“My” and “mine” seem to be very straightforward words. The concept of my table, my chair or my money is a very simple thing: the chair, the money – and anything else that I own – are mine; they belong to me. But when we search more deeply into the meaning of these words, it is no longer clear that they mean possession or ownership. When I say, “my partner” – there is no meaning of ownership or mastery. When I say, “my friend,” there is a connection, without ownership or mastery. In most places, the same is true about my husband or my wife; we don’t own our spouses, but have a relationship, a partnership, with them.
If we follow this train of thought further, we might also say “my master,” or “my lord.” We even say, “my owner,” and “my boss.” “My” and “mine” can express any kind of relationship, whether good or bad, whether of equality or of submission.
When I use the word “my,” therefore, I am talking about something that relates to me in a certain way, not specified by the word itself. The same is true of other words in the possessive case, such as “your” or “theirs.”
All this is not just a little useless grammatical exercise. The possessive case hints at a deeper meaning which we should explore: these words are so much used, but may not be understood.
Without the possessive “my” or “mine,” objects are lonely, ownerless and outside of any relationship: a chair is just a chair, it does not relate to anything or anybody. Money, a slave, a dog, all of these are not only just ownerless: they also lack any relationship. In that sense, they are lonely, because nobody relates to them; they exist, therefore, in quite a different form of existence.
Once a chair becomes “my chair,” it has achieved ownership, a relationship. The chair is no longer just a thing hanging somewhere in existence. It now has a relationship, at least with me. When I say the chair is mine, it moves out of “just so” existence, and becomes an object that has a meaning. When someone frivolously declares that a mountain or a song is now “his,” that does not confer any claim of ownership. But now the mountain or song has meaning, at least as it relates to him.
Sometimes the possessive case describes a two-sided relationship: The phrases “my slave” and “my master,” both begin with the same word but the relationship in each case is vastly different. Or “my father” and “my son” – with these phrases there is at least an implication of a relationship.
Even when I claim an object as mine, I am defining a relationship. Sometimes we define this connection with adjectives: I am relating to my beautiful chair or my comfortable chair. And this is even truer when the “my” is attached to someone who is alive and feeling.
When something becomes mine, it is imbued with many more qualities through the relationship; sometimes these additional qualities are far more important than the connection itself. When a person says “my home,” that is hugely different from “a home.” “A home” is neutral, and just means what the dictionary says about this word. “My home,” whatever it is, immediately carries a meaning. Whether it is completely pleasurable or emotionally horrible, home is no longer an object that exists on its own.
When we use the possessive case, we are forced to form relationships, to feel a relationship. Indeed, one may say the opposite. If there is no relationship between the object or person and me, than the word “mine” is really meaningless. When the thing is truly mine, sharing it with somebody else is a gift. If it is taken from me, that is robbery, or at least a loss.
All this may serve as a warning to use terms like mine, or ours carefully. Whether it is my chair or my wife – if I do not care for it, and do not interact with it, if I hardly remember that it exists, it is hardly mine, because it remains only a chair, a wife.
This is even more important when we deal with things that are not privately owned. When I speak about my religion or my faith, my God, I must remember that these words carry meaning. My God, however I relate to Him, is hugely different from “a god,” and the change makes an enormous difference – not in the object but in the subject, in the person that says it.
When I say “my God,” I am committing to a relationship. True, there are those who use the phrase “my God,” the way others speak of “my pet.” The meaning, however, is much more like “my master,” “my boss,” “my ruler.” The phrase is complex, because any connection with God has many layers. It contains awe and contains love. It contains an assumption of obedience and the acknowledgment of ignorance.
In that sense, if one thinks about ownership, the ownership in the phrase “my God” surely belongs to the Almighty alone; when I am speaking about “my God” I am saying, first and foremost, “I am owned.”
It is not easy to accept that one is owned, but people do it in many other situations. When “a girl” turns into “my girl,” she may also become “my boss.” The words “my God” – and the relationship that it implies – are a topic for meditation. They can even help us understand the wording of every common prayer. In fact, a better understanding of this little phrase may enliven prayer and religious practice more than any amount of music.