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The Folly of “Mine”

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“Mine.” It’s a word that parents of young children hear a lot. And it’s a sentiment that parenthood slowly chisels out of you—that false sense of being able to lay claim to things to which we’re attached. Naptime, for example: naptime is “mine”—my oasis of peace while the children both sleep, God willing. Perhaps nothing has taught me more about the potency of expectation than the day-to-day suspense of whether naptime will create an opening in the day’s schedule, or not. As C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters puts it so succinctly, it’s easy to fall prey to feeling cheated:

Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. . . . Nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal unexpectedly taken from him. . . . You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption ‘My time is my own.’ Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours.”[1]

Thus the senior devil Screwtape advises his devil-in-training nephew, a novice still learning how to lead a human astray. The tempter continues:

The humans are always putting up claims to ownership which sound equally funny in Heaven and in Hell, and we must keep them doing so. . . . It is as if a royal child whom his father has placed, for love’s sake, in titular command of some great province, under the real rule of wise counselors, should come to fancy that he really owns the cities, the forests, and the corn, in the same way as he owns the bricks on the nursery floor. . . . And all the time the joke is that the word ‘Mine’ in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything.[2]

Screwtape’s observation about the folly of “mine” has stuck with me for almost a decade now. In my early 20s, it fed into a heightened sense that it was good to avoid being too attached to things like familiar places or material aspects of life. I would reread 2 Corinthians 4:18: “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” In that stage, cutting ties of the “seen” sort felt daring and exciting. I chopped off my hair at whim, moved to a different country without knowing if I’d find work there.

Understanding that the temporal things are not what really counts was one step, but the physical world isn’t just a shell, vehicle or prison for the eternal. We aren’t meant to just dismiss everything tangible as superficial, as I was wont to do.

Since my first reading of Screwtape, I’ve found a husband, lost a father, and brought two children into the world. The stakes of possession have skyrocketed. Before, my hands held loosely to the ins and outs of daily life, ready to let go and reach out for something new at a moment’s notice. There have been times that meant opening them up towards God, or extending them in giving back to Him—lessons in saying “Thy will be done” and meaning it. Now, the weight of the truth that everything we have “comes to us by pure gift” is achingly acute. That nothing can be taken for granted bares its head as a constant reality; and the potential for loss from the perspective of wife and mother can at times be spiritually paralyzing. At this stage, the instinct to cling tightly, to encircle completely, is in full force. If the danger before was to have too loose of a sense of “mine”, now it is instead that of letting it grow too strong.

Where then, should love of family, for instance, fit in the spectrum of “mine”? How to avoid a distorted, overly possessive kind of love for those so cherished? While a false notion of possession is to be avoided, a good sense of “mine” is still worth seeking. Lewis’s devil gives us the key, by his correction that all is “pure gift”—the positive flip side to the negative admonition regarding false conquests. He adds within the same letter: “The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift.”[3]

The thing is, Screwtape is right to say that everything is gift, and thus to laugh at humans for our toddleresque spiritual habits. But it’s also true that what is given to us as a gift is still ours in a very real sense.

Blessed John Henry Newman (of whom Lewis is clearly a distiller) can be helpful in understanding “pure gift” in a positive sense of what is really and rightly “mine.” In Grammar of Assent, for instance, he writes extensively about gift on a philosophical level. Newman’s notion of gift sheds light on the interplay between what has been given and how we are meant to act in response to those gifts. A big part of this is that among our many gifts (i.e. innate talents, basic linguistic and abstract reasoning capacities) is that of free will. For Newman, it is the individual’s

gift to be the creator of his own sufficiency; and to be emphatically self-made. This is the law of his being, which he cannot escape; and whatever is involved in that law he is bound, or rather he is carried on, to fulfil.[4]

There is an interplay, then, between what (or whom) we are given and what we do about it—or, as we might say, between God’s work and our own. The ways in which we choose to love or to lord over, to embrace or to suffocate, are our own. Choices about how to love are shaped by experiences, influenced by relationships, moved by grace—but ultimately each of us must make and act on them for ourselves.

The wrong “mine” is a choice for power and possession.  But if we understand those choices about how to love as our own from a place that acknowledges the temporally tenuous nature of what is given us, then we rightly take that which is “mine” as divine gift.

It may be true, and difficult, that we are but caretakers of the persons we want to lay claim in an absolute sense. But these persons in fact are gifts that are in some way properly “ours,” and whom we are meant to help along on a pilgrimage back home. Though these be given, they are given—to each of us. In this way we can justly say “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song 6:3).

Thus tempering our notion of “mine” doesn’t mean our loves in this life don’t matter; on the contrary, accepting how deep, how terrifyingly strong even, are the bonds of love ought to give us a better view of how God sees us. For if family life can work to chip away at a false sense of “mine,” it also serves to open our eyes to the only absolute sense of “mine” that exists—that of our own belonging to God, who claims us for His own as the One for whom we are made.

Featured Photo: Philippe Put; CC-BY 2.0.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters, Letter XXI.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. Also: “We teach them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun—the finely graded differences that run from ‘my boots’ through ‘my dog’ . . . ‘my wife,’ ‘my father’ . . . ‘my God'” (ibid).

[4] Cardinal John Henry Newman, Grammar of Assent, 349.

 

 

 

Tania M. Geist

Tania M. Geist is the managing editor of Church Life.