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How To Own Things

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Epictetus kept an expensive iron lamp in the front hallway of his home. He was up in his bedroom when he heard some noise downstairs. When he went down the lamp was gone. “I reasoned that the thief who took it must have felt an impulse he couldn’t resist,” Epictetus recalled. “So I said to myself, ‘Tomorrow you’ll get a cheaper, less attractive lamp made of clay.’ A man only loses what he has.”

Is the lesson here that we should welcome thieves into our homes? Or that we should only possess cheap stuff? Of course not. The Stoics would say we should enjoy what we own but that our happiness shouldn’t be tied to what we own. “Accept prosperity with appreciation and moderation,” Seneca would write. But…”persuade yourself that you can live happily without it as well as with it.”

The comedian and car collector Jerry Seinfeld was asked if he’s thought about what will happen with all of his expensive cars after he dies. “Sure,” he said. “My wife’s going to liquidate it, and that’s fine with me. I want people like me to enjoy them. It should be like blowing on a dandelion.”

This is how we must treat our possessions. Enjoy them. But be able to live just as happily without them. Hold them with appreciation and let them go without attachment. Like blowing on a dandelion.