with only at Aunt Charity’s house, and as such, they were held in high esteem.
Which is why at the end of almost every visit, at least one young niece or nephew would ask, “Can I take this home with me?”
I’ll admit I was reduced to mush when I peered down into their large, earnest eyes begging me for the pleasure of not just playing with but owning the coveted toy. And what was it to me, a quarter’s worth of plastic or cardboard? But I knew the minute that toy was added to their home collection, the magic would end, and like most toys do when they no longer have the attention of a child, the little hunk of plastic or cardboard would end up in the trash.
So I held my ground: “No, we’ll leave these toys here so you’ll have something to play with next time you come.” And what would likely have produced a tantrum in the presence of parents usually ended with just a few tears and big hugs with Aunt Charity. Then I’d pull out another bag of candy for the car trip home, and the toys were forgotten until the next visit.
I’ve felt the siren call of ownership and possession myself, driving down the highway and seeing a beautiful patch of wildflowers. “I should stop and cut some,” I think, knowing all too well that in my state it’s illegal to do so. I’ve kept library books long past their due date, at least in part because it would be so great just to own this book rather than return it. And I’ve wondered what it would be like to own a little place in the woods rather than being forced to visit parks and nature preserves when we want to hike or sit in the presence of trees.
In Grammar for a Full Life, Lawrence Weinstein calls this our “deep confusion about ownership.” He categorizes it as a grammar problem because we’re often swift to pull out our possessive pronouns when describing the world, and this “possessive mindset—my, your, his and so forth—casts a thick, misleading veil over all things.”
Like children with toys they cannot possess, we seem to hold in higher esteem the things we have no claim on. But the minute we take possession, the object of our desire is simply another thing to take care of, another thing tying us down. Despite our deep desire to own things, doing so, Weinstein writes, “limits our appreciation for the given world in its miraculous totality.”
I like the way Robin Wall Kimmerer, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, describes the connection to the land of many Indigenous people even today. In an essay for Orion Magazine about the ancestral territory of the Onondaga outside Syracuse, New York, Kimmerer says that the Onondaga sought legal title to their land not as a land claim, “because to the Onondaga land has far greater significance than the notion of property,” and not to evict current residents from their homes, because “the Onondaga people know the pain of displacement too well to inflict it on their neighbors.”
Instead, Kimmerer says that the lawsuit they brought in federal court was a “land rights action,” “not for possession, not to exclude, but for the right to participate in the well-being of the land. Against the backdrop of Euro-American thinking, which treats land as a bundle of property rights, the Onondaga are asking for freedom to exercise their responsibility to the land. This is unheard of in American property law.”
The case was later dismissed when the court said that “it would be ‘too disruptive’ to the people of New York if they ruled in favor of the Onondaga Nation,” according to the Onondaga Nation website.
For his part, Weinstein says he has “no intention of taking to the street with placards for the abolition of private property,” but he does invite readers to regularly remember, like Kimmerer, “that the world is not ultimately ownable by us.” And to do this, he brings us back to grammar, to those possessive pronouns, and to the possibility of using them a little less.
“What effect, if any, does it have on mental health to retreat a bit grammatically from our presumed possession of the world, by replacing ‘my chair’ every now and then with ‘the chair I like to sit in in the evening?” he writes.
And maybe, when we think less about owning the chair and more about taking care of it as long as it is entrusted to us, we’ll actually enjoy our time sitting in it all the more. If that doesn’t work, I’ve heard hugs and candy help, too.
In his new book Grammar for a Full Life: How the Ways We Shape a Sentence Can Limit or Enlarge Us, Lawrence Weinstein invites readers into their own journey of well-being through the intentional uses of grammar. We invite you to join us as Charity Singleton Craig leads our discussion.
Grammar for a Full Life Book Club Announcement
June 2: Grammar to Take Life in Hand plus Grammar for Creative Passivity
June 9: Grammar for Belonging and Grammar for Freedom
June 16: Grammar for Morale, Grammar for Mindfulness, and Grammar for the End
Photo by Jason Parrish, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Charity Singleton Craig.
“This is a gem of a writer’s guide. The stories shared by Kroeker and Craig are memorable, and their advice is practical. I’ve been writing professionally for my entire adult life, and am always eager to learn more about the craft and business of writing. Kroeker and Craig had me thinking about my writing life in new ways on almost every page. Highly recommended.”
—Jennifer Dukes Lee, author
- Grammar for a Full Life Book Club: On Becoming Less Possessive - June 16, 2021
- Grammar for a Full Life Book Club: Chilling Out on the Grammar Rules - June 9, 2021
- Grammar for a Full Life Book Club: A Passive Voice - June 2, 2021