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Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a three-part series about a new Happiness Paradigm that replaces the attitudes of control, ownership and independence with their more spiritual alternatives. Read the first overview article HERE and the second article HERE.
The Premise is this: We started with joy. We all began life with our default switches set to happiness. As babies, except when something (hunger, thirst, a little tummy ache or a wet diaper) distracted us, our natural state was joy. We were easy to delight. We smiled often and laughed—even giggled—a lot. People around us liked to make us happy, and our happiness made them happy. We were not self-conscious about our happiness. We waived our arms, we squealed.
But as we gradually grew older, that happiness began to ebb.
We started growing away from joy as we tacked on the years. By the time we were in kindergarten, while happiness was still our modus operandi, there were more and more things that pulled us away from it. As we went through elementary school, we began to learn the concept of ownership, and with it came selfishness and competition. We began to learn the notion of control, and with it came pride and frustration. We began to learn the concept of independence, and with it came loneliness and isolation.
These concepts were taught to us by adults, who were also the examples of them.
The premise isthat Ownership, Control, and Independence are essentially economic terms and that when they are applied too broadly, and adopted too comprehensively, they become our deceivers, they become the three thieves of our joy.
But remember that happiness is our natural state. We don’t have to discover happiness; we merely need to recover it.
And we can recover it by grasping, exposing, and discarding three of the things that have sucked happiness away from us. We can come to understand the limitations and illusions and deceptions of Control, Ownership and Independence (CO&I) which combine, intertwine, and cocoon us into a place where we are confined and walled off from our natural state of joy.
The premise is that our pursuit of Control, Ownership and Independence is keeping us from the rest, the peace, the natural world, and the spontaneity that go into joy, even as that pursuit creates the pressure, the tension and stress, and the comparing and competing that brings unhappiness.
Today, let us focus on the problem of “Ownership.”
Think about the fallacy of our obsession with ownership. What do we really own? We may obtain deeds and titles and bank accounts, but they pass through us as we pass through life, so does anything really belong to us? And doesn’t the illusion of ownership cause jealousy and envy and condescension and lots of other emotions that connect to unhappiness?
How we got so caught up with “Ownership” and how it deceives us
The right to own property is a key underpinning of a democracy and a free enterprise system. This right had to be fought for and won in order to free people from tyrants and monarchy. In an economic sense, ownership is a prerequisite for responsibility. People aren’t as likely to take good care of things unless they own them. Most home owners take better care of their houses than renters. But, like control, ownership becomes deceptive and destructive when it is taken too far. When an ownership mentality takes over our thinking, we forget that, in eternal and spiritual terms, God owns all. We are just using things which pass through our hands—things which come from or are part of God’s earth, things we may have a deed for, but which ultimately belong to us all, or to the earth, or to God.
If you think of the notion and attitude and perspective of Ownership as the trunk of a tree, what are the branches that grow? Branches of envy and jealousy sprout as we are in contact with those who have more things or better things than we do. Branches of condescension or superiority shoot up as we see those who have less. Branches of greed and covetousness begin to grow as we think about all that we wish we had. Branches of pride germinate as we think about what we have, or about having more of it than someone else.
Bottom line: There must be a better perspective, a better paradigm than Ownership.
The two families we home-taught (ministered to) in Washington DC years ago couldn’t have been more different from each other. One was the family of a hard-driving entrepreneur who was one of the most aggressive and self-driven people I have ever met. The other was the family of a blue-collar plumber and his stay-at-home wife and their 6 kids. Initially I had a lot of attraction to and admiration of the guy in the first family (let’s call him Jim), and a lot of pity for the second (George).
Jim had a Ferrari. He lived in a modern mansion with a separate pool house and a tennis court. He talked fast and had deals going everywhere. Jim had a lot of Ownership.
George lived in a tiny house with one bathroom, his hands were always dirty, and the obtaining of great ownership had probably never occurred to him.
