For the sake of brevity, I cut my initial treatise on this subject short. Because of some feedback that I’ve received, I’ve felt the need to write on it again. I will here be focusing on a specific form of attachment, that of human relationships, although some of the principles discussed may also have bearing on other forms of attachment.
You may have come away from reading Part 1 thinking that I advocate dropping relationships at the first sign of trouble. That wasn’t my intended message. I will here attempt to clarify myself. In human relationships, reciprocation is generally expected from the object of our attachment. This is not seen with most other types of attachments. For reciprocation to occur, the attachment needs to be mutual, since without reciprocation, it is difficult to maintain such a relationship. There are cases where this does happen. The case of a parent caring for their autistic child comes to mind. The autistic child may be incapable of reciprocating on an emotional level, yet the parent continues to care for them. In situations like this, the bond is lop-sided. The parent’s attachment must compensate for their child involuntary lack of reciprocation. This isn’t the type of relationship a parent is free to escape without the rightful scorn of society. So, if nothing else, there are external pressures keeping such attachments together. This isn’t necessarily the case with friendships, romantic relationships, and business relationships. In these types of relationships, equal reciprocation is commonly required for the longevity of the relationship.
In friendships and romantic relationships, our attachments are primarily emotional. In business relationships, logic might have more governance, but emotions still have a large part to play. Logic has little to no control over emotion. We can use our logic to extricate ourselves from a relationship, but our emotions will still hang on. They may fade with time and eventually go dormant, but the seed still remains and may reawaken when thoughts of that person enter our conscious mind.
Emotions are unpredictable. They can change on a whim or stand strong for years. Relationships are highly dependent on this capricious governor commonly referred to as our heart, so if we want long lasting relationships we must learn to cope with it. There are two things which create emotional attachments: comfort and excitement. These are polar opposites. New things bring excitement, while old things bring comfort. All new relationships eventually grow old, thus moving from exciting into comfortable. We have an internal need for both excitement and comfort. Many of us move from relationship to relationship because we are driven more by the need for excitement than the need for a comfortable stable relationship. This isn’t a really a sustainable or satisfying way of living. Not everyone can rely on finding both comfort and excitement in one person for the rest of their lives, so for most of us we need to seek out several relationships to fulfill our needs. Note that I’m not referring strictly to romantic relationships here, although I’m not opposed to the idea of multiple romantic partners, so long as none of the parties involved are expecting exclusivity.
Sometimes we may find we have to take a break from a relationship. This time away allows both persons time to become somewhat new to each other again. Then, after considerable time apart, when we reunite we get the excitement of meeting someone new, but at the same time, the comfort of having known them for a long time. This doesn’t always work out nicely though. Sometimes when we take time apart, when we meet again, we find that we have both grown in quite separate directions.
To conclude, there is a strong link between happiness and attachments. We can’t expect any attachment to endure and bring us the same amount of happiness continuously. The question really is, “Are we meant to be perpetually happy?” In art, I often find myself being most drawn to pieces having the strongest contrasts. How can we really appreciate the good times, without the contrasting backdrop of pain, disappointment, loneliness, and sorrow? Why were we humans given tear ducts if we were never meant to use them?
Please let me know your thoughts on the topic. They may fuel a Part 3.
I’ll introduce my topic with a brief excerpt from an episode from NBC’s popular Heroes series (“Parasite”, Season 1, Episode 18). I admit that I haven’t watched any of the episodes in this series, but this excerpt caught my attention and deserves some reflection. (Thanks to my MySpace friend going by the name “Supernatural” for the heads up.)
MR. LINDERMAN: But I think that most people eat when they’re happy. I like to see people happy. Are you happy, Nathan?
NATHAN: Not especially. I guess I have a few issues that plague me.
MR. LINDERMAN: Oh, dear, I’m sorry to hear that. You see, I think there comes a time when a man has to ask himself whether he wants a life of happiness or a life of meaning.
NATHAN: I’d like to have both.
(Linderman chuckles and shakes his head.)
MR. LINDERMAN: It can’t be done. Two very different paths. I mean, to be truly happy a man must live absolutely in the present, and with no thought of what’s gone before, and no thought of what lies ahead. But a life of meaning, a man is condemned to wallow in the past, and obsess about the future. My guess is that you’ve done quite a bit of obsessing about yours these last few days.
Mr. Linderman expresses a fundamental Buddhist belief here: Happiness comes from living in the present. This belief stems from a core Buddhist belief that emotional attachments are the primary cause of pain and that happiness can only be achieved by divorcing ourselves from all attachments, whether they be on things from the past (nostalgia) or things in the future (hopes and dreams).
Having been taught Mormonism since childhood, I was exposed to an entirely different world view. The Mormon belief is that saints only loose valuable things for a short time (the remainder of their lives) and that all good things will be restored to them when they are resurrected (pass from death into new life). These are all the big things like real estate holdings and relationships (friendships, marriages, etc.).
Both the Buddhist and the Mormon view seem rather unrealistic. The Buddhist belief seems overly pessimistic while the Mormon view seems overly optimistic. While I can see benefits to the Buddhist view, taken to a purist extreme, it would really reduce ones chances for survival in this dog-eat-dog world. Just imagine tossing out everything that you’ve bound yourself to contractually (attachments), your car, your house, etc. If you took no thought of these things, the best you can hope for in life is living in a homeless shelter and if everyone thought this way, there would be no homeless shelter. No one would sow a seed with hopes of it growing to maturity and providing food, because hope is an attachment. Therefore taken to the extreme this view dooms its adherents to extremely short lives.
On the flip side of the coin, most of us are aware of the health tolls that chronic stress produces and we’ve all had moments where we’ve felt driven to madness over something which our minds just wouldn’t let go of. So for most of us there is something to be gained from the Buddhist philosophy of avoiding attachments, but it just isn’t realistic to think that we can avoid attachments altogether.
So where is the middle ground? How do we go about forming healthy attachments? From experience we know that putting all of our hopes in one thing can be devastating, because that one thing is bound to fail us from time to time. In fact, when it comes to human relationships, putting those kinds of hopes and expectations on a relationship can be the cause of failure, as we tend to smother the object of our affection if we don’t have other outlets for it. So what can be done? Broadening the number of attachments makes the loss of any single attachment less painful. However, the more attachments we have, the less resources we have for maintaining any one of them. When quantity increases, quality fails. So we have to determine where to draw the line between being attached to too many and too few things.
Pruning unproductive attachments can maximize our happiness. We should periodically evaluate the long term value of each of our attachments and consider how much of our resources (time, energy, money, emotions, etc.) we are spending on each attachment and determine whether those resources would be better spent on other attachments. You’ll find that some attachments can be discarded altogether. We tend to place high value on attachments that we’ve had for a long time, usually with good reason, but even these attachments should be re-evaluated from time to time. Just because something is old, doesn’t necessarily make it valuable. The same goes for something that we’ve spent a great deal on. Age and price aren’t always indicators of worth. It really is a matter of figuring out what we really want in our lives and having the courage to end unproductive attachments and create new promising ones. As any arborist knows, as painful as it may be, pruning is essential to the growth of any healthy tree. Choose your attachments carefully, your happiness depends on it.