Does it really belong to me?

A few days ago I received an email from a reader named Karen who lives in Australia or “down under” as many refer to the country.  Karen noted that her two teenage sons had found my blog useful for some of their school work and that some of my subjects were interesting to them.  Her older son is a senior in high school and has been studying the idea of “belonging.”  She suggested that I write on the subject of “belonging” and how it fit with time or perhaps just write on the topic as a new series of blogs.  I told Karen that I would think on this some as I used the “incubation” method of developing material.  I usually get an idea, put it on a notecard and let it “gestate” for a few days and then see if the muse of creativity visits me. 
One of my best ways of getting ideas for this blog has been to reflect on the idea while I am jogging.  So yesterday I did about 4 miles while thinking about the idea of “belonging.”  What does it mean? What are the ramifications?  Does the concept have the same meaning to people as it does to things?  What about how it applies to land and other legal titles?  My name belongs to me.  My house belongs to me.  My car belongs to me.  My property belongs to me.  My children belong to me.  However, my wife does not belong to me nor can I buy anyone like I buy a new motorcycle or a new coffee pot. 
Ownership is intimately related to “belonging” as is the idea of responsibility.  We are responsible for those things that belong to us. Thus, we are responsible for our children until they are adults and then they no longer belong to us.  We are not responsible for our relatives or our friends or our spouses and we would not say they belong to us. However, many people, (more men I think than women) act as though their spouses belong to them.  Some people have a perverted idea of what a marriage license or in other cases even a relationship means and they quite literally start to act as thought the other person they are in a relationship with is someone they own.  They attach the idea of belonging to people as though they are chattel or some type of product that they can buy, sell or trade.  How many times have you read some comment like “If I can’t have her, no one can.”  Each day the newspaper (at least in the USA) has some story about a guy who either murders his former wife or murders his estranged wife because “she left him or wanted to leave him.”  When I say this is a perverted sense of “belonging”, I think it is perverted because it carries the ideas of ownership to people.  It assumes that we own people like we own a product and that we have exclusive rights to their time, affections, attention and even bodies.  Should such “property” decide to “terminate” the relationship, it is a catalyst for feelings of betrayal, anger, jealousy and even hatred.  “If I can’t own them, if they no longer belong to me, I will see that they no longer belong to anyone else.” 
Here is where the idea of time comes in.  We get married and we promise to remain faithful until “Death do us part.”   Those who take the idea of belonging to extremes take this idea to mean that never can the other person “belong” to anyone else.  Their affections and body belong to only one person and that belonging is for perpetuity.  No one has a problem with this idea when it comes to things or property but when it comes to people; most modern cultures tend to regard the idea of anyone belonging to another as at best out of date and in many cases as simply sick.  I noted above that children are an exception.  It is often heard “who does that kid belong to?”  Children do belong (at least in a legal sense) to parents, guardians or foster care but this ownership only lasts until they become an adult.  After some legal age of responsibility, children no longer belong to their parents and any parent who continued to refer to their children that way would be thought of very strangely.   
As you may have noted, the concept of “belonging” not only implies a sense of ownership but it also implies a sense of responsibility.  Things that we own are things that we are responsible for. I own a dog or other pet and I am responsible for that animal.  If my dog bites or attacks someone, I can be sued or fined for the offense. We are responsible to different degrees for the things we own and land infers a different responsibility than my ownership of a new car.  Many legal warranties will specify my responsibilities for my new car and of course there are any numbers of legal ordinances which specify my responsibilities for my automobile.  Who was it said that great “power brings great responsibility?”  I suppose it can be said that the more possibilities something has for hurting others, the more responsibilities the owner has.
By the way, I find two different definitions for the concept of “belonging” in the online dictionaries.  One implies ownership and the verb form implies classification.  The latter is an interesting concept that I may explore some other time. 
Be·long·ing (Noun)
1.     A personal item that one owns; a possession. Often used in the plural.
2.     Acceptance as a natural member or part: a sense of belonging.

