Ownership vs. Stewardship

So someone told me that I was rude for wanting to reuse something.

This person was my grandmother, and the occasion was Mother’s Day. We were having brunch and I’d given her and my mom their presents; a gift card for her, and some random stuff for my mom (like this stainless bento box which she is totally in love with now). Gma’s present was so tiny that I just put it in a little card box with a ribbon on top, but for my mom’s pile of stuff I had a cloth gift bag from Patagonia (can’t seem to find them on their site at all? anyways, they’re awesome) that I just threw it all into and took back when she pulled everything out.

My mom had absolutely no problem with this; I told her that this is how I roll now, and she’s completely on board. Besides, she bought one for herself anyway. But my grandmother looked on, appalled at what I did.

“That is so rude.”

“What is?”

“Taking back the bag!”

“How so?”

“It’s just rude.”

It’s interesting that she was so sure that what I’d done was a gross transgression of social etiquette but couldn’t explain why. Deep down, she knew that what a gift is packaged in doesn’t matter one whit when the 10-20 seconds of unwrapping is over. But that 10-20 seconds is, apparently, important enough to have taboos associated with it. There’s been some research done as to what psychological impact gift wrap has on the reception of the gift inside, but there doesn’t seem to be anything regarding my conundrum specifically. But it might actually be more simple than I’m making it out to be.

My grandmother’s reaction is probably likely rooted more in a contemporary, consumer-driven concept of ownership more than anything else. It’s that awkward moment when you let someone borrow something and you have to remind them that it’s not theirs to keep. But in this case, the thing in question has no intrinsic value and is meant to be immediately discarded. So perhaps it’s that I was infringing on my mother’s right to throw away the gift bag? Is there so much emotionally invested in the idea that something is yours to throw away? That’s mind-boggling to me, and completely counter-intuitive to what ownership (stewardship, I think we should start framing things as) should be. In a very small and insignificant way, this gift bag debacle might have more to do with the idea that destroying a thing is the highest and most absolute assertion of control that someone could ever express.

And I think that’s what industrial-driven consumer culture is teaching us. To throw something away, to make it inaccessible to anyone else, makes us the true owner of that thing, makes us powerful and worthy of admiration in a very twisted way.

And I managed to muck up that entire construct by taking back the bag, asserting my stewardship of it, and actively ensuring that it would never prematurely end up in a landfill so long it was within not my possession, but my care. By making sure that I got it back, I was proclaiming the bag to be the property of everyone that I use it to give a gift to. It belongs to a community. Unconsciously, this angered and terrified her, I’m sure.

Let’s stop thinking of ourselves as owners of things. The world, it’s resources, and the things we produce from it, don’t belong to anyone of us. It belongs to the human community, the animal community, the plant community.

In my religious tradition, we call the spirits of the land, of place, the “land owners”. If you buy a piece of land and build a house on it, that lot doesn’t, in any meaningful way, belong to you; it’s simply letting you borrow it, and when you’re done it gets returned. If you buy a house or rent an apartment, that structure isn’t yours either; the house, its timber, its drywall, its concrete foundation don’t belong to you because when you’re gone they will continue to exist for someone else to care for. In my tradition there is also a long and rich history of blood sacrifice, which you may or may not be appalled by, but you certainly can’t help but be humbled by the reasoning behind it. If nothing is yours to own, then surely nothing is yours to really give either, since the recipient already owns it too. So what is yours to give? Well, there’s your time, your love, your effort, your company, your wisdom, your body and… your blood. Your “blood, sweat, and tears”, you might say. That’s it.

The rest is stewardship.

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9 thoughts on “Ownership vs. Stewardship

    • She definitely did, but what’s interesting to me was that she continued to feel that it was even though it was established between my mom and I that it wasn’t, and there was no convincing her otherwise.

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  2. Absolutely beautiful post! Becoming a steward for such seemingly “insignificant” things definitely touches the sentimental side of my zero-waste mission. You give me strength and inspiration to sally forth as upcoming summer birthdays emerge. I wonder what a polite way to warn people or inform them of my new lifestyle. Perhaps I should send a family-wide newsletter to avoid upsetting grandma?

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    • I would definitely try doing that. Give folks a wide berth and just let them know under no uncertain terms that this is what you’re doing now, but maybe if they want to commit to reusing the packaging themselves for future gifts, you’ll be happy to let them keep it.

      I’ve had better reactions from others– most are just surprised when I tell them that I intend to keep the wrapping/bag/what have you, but understand when you just tell them “I don’t like wasting paper, sorry” or something like that. Good luck~

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