If you’re chuckling and shaking your head right now, it’s because you’ve spent some time around small children lately. I have two of my own, ages 2 and 4, so the conflict is very real, very personal and always lurking in the background of what is mostly a cute and loving sibling relationship. There’s something especially threatening about someone claiming ownership over something that is precious to them. And if it wasn’t quite that important to them before, it certainly is now! The word “mine” implies the domination of your will, the exclusion of your present and future possibilities. It pits me against you in a very tangible sense. If this is mine to do with as I wish, then I am free to enjoy it or store it away where you can’t have it. You are suddenly struck with a sense of foreboding as you come to the frustrating realization that, if you do not assert your will to regain your freedom, then I have accomplished something terrifying simply by uttering the word “mine” – I now own a part of you.
Of course, our kids do not have anything quite so calculating or diabolical in mind when they find themselves at war in the timeless power struggle over their toys – I hope. But I was reminded, as I watched Christopher Nolan’s powerful film Tenet, that some people do. Tenet illuminates this power struggle through a masterful analysis of time: who controls our past, our present and our future? As the narrative unfolds, the protagonist becomes aware that the villain, Sator, is in possession of some technology passed down to him from the future which enables him to invert an object’s entropy, effectively empowering him to travel backward and forward in time. The sole purpose of his temporal exploits is to discover how to erase humanity from the face of the earth – his fellow humans, anyway. Presumably, the people from the future who have commissioned him for this task will continue to exist, and they will be gifted a planet that has not yet consumed all of its natural resources as a result of his mass genocide. But why would Sator condemn his own family to annihilation? How could he become a traitor to his own generation?
C.S. Lewis provides some keen insight into Sator’s motivation through an inversion of his own design in The Screwtape Letters. Taking on the perspective of a senior devil advising a junior demon on how best to tempt his human patient, Uncle Screwtape suggests that one of the greatest temptations to which humans may fall is making claims of ownership:
“The sense of ownership in general is always to be encouraged. 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… 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. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion that he allows to religious duties.”
What ends up happening when you assume that you can do whatever you want to with your time is that you will be frustrated and even angry when someone makes additional or unexpected demands on that time. My wife and I were quite happy to sacrifice our former absolute autonomy to our commitment to create time and space for one another as we began the adventure of our married lives together. What we could not have anticipated, however, was the extent to which the tiny humans we are now responsible for make demands upon our every waking moment. It’s a bit of a shock, as any new parent may attest. If we are jealously guarding each moment of our free time as though it may be our last, the needs of our little ones grate on our nerves and we find ourselves overwhelmed, exhausted. But when we embrace our God-given role as stewards rather than as owners of our time, we find that it is a joy to give it both to our children and to each other.
Jesus gives a similar illustration in the Parable of the Tenants. Rather than honor the owner of the vineyard with his share of the harvest, the tenants charged with its care kill the servants that he sends to collect his fruit. They do not even spare the life of the owner’s son, choosing instead to try to claim his inheritance as their own. The Jewish religious leaders knew that Jesus had told this parable in criticism of their own rebellion, revealing their failure to practice their faith in a way that was honoring to God. Rather than treating their role as a sacred trust from God, they had historically abused and killed the prophets through whom God had tried to communicate with his people. And now they would not hesitate even to kill God’s own son if it meant maintaining their control. But a tenant is by definition only borrowing from the owner and therefore they must treat what they have been given with care and gratitude.
Jesus sought to remind them of this truth, that we are all the tenants of one central tenet: our time is not our own. We do not own it any more than the tenants of the parable owned the vineyard. We are stewards. Everything we have – our time, our money, our talents, our relationships – are a gift from our Heavenly Father, along with every other good and perfect thing (James 1). The apostle Paul urges us to remember that even our bodies do not belong to ourselves alone: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God with your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Jesus, the King of the Universe, came down to Earth as a humble servant and gave up his life so that we may be set free from sin and death. Through him we may be filled with the Spirit of everlasting life! How then can we begrudge others a moment, an act of kindness, or a service of which they are in need?
Sator, on the other hand, is under the false impression that his time is his to command; not only his own, but the rest of the planet’s as well. He demonstrates this through his total disregard for anyone who is not useful to him. He shows it through his abusive and manipulative relationship with his wife (Kat). He’s even willing to hold Kat hostage to bargain for exclusive parental rights to their son. And he is suffering from a still more malevolent delusion about his sense of ownership. To have the audacity to think one can erase everything that ever lived requires a very distorted sense of one’s relation to others. Again, Screwtape writes:
“We produce this sense of ownership not only by pride but by confusion. 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 servant,’ ‘my wife,’ ‘my father,’ ‘my master’ and ‘my country,’ to ‘my God.’ They can be taught to reduce all these senses to that of ‘my boots,’ the ‘my’ of ownership. Even in the nursery a child can be taught to mean by ‘my teddy bear’ not the old imagined recipient of affection to whom it stands in special relation… but ‘the bear I can pull to pieces if I like.’”
This last insight is especially prevalent in Sator’s thinking, both about his relationship with wife and with the world. When Kat asks why he is still holding her captive despite his clear and cold contempt for her person, he responds: “Because if I can’t have you, no one else can.” Later, Kat and the protagonist realize that Sator has programmed the world’s end to be triggered in the event of his own impending death. Then they see the evil in his heart: “if he can’t have it, no one else can.” Both his wife and now the whole world are “his” and he will tear them to pieces when they no longer suit him.
Yet, as Screwtape observes, people like Sator will be bitterly disappointed with the fruit of their labor, their conquests ultimately rendered futile on the spiritual plane:
“All the time the joke is that the word ‘Mine’ in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything. In the long run either [Satan] or [God] will say ‘Mine’ of each thing that exists, and specially of each man. They will find out in the end, never fear, to whom their time, their souls and their bodies really belong – certainly not to them, whatever happens.”
Our Creator is the only one who can truly claim ownership over anything. “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10). So we must be careful not to let our desire for control blind us to the truth. We must remember our tenet: we are all tenants.