Struggling with Possessiveness

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

The award-winning Broadway play, Children of a Less God, tells an interesting story of how love can go wrong, even when it seems like it's going right.

The story focuses on a spirited young woman who is deaf. Intelligent, sensitive, and wounded, she resists most attempts to help her, until one day a gifted teacher, a man her own age, enters her life. For awhile she resists both his love and his efforts to help her, but eventually trust grows in her and she opens up to him. They fall in love and, for awhile, things are wonderful and he helps open her to the world.

But then the story takes a curious turn. At a point, a huge tension begins to grow up between them. She feels guilty about it, sensing she should be grateful, even as resentment and anger continue to grow in her. For his part, he can't help feeling angry because he feels himself being pushed away after all he has done for her. The tension eventually produces a storm, a big one, lots of anger, lots of shouting, lots of recrimination, and a calm afterwards.

In that calm, she, still feeling guilty, apologizes and tells him she feels badly because he has been such a great teacher and she owes so much to him. But the storm has taught him its lesson. He now knows the reason for her resentment. In essence, he puts it this way: "I've been a good teacher and have loved you, up to a point, but now I realize what I was really doing. In effect, I was saying this to you: `Grow, but not so much that you don't need me any more. Understand yourself, but not better than I understand you. Be free, but not of my expectations for you.' I offered you my love and help ... as long as I could dictate how you use them."

Perhaps the deepest struggle we have (psychologically, morally, and spiritually) is with possessiveness and what that triggers in us, restlessness, jealousy, greed, and manipulation. Something inside our very DNA makes us want to possess whatever is beautiful and to have exclusively for ourselves whatever we love. It's no accident that there are two commandments against jealousy. From a toddler's tantrum over his mother's inattention to the sexual jealousy so universal in adulthood, we see that it's hard to look at what attracts us and respond only with gratitude and admiration.

For this reason, when we should be feeling wonderful, we often feel unsettled, restless, obsessed, and jealous in the face of beauty and love. Etty Hillesum gives us an honest expression of this in her insightful memoir, An Interrupted Life:

"And here I have hit upon something essential. Whenever I saw a beautiful flower, what I longed to do with it was press it to my heart, or eat it all up. It was more difficult with a piece of beautiful scenery, but the feeling was the same. I was too sensual, I might almost write too greedy. I yearned physically for all I thought was beautiful, wanted to own it. Hence the painful longing that could never be satisfied, the pining for something I thought unattainable, which I called my creative urge. I believe it was this powerful emotion that made me think that I was born to produce great works. It all suddenly changed, God alone knows by what inner process, but it is different now. I realized it only this morning, when I recalled my short walk round the Skating Club a few nights ago. It was dusk, soft hues in the sky, mysterious silhouettes of houses, trees alive with the light through the tracery of their branches, in short, enchanting. And then I knew precisely how I had felt in the past. Then all the beauty would have gone like a stab to my heart and I would not have known what to do with the pain. Then I would have felt the need to write, to compose verses, but the words would still have refused to come. I would have felt utterly miserable, wallowed in the pain and exhausted myself as a result. The experience would have sapped all my energy. ... but its beauty now filled me with joy. ... I no longer wanted to own it. I went home invigorated."

What do we do with our possessiveness? Good spirituality and good psychology agree that the answer lies in a healthy maturity that can admire without seeking to own and love without seeking to manipulate. But that's easier said than done. We don't change our deepest instincts (John of the Cross calls them "our metaphysics") simply by willing away possessiveness.

What's the answer? A life-long walk towards a very difficult maturity. Overcoming our incurable instinct to possess is one of the final hurdles in life. When we're no longer prone to jealousy, we're saints.

In the meantime, it can be helpful to name this. A symptom suffers less when it knows where it belongs.