To own or not to own, that's the question

Foolishly or wisely, I often play a sort of game which consists in looking up the etymology of a word—that is, a word’s origin and the history of its meaning.

We use some ordinary word without giving it much thought, and yet that word had to be “invented,” so to speak, in order to express some aspect of reality. Who invented it, and why? When? And what is the word's deep meaning? These questions can be difficult to answer but useful to ask!

A word’s origin hints at its symbolic power, its importance, its reach. Find out what aspect of reality a word was born to express, and you’ll find out something about reality itself—and, by extension, about how you think and feel.


You own a house, perhaps. Or a car. Or a book. Or a fork. It doesn’t matter; you own something, and your relationship to the thing is partly determined by your feeling of ownership.

“To own” and “to owe” share the same root, the presumed Proto-Indo-European *aik-, meaning “be master of, possess.” If you own a house, you possess it and you’re its master. It’s an amazing thing once it enters your awareness: Ownership! Possession! Mastery! You own your identity, you own your words and ideas, you own your mistakes: you’re the master of your mistakes.


And you own a house, perhaps. Possession plays a role in your relationship with the house. Some of your feelings, positive and negative, about “your own house” come from the responsibility of owning, as well as the pleasures of owning—the headaches and heartaches, and also the joys of it all.

Ownership is a form of power, and even a baby knows that: she must, she must own that scrap of paper she picked up at random from your wastebasket, because she feels strangely powerful in ownership, regardless of what she owns.

Possession is mastery. The “power of possession” is life-affirming and identity-determining.

The problem is that it can make you crazy. You can “become possessed,” and feel that unless you own that scrap of paper, or that car, or that handbag, you’re worthless. You measure your worth through the things that you own, and . . . you start wanting to own ever more. There’s nothing wrong with owning a house, of course; it’s only the evil twin of ownership that’s problematic, the twin that says “more, more, more, MORE!!”

Fortunately, there’s a cure for Crazy Ownership Syndrome. It’s called access.

Access also comes from a Proto-Indo-European root. (I get all these word roots from the best website ever: etymonline.)

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In our game, the Proto-Indo-European root reveals a word’s symbolic power—or, if you prefer, its reason to exist, since the word was created to express an important aspect of reality. In this case, “to go, to yield,” and further “to move, to approach, to withdraw.” As you can see, it’s very different from the idea of ownership, possession, and mastery.

You can access a database and “move through it” without having to own it. You have access to the services of a professional. You see the professional very occasionally, but your access to him or her is permanent. It only takes a phone call for you to activate your access. Come and go.

You have access to friends’ homes. They invite you to dinner and take good care of you for an hour or three. You play with their cats, and access to the cats is very dear to you. Access to a guest room in Chicago and another in Brooklyn and another in São Paulo is all you need to feel good about “having a home” without owning one.

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Go to the supermarket and buy an avocado, and a little bit of Peru or Mexico or Israel enters your orbit. It’s a miracle of sorts. You don’t need to own Peru at all, because you have easy access to it! It’s right down the block and around the corner, and it only costs two dollars!

In our simplified metaphysics, ownership is a form of holding, and access is a form of letting go. They are both necessary in our lives, but it seems useful—and perhaps even urgent—to understand the distinction between the two. The sun shines above. We don't own it, but we have access to its heat and warmth during the day. Night for us is day for our neighbors a few time zones away. Let's let them have access to the sun, too!


©2018, Pedro de Alcantara