“Aren’t you afraid?” I wanted to know from my 78 year old cousin, Nel.
“I was until a few days ago. Now, no longer,” she replied calmly and serenely.
And for the third time in my life I experienced that mystical and puzzling state of detachment that people often have when they are confronted with their imminent mortality. Detachment is not the right word. It implies an indifference and aloofness which simply does not fit. You get to see that more clearly when you hold the hand of a dying loved one to comfort them and discover that you are not the comforter, but the comforted. They seem to lose all self-concern, replacing it with an empathy and warmth towards all others. In their presence you feel diminutive, inadequate and puerile. It is undoubtedly the highest state of being human, endowing many of those who go through it with a form of majesty, dignity, total serenity and a complete loss of fear and agitation.
One can only marvel at this strange trick of life – that its ultimate lesson is taught in dying. It’s a lesson extremely difficult to learn in the routine of our daily lives. We only get a glimpse of it in the presence of death and then mostly only when it is of someone close to us or our own.
Nel crossed a threshold when chronic emphysema caused her to pass out and she had to be revived with induced oxygen. The prognosis was that she had only days left and had to be admitted to the local frail-care where she now holds on, albeit stabilised to give some hope that perhaps the days will be months, if not a few years. Her mobility is restricted to a length of plastic pipe providing oxygen from a rather noisy compressor in her room. Yet for the most part she remains tranquil – something she seldom experienced in her more active state. A somewhat reclusive spinster, Nel was fierily independent, taciturnly courteous, always of modest means, prudent to the point of being tight-fisted, and highly protective of her belongings. Mall-meandering was her favourite past time, but more for looking than buying. She harboured many fears and insecurities, mostly sparked by her interest in topical events and by things completely out of her control. Her personal transformation, despite remaining firmly agnostic, has been nothing short of miraculous.
Perhaps Steve Jobs said it best in confronting his death: “almost everything -- all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure -- these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.” Never known for charitable pursuits or warmth towards others, even towards his own family, his last desire was that his children should get to know him.
Detachment is not a new concept to mystics or even the thousands of new age inspirational gurus. It is expressed most powerfully in the phrase “death before dying” which has a Sufi origin. Sufi master and director of the Academy of Self Knowledge, Aliya Haeri, would ask her workshop participants to write down and rank ten things that described who they were. They could range from “father”, and “journalist” to, as one wit insisted as his most significant feature: “dog-owner”. She would then ask them to savour each one and examine them in combination to determine whether their lives were in balance.
But that was not the real punch line. This came when she instructed them to start at the bottom and lament the loss of that particular title or label. For example, you lose the label “husband” or “wife” if your spouse dies. Some titles may seem difficult to lose, like “doctor” if you have a degree in medicine. But the description has little practical significance if you no longer practise. When you come to removing the last one you are left with who you really are: a chunk of marble undefined by others, labels and titles.
With that comes the realisation that the only permanent things that we can hold on to and that should really define us are principles and values, such as integrity, courage, compassion, and honesty.
We build our lives around three interrelated areas of attachment: emotions, people and possessions.
Detachment from emotions, habits and beliefs is where the real character sculpting happens. It includes letting go of preconceptions, anger, resentment, jealousy, guilt and remorse. Even some of the more positive such as trust, love, pet “projects” and pleasure come with their own health warning. Of course it is impossible to detach completely from emotions. We are human and emotions are an essential attribute of our humanity. Only a course in psychopathy will discourage emotions such as remorse or guilt, or even anger and a fleeting moment of resentment. It is the extent to which we are defined by them, when they eat away at us, guide our behaviour and become overwhelming that we have to detach. It is then that referral to a higher order of the values mentioned above becomes imperative. I do not say this lightly. I was defrauded by someone very close to me, and fully appreciate the great difficulty in letting go of anger and resentment. But I have also come to fully appreciate the destructiveness of holding on to those emotions.
Despite my own measure of reclusiveness, I have always had extreme difficulty in practising detachment from people. I must confess that these attachments have repeatedly caused me considerable pain. Loyalty and trust come easily to me and the price has been high – certainly high enough to discourage others from doing the same. But then, complete detachment from people can only be the preserve of psychopaths or the severely anti-social. Perhaps the dying possess the ultimate key – empathy for others that is totally unconditional and unselfish. Or is it in the Buddhist tenet that we should love all people equally? The golden rule is the same as for attachment to emotions – it should not define who we are. Abraham Maslow has argued that one of the attributes of our highest level of maturity is when we are independent of “the good opinion of others.”
Detachment from possessions and things should be the easiest. After all, it is such an obvious state of impermanence. Attachment to them is also the most dangerous, invidious and self-destructive. Yet, we have allowed it to define not only ourselves as individuals but a whole species. We have built social structures and systems around it; made it the cause of all conflict, allowed it to drive all of our aspirations, priorities and relationships and even threaten the very planet we live on. We are not only the biggest hoarding species, but also the most destructive and wasteful.
We have switched from meaning to means. The last 5 decades have seen possessions, acquisition and consumption drive our social order to near self-destruction and to a point which we facilely call a “bubble burst”, causing widespread panic and distress. Ironically, a systematic detachment from possessions may be the only way of preserving a semblance of tranquillity and hope as things threaten to fall apart around us.
There’s nothing wrong in owning things. To be owned and defined by them is perverse.