Possessions vs. Things We Temporarily Possess

We’re just back from several days in Chicago. Although there were many positive aspects to the trip – two college visits, some great meals and a fun visit to the Art Institute, the last of which I haven’t been to in years (perhaps decades) – it was not a trip of unadulterated joy. Elena lost both her sunglasses and a ring. The sunglasses, which she admits cost way more than sunglasses should, was something she asked for as a birthday gift and she loved them and looked great in them. The ring was a gift from her best friend. She left the sunglasses at the booth in the restaurant at which we ate breakfast one morning and the ring appears to have fallen off her finger at some point during our visit to the Art Institute. (We checked lost and found at both places to no avail. Ultimately – just as we were leaving Chicago, the sunglasses turned up, but not the ring.)

Elena was quite upset at both losses. At one level I don’t have any difficulty understanding that. Both items were special to her for their own reasons. And she spend no small amount of time beating herself up over her carelessness.

As I reflected on her sadness and disappointment, however, it struck me that we might be helped if we could develop a different understanding of our relationship to our possessions. I think that for the most part we acquire things (by gift or purchase or otherwise) and develop the expectation that we will have them always. They are “ours.” We own them and we think we will always own them. We forget that the reality is that it is only a question of time before we will cease to own them. They will break…we will lose them…they will get stolen…they will be subject to ordinary wear and tear…or we may put them aside and forget about them.

As I contemplated Elena’s sadness, I thought: might it make a difference is we could develop a sense that what we possess, we posses for a time and only for a time? That the things we have are there for us to enjoy, but only for a limited period of time and when they are gone, they are gone. No sadness. No recrimination. Our time with them is simply over.

I don’t suggest that is easy. When I tried this idea out on Elena while she was still upset about her ring, she was skeptical. But I think there is something here that is not unrelated to the idea of the Buddhist idea of renunciation – we enjoy what we have while we have it…and don’t cling to it when it is gone. We posses our possesions while we posses them, and no longer. And when they are gone, we give thanks for what we have and let them go. It is a mindset that would save us a lot of heartache if we could manage it.