issue 177 - November 1987
Why does a simple need for security slide into
greed? Juliet Kellner tackles possessiveness.
When I was a small child I used to lie in the grass and look up late the big tree at the foot of the garden. 'You are my tree,' I used to say with as much conviction as I could. 'You - are - mine. YOU belong to ME.' And then my mind would boggle as it tried to swallow this huge and ludicrous proposition.
How could this vast being, this leafy giant be mine? Could I ever possess it, like a toy? The tree towered over me; its roots spread visibly all the way from the fence to our front door. It was ancient compared to my few years and yet would still be young when I was old and contemplating death. It belonged to no-one.
And yet now, as an adult, I find myself saying blandly, 'This is mine - these are my trees, my children, my house, my land'. But a dim confusion remains, an echo of shame at the absurdity of such claims. How did I so nearly come to forget that we are linked not through my superior ownership but through our mutual dependence on life itself?
'Indians say that people fighting over owning the land is like fleas fighting over which flea owns the dog,' says my daughter. I laugh and agree - sincerely and deeply. And yet my desire to delineate that which is mine is also very strong.
I've spent the past ten months, for example, struggling over my land rights. I was rather ashamed to mind so much about a material possession. I tried to be nonchalant, but a nervous cough and two rival rashes competing for territory across my cheeks displayed the truth. When the contracts were finally signed last week, all the symptoms receded like summer snow.
I must explain that when I say 'my land rights', no millet fields were involved, nor grazing ground. In the sense of soil to run one's fingers through, I possess no land at all. The 'land rights' in question refer to a small square of space many metres up in the air. I was buying an apartment carved out of an attic, in lieu of the house I could no longer afford to run while bringing up two children single-handed.
But it came to the same thing. My little apartment was my equivalent of someone else's farm. What does land provide, after all, but the fulfilment of certain crucial human needs - food, a measure of control over one's fate, shelter, and a sense of spiritual continuity with the rest of life? My garret was the place that would provide me and my children, I believed, with at least the first three - and I hoped the fourth - of these needs. By getting our home base right, I would be putting most of our material and emotional affairs on a good footing,
These things seemed to me right and good. I am glad to hear of others who put these needs first. Sri Lanka, for instance, is hardly rich but people there have initiated a programme to build, stunningly, a million homes for the homeless. Even hardened development experts have been moved by the results so far. Solving housing problems, they say (though I can't understand why they sound so surprised), solves all kinds of other problems. 'Long-standing skin rashes have improved,' said one, striking a particular chord with me. And fragmenting family relationships have become re-cemented in parallel with the walls.
Almost no one seems to be able to live triumphantly without a secure base in the material world. Even the minority who prefer to lead a nomadic existence usually take their caravans and their relatives with them: like snails, they may be mobile but they are not rootless. Only saints seem able to let go of just about everything material without personal diminishment - presumably because they are so deeply nourished by spiritual sustenance that they can forego their dependence on material sustenance: their roots go up instead of down.
A psychologist who specialized in studying normal healthy people, Abraham Maslow, drew a simple model to describe the usual hierarchy of human needs: a triangle sliced into several horizontal layers. The bottom layer represented our basic needs - for food and shelter, for example. When these needs are reasonably well satisfied, he said, we can move up to the next layer - where we find slightly more rarefied needs, like that for respect and recognition. At this level, I might feel a great need for the boss to praise me as much as she praised my colleague - but if I were starving, I'd be too wretched to worry about such niceties.
At the very top of Maslow's triangle of needs resides the need for 'self actualization'. Like saints, people who have reached this point are relatively free of material and ego needs; they turn their faces up to the spiritual realms above the triangle and out towards humanity at large. They are ready to serve a larger purpose than comforting their own egos.
The trick, if you want to keep going up the triangle to the transcendental level, is not to deny oneself the needs of the lower levels (as many idealists try guiltily to do) but to satisfy each level of need sufficiently to be able to leave it; for example, to acquire enough food to be free of craving. Enough - and no more: because the danger is that in the process of trying to satisfy the need sufficiently, we can get hooked on it, and stay stuck.
I might decide, for example, that I need an apartment and a bicycle to adequately satisfy my basic material needs - but when I get them, instead of moving onto the next level, I might decide I really need a bigger house and a car before I am satisfied, and then a Rolls Royce, or perhaps several .. Before I know it, I am no longer free of material needs but caught in them, hook, line and sinker. After a while, 'I need it' becomes a justification for my taking anything, from anyone.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a real-life example of this process. I heard a radio interviewer asking a Palestinian the other day if he didn't think the Israelis were justified in wanting more land in order to secure their precarious boundaries. The Palestinian replied wryly that this reminded him of the story of the farmer who kept taking more and more strips of his neighbours' farms - on the grounds that he needed to protect his own,
The moral seems to be that possessing enough to provide for oneself and one's family is justifiable. The child laughing under the tree is free to enjoy life - but only because her parents are taking care of the murky material realities for her.
But, to take Maslow's principle again, we should only build walls high and strong enough to free us from daily anxiety - not create barbed-wire barriers that trap us, or rob others. Even our possessiveness must operate within a context of freedom from possessions. Which brings me to my concern about my apartment. It satisfies my bottom-level needs very well. But will I then move on. or will I get stuck?
Juliet Kellner is a short-story writer and freelance journalist based in London