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Sunday, March 17, 2013
The Zen master told his acolytes of a holy man on his knees searching the grass under the moonlight for something he lost. A bystander asked what he was looking for. The holy man answered, “a key.” Willing to help search, the bystander asked, “Where did you lose it?”
“Over there, in the dark woods,” replied the holy man.
“Then why are you looking here, in this open field?” asked the perplexed stranger.
“Because this is where the light shines,” explained the holy man.
We enter this world naked, possessing nothing, yet we bury people in their nicest outfit. Why? Because, otherwise, no one would come to our funeral. Between entrance and exit, do we truly own anything if we can’t take it with us?
Our Western concept of private property, a core element of capitalism, has sparked the development of nations and advancement of humanity’s quality of life. It stimulates progress through innovation and entrepreneurship. Yet, it is ultimately a myth. The only thing we own and take to the grave, along with a few cosmetic clothes, is relationships.
We may rightfully accumulate wealth and own material possessions for a few earthly decades, but that is a short-run exercise. In the long run, we own nothing. It is our relationships that define us and mark our tombstones.
Economic science attests to the role of private property as a powerful incentive to manage one’s assets in a fruitful manner, including lucrative enterprises. Conversely, common property resources tend to be exploited. If everyone owns it, no one owns it. In the short run, the human institution of private property offers a demonstrated catalyst for economic prosperity, as well as personal greed and social alienation.
In fact, capitalistic nations generally have higher levels of environmental quality than socialist and communistic countries. Why? Because we have the time, incentive and expertise to invest in managing our natural resources. Plus, we can afford to import environmental assets from poorer nations, thereby helping or hurting their economic future contingent on the rules of trade.
The dark side of private property is that it can engender a sense of manifest destiny — that God wills the cultural elite and political masters to rule the less fortunate. This divisive historical paradigm is an arrogant deceit and flagrant misinterpretation of the Genesis command to have dominion over the Earth’s resources. Universally, sacred scriptures shout the call for humans to be stewards — not dominators — of creation, to serve the common good now and always.
Stepchild of the myth of private property is the myth of the self-made man or woman. We are all products — for better or worse — of those who have come before us. Our families, communities, cultures, educational systems and scientific institutions are collective endeavors of accumulated knowledge and wisdom conveyed anew to each generation. Individual motivation and personal responsibility are essential and virtuous. Yet, no one is an island of success.
Caring for one’s children is a noble achievement. Caring for all children is an enduring legacy. Private inherited wealth, a Western staple, tilts the playing field. The haves begin life on first base.
Rooted in the ancient Greek notion of Oikos (household), economics, ecology and ecumenism increasingly reveal almost daily the interconnectedness of our finite world. Hence, Mother Teresa declared, “If you have more than you need, you have someone else’s property.” Our global village is shrinking, with conflicts erupting at the edges, and reconciliation knocking at the door. How do we answer?
Though we indeed treat private property better than public property (think litter, pollution), the real issue is why? What is it about human values that disconnects us from the other property, person or place? Is it ignorance or laziness? If we decide to care only when we see tangible benefits to ourselves, is that rational self-interest or myopic narcissism?
If our concept of rational self-interest extends only to our immediate domain, no wonder that we suffer the symptoms of a lonely species fearful of the encroaching shadows. Identification of our worth with our possessions deepens a sense of estrangement from the human family. As Saint Teresa of Avila observed, “If you can’t be happy with nothing, how can you be happy with anything?”
The Zen holy man wisely understood how to replace what we have lost, not by recovering our former possessions, but by discovering new riches in the light of truth. If we die wealthy, the key will be our relationships with others who escort us into eternity.
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