Saturday, November 11, 2006

Common Belonging

He who binds to himself joy
Doth the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sunrise.

Wm. Blake 1793.

You'll have to excuse me this week. This is a very wordy piece. It's all about words. I've been puzzling about us human beings and our relationship to the planet.

It started a few nights back. I have a tendency to insomnia. So it was one of those nights, just sitting there, nothing on the TV, too tired to read, but too agitated in my mind to go to sleep.

I was thinking about our relationship to private property. It's one of the central issues in my philosophy. What do we mean when we say we "own" something? And how does this sense of personal property or belonging relate to our broader sense of being human and to the values we share?

It was that word "belonging" that stopped me short. Think about it. It's a classic Anglo-saxon combination: two words telescoped into one meaning. To "be" and to "long". To be-long.

The word, "long", of course, has several meanings. Principally it represents a measure of extent or duration. Long as opposed to short. A long time as opposed to a short time.

A be-longing is a "being" that "longs" over time, that endures over time. An object or being that "belongs" to us does so by the power of be-longing, of longing over time. Even if it is new, to say that it "belongs" to us is to state our intention to keep it, to hold on to it, to endure with it, to give it time.

But there is another sense of the word "belonging", as when we say that we belong to something or someone outside of ourselves - to a club, to a community, to love, to society at large - when we express our yearning to be a part of something greater than ourselves, not to belong to any particular organisation or thing, but to our shared sense of time and value. When we say we wish to belong.

Whereas the first sense of the word, as an object we own, is exclusive - "that which belongs to you, this which belongs to me" - the second is inclusive: "all which belong together." To belong, in this sense, is to want to share, while at the same time it also means to long for, to yearn for, to desire. To long is to yearn for a long time, longingly - lovingly - with all our hearts. To "be-long" is to endure in this sense of shared longing, with all the people we care about and love.

That dual sense of meaning inherent in one simple word - between the objects we hold exclusively, and the subjects we value inclusively - is what lies at the heart of our human dilemma.

Actually, when I say I started by thinking about property or ownership, that's not quite true. What I started with was the word "common".

It's a very important word in the English language and in English culture. Common as in our House of Commons, who once took the head off a king. Common, as in the Commonwealth, first spoken of during the English Civil War: meant literally, at the time, as the wealth we held in common. Common as in the common people, the commoners, the likes of you and I. Common, as in crude and slightly dirty - which is the sense my mother always uses it to describe people who are too obvious in their feelings. Common as in our common culture, as in the bawdy songs and dances that would accompany us at our festivals, in our feasts of common sharing. Common as in our common law, our common right, our common sense, our common customs and the common lands that once belonged to us all. Common as in community. Common as in communication. Common, dare I say it, as in comrade, the common greeting of friends; as in camaraderie, the pleasure of friends in their mutual company. To commune is to share, both in our worlds and in our needs.

And it is here that we draw a line between our public and our private sense of ourselves, between our public and our private property. We all need both of course. We need our public and our private selves. We need the sense of what belongs to us and our sense of self-belonging. The problem right now is that all the emphasis is on what belongs to us privately, and very little on what belongs to all of us publicly. In fact the very notion of common property is an anathema. We may have a few public services and public spaces left, but either they are already privately owned, or they soon will be. Meanwhile, for those who can afford it - a minority of the world's population - there is a wealth of diversion in the form of gadgetry and personal entertainment to enjoy behind the drawn-out curtains of our own home towns.

All of this - what the merchants of privacy offer to us to consume at our private tables in our private feasts - only serve to communicate our sense of longing in the broader sense of ourselves, our sense of ourselves as communal as well as private beings. In our sense of ourselves as a World Community.

This is the deeply spiritual question that lies at the heart of our hopes for common humanity. How we answer to it will determine the future of life on this planet. Or of human life at least.

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