As should be obvious, an identity based upon possession is vulnerable to anxiety, worry and fear as the possibility and threat of dispossession is ever-present. The potential for loss infuses the psyche. We become enslaved by this fear of loss, slaves to the fear of death.
These fears become particularly acute when we live in what Brene Brown has called a "culture of scarcity" where everyone is "hyperaware of lack," worried about not having or being "enough."
As I argue it in the book, the path toward an emancipation from our slavery to the fear of death is to reconfigure our identities, to "die" to an identity built around possession so that a new identity might be "resurrected" to take its place.
If so, what sort of identity? The answer I give is an identity based not upon possession but upon the experience of gift.
Interestingly, though I didn't include this in The Slavery of Death, I think this analysis is supported by a reading of the book of Ecclesiastes.
A central question in the book of Ecclesiastes is this: What gain is there in life?
The question comes right at the start of the book, in 1.3:
What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?The word translated as "gain" here is yithron. Yithron only occurs ten times in the OT, all of those occurrences in the book of Ecclesiastes.
Yithron is variously translated as gain, profit or advantage. The basic idea is that of accumulation, excess, and remainder--what is "left over."
According to Ecclesiastes because life is hebel--mist, vapor--efforts to "gain" are futile and vain. This is why most translations translate hebel as "vanity" or "meaninglessness."
In Ecclesiastes we walk through a couple examples of this pursuit of "gain" in Chapter 2, where the Teacher variously chased after "gain" via riches, pleasure, wisdom and work. But in every instance death washes the "gain" away. Riches, pleasure, wisdom and work are all hebel--fleeting as the mist and vapor. The pursuit of "gain" is revealed to be like "chasing after the wind."
But here's the really weird part. In other locations in Ecclesiastes pleasure, riches, wisdom and work are all praised and commended.
So what's the deal with this switcharoo? Are these things good or bad?
To be sure, there are no easy or consistent answers for the complex testimony found Ecclesiastes, but I think one way to make sense of the paradox observed here is rooted in the argument I make in The Slavery of Death.
Specifically, when we pursue things with an eye on possessing them, when our strivings are motivated by yithron, the prospect of death dominates our lives. Anything we think we've "gained" will be washed away. As noted above, an identity of possession is vulnerable to the prospect and inevitability of loss. Thus the angst we see--symptomatic of a slavery to the fear of death--expressed by the Teacher in Ecclesiastes: "All is vanity."
But the problem isn't with riches, pleasure, wisdom or work per se. The problem comes only when we pursue and hold onto these things as possessions, as "gain." Because "gain" is ever-vulnerable to loss.
But if these same things are received as gifts then what was previously found to be "vanity" is now experienced as a "blessing."
Ecclesiastes 5:19Pursued as gain life is vanity. But received as gift life is transformed into blessing.
Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil--this is a gift of God.
In short, I think a key insight to how the Teacher in Ecclesiastes variously condemns and praises aspects of life--money, pleasure, wisdom, work--hinges upon the contrast between "gain" and "gift" in the face of death.
And this is the same contrast that sits at the heart of my analysis of identity in The Slavery of Death.