But to make a long story short, my feelings about them shifted over time. Jim’s relationships were in shambles, his marriage on the rocks, and his kids entitled and rebellious. I felt palpable tension in that big glass house every time I was there. I began to dread my visits. Going to see George and his family, on the other hand, was always a kind of peaceful pleasure. They were struggling, but they were close. They smiled a lot and seemed grateful for what little they had.
For me, it represented another little milestone in my gradual journey away from the false notion of ownership.
The Alternative to Ownership is Stewardship Ownership is a self-centering and ultimately false concept. Stewardship, is the understanding that we really own nothing and that things merely pass through us and through our lives—things we can care for, take responsibility for, and find joy in.
Stewardship contrasts dramatically with Ownership, and produces different results, and different kinds of motivation as well as higher levels of happiness. The goal of this introductory chapter is to introduce the paradigm of Stewardship and to give each of us the desire to adopt and develop it.
Perhaps the strongest push-back in defense of the concept of Ownership is from people who believe in the political and economic principles of free enterprise and the rights of property. It is the principles of ownership and the possession, they say, that give people motivation and ambition and that cause things to get done. Economically and politically, they are right. But emotionally and spiritually, they are wrong—simply because there is a higher law, a more advanced paradigm that preserves all of the benefits and strong-mindedness of Ownership, without any of its selfish or prideful or competitive drawbacks.
To illustrate, think for a moment about a favorite example that those with an Ownership paradigm advocate. “To appreciate the importance of ownership,” they say, “just look at rental apartments that have been turned to owner occupied condos. Renters often trash and neglect property. Owners generally take care of it and have pride in it.”
Agreed. But now go to the higher paradigm, and simply ask the question, “Is there any perception or perspective that would cause people to take even better care of a place than if they owned it?” The answer is, for most people at least, “They would take better care of it if they perceived that God owned it.”
I like to define Stewardship as A paradigm in which one feels full responsibility for something he knows he is not fully deserving of; something both worked-for and received, for which we feel dedication and passion; something which brings us a sense of magnify-able and expanding gratitude and joy which we want to share with others.
What a Difference
The paradigm of Ownership can pit us against each other and foster a negative kind of competition in which we are always comparing ourselves with others and wanting more and more.
E.E. Cummings coined a clever phrase mentioned earlier that bears repeating because it explains the “more” mentality and hints at the effects of it. He said “more, more, more, more… my hell, what are we all becoming, morticians?”
The two ultimate and most predictable results of an ownership perspective are greed and pride. These are things we often do not recognize or acknowledge in ourselves so it is easy to become like the man who said “I’m not greedy, all I want is the land next to mine.”
Stewardship, on the other hand, implies that we are only taking care of what we are entrusted with, by the true Owner and for the better good. In this attitude, we perceive responsibility, but neither greed nor pride can flourish. A Stewardship paradigm brings with it a natural humility and gratitude that work as well for happiness as greed and pride work against it.
One good way to contrast the results and the feelings associated with perceived Ownership and perceived Stewardship is to compare two things (or situations) familiar to all of us. In one of them, an ownership mentality is the norm, and it produces one kind of feeling and in the other, a stewardship mentality is the norm. Think for a moment about these two case studies.
Case study A
You finally bought the Tesla. You have been wanting it for months, but were worried about making the big monthly payments—until today. This morning you got a promotion and a raise and it sent you straight to the dealership and you drove the car off the showroom floor. You race home, burst through the front door, and yell “Honey, where are you.? Come down here and meet the new Assistant Manager. We have really made it now, baby! Let’s take a drive in the new car and swing through the country club neighborhood.” Both your voice and your heart is full of what you consider to be well-deserved pride. (no disrespect to humble Tesla owners.)
Case study B
Your knees feel shaky as you come out of the obstetrician’s office where she has just confirmed that you are expecting your first child. You are filled with joy but also with the humility and questions of inadequacy that come in anticipating being a parent and caring for a baby. You hold your husband for a long hug and feel his similar combination of the happiness and joy combining with the self-doubt and fear of the unknown.
