Are We Owners or Stewards?

November 22, 2012

‘… But we never really own anything, do we?’ he (Vianello) asked, looking directly at Brunetti.

‘I’m not sure what you mean, Vianello.’

‘Think about it, sir. We buy things. We wear them or put them on our walls, or sit on them, but anyone who wants to can take them away from us. Or break them.’ Vianello shook his head, frustrated by the difficulty he had in explaining what he thought was a relatively simple idea. ‘Just think of da Prè. Long after he is dead, someone else will own those stupid little boxes, and then someone after him, just as someone owned them before he did. But no one thinks of that: objects survive us and go on living. It’s stupid to believe we own them. And it’s sinful for them to be so important.’

–From the novel Quietly in Their Sleep by Donna Leon

I recently got hooked on Donna Leon mysteries. They take place in Venice with Commissario Guido Brunetti as the protagonist aided by his sergeant-assistant Vianello. In the above excerpt, the two sleuths have just emerged from visiting Mr. da Prè, “a horrid little man” who lives and breathes his collection of snuff boxes. Vianello is commenting on da Prè’s obsession. This brief exchange between Brunetti and Vianello made me wonder, “Are we owners or stewards of our things?”

So much emphasis in this twenty-first century society of ours is placed on ownership.  If we don’t own a car, we strive to own one, at least in areas where public transportation can’t get us to where we want or need to go. The mark of a successful, middle class American is ownership of his/her own home. And what about our clothes, furniture, businesses, and investments?

Who is Responsible?

I’ve grown up thinking the items I possess are items I own. I am responsible for housing, using and disposing of them, but maybe this discussion about ownership is limited to people over sixty, people who have had to dispose of their deceased parents’, spouse’s, relatives’ or friends’ possessions. When my mother died, I simply assumed ownership of her possessions. I was 42 and didn’t think beyond this point.

After her death, I held a yard sale for many of the items she had and I couldn’t use. Who are those people who bought her linen tablecloth and napkins, her chafing dish, or her cookbooks? What are they doing with them now? Are they taking good care of them? Have they relegated them to boxes in the back of a closet—or, worse yet, ended their life by throwing them away?

When I was younger, in my thirties and forties, I would never have admitted I am a serial owner of things. So focused on my own life, why would I think about who would take ownership of my stuff after I am gone or that my stuff has a life beyond me? I know that’s why wills and last testaments exist. They perpetuate the illusion we are all owners of our stuff, but the more I think about it, I see myself as a steward. I am simply the overseer of my possessions.

The Leadership Metaphor

The metaphor of leadership comes to mind. For me, the mark of a good leader is a smooth transition. He or She plans for the next person to assume the role of leader-successor, so business can continue as usual. Changes do occur with new leadership, and under good leadership they are usually accepted and not resisted. Without a plan or good leadership, breakdown can devolve into chaos.

I see a parallel when it comes to my stuff. Do I identify who I want handling my stuff? Are there certain items like my car or condo I want particular people to have? Do I inform my designated heirs while I am around or do I wait until the will is read? It comes down to whether I am willing to relinquish my sense of ownership.

And if I don’t have a plan? Relatives I haven’t designated or disinterested parties like the State come in and deal with my stuff. What does it matter? I am gone. Actually I believe it matters. Being a good steward, I need to let people know the plan—my plan on who gets what and how stuff is best handled. The more decisions I make, the fewer decisions others have to make. A definitive plan reduces conflict.

A Subtle Shift

Since this owner-steward distinction is new for me, I haven’t tested it out. When I engage in my next de-cluttering project, will I make different decisions being a steward, rather than an owner?

For example, I have been struggling with letting go of a doll and her wardrobe for years. It was a gift from my father, who died when I was 10. Operating under the illusion that it holds a special tie to him, I remain locked in indecision. If I let it go, I fear I will lose that special tie. It’s a false belief, I know. Nonetheless I use it as my excuse to keep holding on to the doll and all her dresses. Ever since I received the doll, I considered myself its owner.

Now, five decades later, maybe I can shift my role from owner to steward. If I am a good steward, I can exercise authority on how to get it to the right and perfect next steward. My term as doll-steward has expired. Someone else who can love the doll and her outfits needs to assume the steward role. Perhaps this subtle shift from seeing myself as an owner to a steward will allow me to let go. I am hopeful it will.

2 Responses to “Are We Owners or Stewards?”

  1. Mary Jane Says:

    Bev, This is a wonderfully personal, yet thought-provoking for all of us who have lots of things, more than we need and more than we use. You’ve given me a lot of food for thought about clearing and cleaning out items that no longer serve me. Thank you!

  2. Maria Mercedes Bejarano Says:

    Dearest Bev

    Always , perfect timing .. GRACIAS ¡¡ Thanks for writing and helping me and all so much ,with your clear alignment ¡¡
    I am going to share this message with a friend as I just mentioned our work to her
    Blessings ,

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