Belonging  present participle of be·long (Verb)
1.     (of a thing) Be rightly placed in a specified position: “learning to place the blame where it belongs”.
2.     Be rightly classified in or assigned to a specified category.
Suffice it to say, I have been focusing on the first or noun definition.  In this term, “belonging” also implies a sense of time.  We only own something as long as we are alive.  Something can only belong to us as long as we live. We can put something in a trust, but that simply transfers ownership.  My car, motorcycle, house, property and other objects that now belong to me, will no longer belong to me after I am dead and departed.  They will cease to be mine.  We can’t take them with us.  Some of the Pharaohs apparently thought they could and their tombs were found with numerous possessions as well as corpses of their wives and slaves.  Back in Ramses day, a man truly owned his wife as well as other people.
Going back to the idea of time and “belonging” and ownership, it is interesting how many of us act as though these things that we own can be taken with us.  We hoard, acquire, shop, buy, accumulate but eventually we die.  Our “belongings” are now junked, trashed, sold or liquidated to make cash for someone else.  Those things we thought most precious for our lives now become someone else’s junk.  Note the many estate sales, where relatives are heard to say, “I can’t believe they had so much junk.”  One person’s treasures are another person’s junk. 
Things no longer belong to us when we die. We no longer have any responsibility for them.  You can’t take it with you but you can ruin your life thinking that these things that you own, these things that belong to you have some form of transubstantiation.  You can delude yourself into thinking that they can be changed into something permanent and timeless or that they have some sense of immutable value.  The only true value they have is to you. When you die, they may or may not have any value to anyone else.  They may simply go into the junk pile of history.  Discarded and forgotten along with most of the rest of the stuff that you have spent years acquiring. 
Next time you think that something “belongs’ to you, ask yourself why it is important to own anything?  Is life simply about acquiring more? Does he or she who has the most toys win? What do you really win?  Our lives are defined by those “gods” that govern our behavior.  If you live to acquire, what god are you worshipping?  Will he/she let you take it with you? What will be written on your tombstone that will survive longer than your possessions?  Perhaps the words: “It all belonged to him.” 
Thank you Karen for the idea for my blog today.  I hope your older son will take my ideas and play with them. I would love to see his paper or final project. It occurred to me that the second definition under Noun would create an entirely different perspective. To belong to something rather than something belonging to you is a very different issue.  Something more to think about.  

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Anthony Trinh
    Jun 08, 2012 @ 12:43:29

    I think sometimes we feel it is important certain things “belong” to us, because we feel as though we need them in life. I need to have glasses or contacts apart of my belongings, because without them I wouldn't be able to see a thing if he wasn't 2 inches from my face. But something I just realized is that the more things we have, the more we have to worry about.

    Life should not be about acquiring more things, but unfortunately it is for many people. They acquire more things which make them happier. Whether it's to make them happy or to show off to other people is another question I can't answer. But he or she with the most toys does not win. In fact, I would argue they have more stress worrying about their toys than someone who has nothing other than a meal and a place to stay everyday. Who wins there? Eye of the beholder I guess.

    I try not to live to acquire things, but I try to acquire experiences. Moments or even long periods of utter happiness. But of course I falter as well as I do want nice things. I want a clean place to live where I don't have to see rats in my hallway as I'm walking to my room. I want a nice laptop so communicate with my family, read, and entertain myself. Even though I make a conscious effort not to have too many “belongings”, it happens.

    On my tombstone, I'd want it to say “Lived and Loved Life.”



  2. Bruce Galbreath
    Jun 08, 2012 @ 13:45:43

    I'm dubious about the linkage between ownership and responsibility. When I'm response-able, I owe a response to someone else about the thing for which I am held responsible. If I really own something, then I can do with it what I damn well please, without having to answer to anyone about it. If my town or homeowners' association can tell me what to do with “my” house, is it really mine?

    However, given the rather extreme notion of what makes for ownership I have just laid out, it becomes doubtful whether I own anything at all. Do I even own myself, my own body and mind? Not if I owe my time and energy to others. Once I care about the needs and desires of other people, they own me. Do we want to have self-ownership, in the sense of independence I have sketched out? I think most of us want to belong to something outside ourselves, bigger than ourselves. We want to be parts, not independent atoms.



  3. John Persico
    Jun 12, 2012 @ 16:53:46

    Good heading for a tombstone Anthony. I have seen “No Regrets” which I also like. Good exercise for a class.



  4. John Persico
    Jun 12, 2012 @ 16:55:46

    Funny, you would say that Bruce, I would think the ownership and responsibility link was a well established legal fact. If your dog bites someone or your car hits someone, or you not responsible to some degree? As for ownership, that is also a legal definition and by law and contract you no doubt own many things.



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