Take an ordinary sentence I used in an original draft of this column. It read like this: “Recently, I was speaking with someone about how often we use possessive terms when we are interacting with others, and how scant is the attention we pay to their use.” There are five pronouns–I, we, we, we, their–in that sentence. In four of those cases, you could say that we insert ourselves rather forcefully into the discussion.The same idea could be rephrased this way: “A friend recently suggested that we frequently use highly possessive terms when speaking, often without really noticing.” In the second example, there is just one personal reference, “we”.
It follows that the next question might be, does this matter? Or is it really just overly fussy semantics. I am not so sure. It’s possible to take the stance that all this abundant use of personal possessive pronouns not only litters our speech, but also litters our minds with the clutter of over-attachment to “our stuff”.Stuff is the material and often not so material which populates our world. There is quite a bit of personal attachment to an object in the following phrase: “My tire is flat.” I can think of no living thing that ever arrived in the world with a set of tires.It’s generally pretty certain that humans are bipedal creatures having feet and legs. If “your” tire is flat, you are more personally attached, involved, and likely to get upset than if you had said, “the tire on the car is flat” or “the car’s tire is flat.” The flat tire is still there in any case, but you yourself are less bound to the material object.
This is a subtle, personal attachment to and longing for possessions. It lends itself to comparison and competition with our friends and neighbors. It is also makes it so much easier to fall for marketing gimmicks, the constant push of a consumer culture and a certain lack of value. Your cell phone isn’t the newest, fastest, sleekest one in town? Upgrade as soon as you can. Send that old relic off to the trash. It’s disposable. Subtle, yes. But I contend that it takes inner clutter from our minds and makes external clutter in our larger world, sending toxic effects to landfills and oceans.
Take this a step further. Apply it to people. Things are a minor consideration by comparison with people.What do the phrases “my wife, my husband, my child” invite unwittingly to the conversation? There likely isn’t anyone who would consider themselves the property of another. In fact, intimations of ownership of humans bring up dark, ugly specters of slavery both in history and in the present day. Neither do we “own” our family members. I thought about my family in particular. I could introduce them saying, “This is my daughter, Nora.” The introduction becomes much more personal and particular if I call to mind the Arabic translation of the root of her name, Noor or “Light”. A very different introduction takes shape if she is spoken of by saying, “this is Nora, the light of my world” or “this is Nora, who is my daughter.”In either of those cases, she becomes so much more an active player in the sentence and gives her own individual meaning to my world. When carefully considered, either the second or third phrases become a more correct way of framing her role in my life. For now, I am her mother and her guide. One day, I look forward to being her confidante and friend, a movie buddy and a shopping pal, one of the people with whom I most want to spend time. She may be very young, but she still has her own personality and needs. I am in some ways just a bystander to her life. I can offer guidance and lead by example. This doesn’t change her individual experience of the world. That is uniquely hers.
I realize that all this shilly-shallying around of words and phrases can be cumbersome. It may even sound a little odd. (“This is Nora, who is daughter to me” sounds contrived rather than colloquial.) Nonetheless, there is a name for this deliberate picking of words. It is a concept known as mindfulness. Mindfulness lives precisely in the moment. Mindfulness takes the time to notice all the small perceptions of each sense as they surround us. At the same time, mindfulness makes no judgment of what it senses. Instead, one must concentrate on observing. It is a little like being a rock in the middle of a river. Past the rock cascades an ever changing flow of water. It may be low and calm on a summer afternoon. It may froth and rage, clogged with mud and debris in the aftermath of a storm. Occasionally the rock may be submerged in the rising current. The rock remains and the river flows on with no action on the part of the rock.
Importantly, when thinking mindfully of the people in our lives we observe but suspend our judgment of them. This allows a clearer view of the beautiful signature of each individual. There is a seed of something beautiful in everything and everyone if we are mindful of them. Assuredly, this is not something I do all day, every day. I’m not even certain I would want to be that detached. But if we take a few moments now and then to be mindful of how such words of ownership crop up in our speech, it is just possible that there may be surprises contained in how the shifting of words changes perspective from self-centered to global thought, from relentless consumption to satisfaction with the blessings around us, and from transient gratification to deep-seated joy.