Think about the two cases. Why are they so different, so opposite? In case study A, the ownership mentality prevails. You finally got what you deserved, what you worked for, what others already have and what you should have had. Now others will see you for who you really are. You will have the respect and admiration you have sought. Within an hour or so you are thinking about a newer, bigger house to match the new car and to better fit the newer, bigger you.
With the first pregnancy, the stewardship mentality prevails. What is happening fills you with awe and feels like a miracle. You feel overwhelmed and thrilled and vulnerable and very aware of how much help you will need from so many sources. Prayer and asking for all to be well seems both natural and imperative.
If we juxtaposition the two, it becomes almost comical. Imagine thinking of the pregnancy in an ownership mentality, “I made a baby, I am so cool. I own this child because I made him and now everyone will appreciate how amazing I really am.”
In actuality, you do feel a certain kind of pride in yourself as a new parent, but it is a humble pride, tinged with awe, and the enormity of the blessing and responsibility adds to your joy and excitement even as it forcefully reminds you of how little you know and how much help you will need.
It feels natural to sense that children are stewardships. They produce humility and gratitude, along with the deep hope and joy that always comes from stewardships that are accepted and worked at diligently. Imagine the depth and meaning life would have if we saw everything as a stewardship—our possessions, our bodies, our positions, our gifts and talents—everything, even our cars! The same humility and gratitude would flow through us as with a new child, and we would begin to see the world in a clearer, more accurate perspective.
Trunks and Limbs
Another way to grasp the difference between Ownership and Stewardship is, as was briefly alluded to earlier, to think of them as the trunks of two trees, and to observe the limbs that grow on each.
On Ownership tree, there is a jealousy limb and an envy limb and a covetousness limb, because ownership is always comparing and competing, and it is easy to constantly notice those who have more than we do. There is also a condescension limb and a pride limb, and a superiority limb, because it is also easy to see those who have less than we do. And there are selfish limbs and frustration limbs and over-ambitious limbs because we want to climb over others so we can look down on them instead of up at them.
There are also some good branches on the tree—a responsibility branch because we are motivated to take care of things we feel ownership for. Even branches of charity and giving can sprout, but they are often choked out by the strong selfish limbs.
On the Stewardship tree, a very different kind of branches tend to grow, such as heavy humility branches and limbs of thanksgiving, because we know from whence all things come. Appreciation branches sprout for the beauty and opportunity and options that life gives us. Strong empathy limbs grow for the pains and challenges of others. Limbs for prayer, and faith, and hope are inevitable, because they are known principles by which stewardships are honored, fulfilled and magnified. Branches of charity intertwine with the limbs of love and of sensitivity, because we know things are not ours anyway, so it is much easier to share them with others.
Contrasting the Deceiver with its Alternative
Ownership or Stewardship: Which is most true, which brings the most love, which is most motivating, and which produces the most happiness?
Truth: Ownership can be true economically, but Stewardship is the greater truth emotionally and spiritually. It’s true in a bigger way, a more caring way, a less selfish way. It is true in a higher awareness and perspective.
Love: Ownership turns one inward, Stewardship outward.
Motivation: There is no question that greed is motivating. But it is a motivation that is varying and vulnerable because greed can consume itself and is exhausting rather than renewing. Stewardship’s motivation is warmed and sustained by gratitude where we see what we have as gifts beyond what we have worked for and deserve. Those with a stewardship mentality want more stewardship just as owners want more ownership, but they want it less for pride and appearance and more for love and service and the common good. Stewardship motivation is more peaceful.
Happiness: The quantity of results is potentially endless with ownership, and the happiness that comes with it follows the law of diminishing returns. With stewardship, quality gradually becomes more important than quantity, and we learn that it is possible to be happy and content without being satisfied. Stewardship carries a deeper sense of joy than Ownership, because it couples with gratitude rather than with pride.
You are invited to consider making the mental shift from “ownership” to “Stewardship”—which will change how you feel, how you love, how you set goals, and how you live!
For more insight and practical ideas on how to make the shift from ownership to stewardship, you are invited to the Podcast:
And if you want to read the whole book on Serendipity, Stewardship, and Synergicity, go to