As humans, we are physical creatures. We like to watch our work manifested in physical ways (products, e-mail communication, building stuff). We like to see our love displayed in concrete forms (love letters, gifts, chocolate and roses). We like to notice our existence extending past our bodies (tombstones, the way we infiltrate our work environments, our children). I think we spend a majority of our lives, scrambling to find these physical manifestations in order to validate our time on Earth, to ensure ourselves that someone will remember us when we exit; we live in a world of 6 billion plus people that we don’t want our lives to have been for nothing. We get attached to people, to places, to things because seeing our influence on people, our presence in places, our accumulation of things are physical reminders that WE ARE IMPORTANT. I MATTER. We are severely attached to our jobs, our money, our material items, our relationships, our identities, our memories.
Jobs: Of course, we all need jobs to survive. Work makes us better people. But, as Americans, we often dump so much of our identities into our jobs that we do not know how to exist outside of those jobs. What inevitably ends up happening is, we attach ourselves to work to cover up some kind of insecurity. We don’t want to confront our marriage issues when we go home at night, so we stay extra hours. We don’t want to feel like a failure, so we sign up for extra projects. We don’t want to admit our true loneliness, so our work friends become our only friends. I for sure existed in this venue; at the time I began my first job, my personal life was in shambles; my relationship was crumbling, my family falling apart, and thus, I turned to work as an escape.
Money: We would all agree that having money makes our lives easier; I can go to the places I want to, eat the kinds of things I desire, and I don’t have to worry about that nagging, dull feeling of being in financial debt. However, where money becomes problematic is when our attachment to money causes us distress and dysfunction. I think it can go two different ways: either our attachment to money causes us to hoard it all, and we experience extreme anxiety whenever we have to make a necessary purchase, OR our attachment to money causes us to spend too much, and then we over spend, end up in debt, and since our existence is validated by the dollar sign in our bank account, we feel like a failure.
Material items: The Post-Structuralists would say that it’s not the thing itself that matters, but rather the meaning we attach to the thing. The kinds of cars we drive, the houses we live in, the clothes we wear are physical manifestations of our work. These can symbolize qualities of our characters; the kind of car I drive might give insight into my lifestyle choices; I sacrificed when I was younger, saved up, and am now able to afford a nice house; I can use my clothing choices to express something about myself that language often limits. And other times, like money and work, we attach too much of our existence to these material items that, when they break, we have to move, we lose something, we feel lost, confused, and insignificant. When I realized my high school yearbook was missing, I remember feeling quite frantic, as if that whole entire year, and my whole entire high school existence was captured in that one yearbook, which is now “erased” because the material object is gone.
Relationships: If the purpose of dating IS to marry, then you have to date, balls to the wall, with the intention of being married, which means dumping your singular, solitary identities to become a “union” to see if it would even work on in the first place. I can’t just kind of try; I have to REALLY try, which often means I’m sacrificing a good deal of myself, and my time, on something that may not even happen. We become attached. The same is true in friendships, relationships with our family members, pets–which is totally natural and an innate human trait. Again, where this becomes problematic is when we can no longer see ourselves OUTSIDE of these relationships, and when the relationships shift and change, we experience a severe sense of dislocation, and we feel invalid because “all of that time and energy was wasted” (which, of course, it never truly is if we learn and grow as a person from it).
Identities: I obviously teach high school, and in this particular venue, I do believe that attaching ourselves to a particular identity is important, because it gives us a foundation, a community, a place to exist. Teenage-hood is so chaotic, no one knows where they fit in, so being placed as “an athlete”, “an academic”, “theater kid” can often give a sense of belonging. The problem with these identity labels is when we grow up, the labels are no longer functional, and we cannot see our existence past these labels. When we attach ourselves to these labels, we prevent ourselves from moving in and out of life stages. Life is structured to never be the same (that’s what makes it exciting), so when I see myself as always The Dancer, always The Class Clown, always The Smart Kid, The Athlete, The Theater Kid, The Fastest Sprinter, I fail to allow myself to exist also as a creative soul, a helpful hand, a good listener.
Memories: The existence of a memory signals loss, a time that we will never, ever be able to return to. Even if the memory is a fond one, such as spending New Years in Paris, I will never be able to go back to 2014 and be in that moment ever again. Memories are great, because they can allow us to revisit moments in time, reconstruct stories, escape from the boring and mundane of the present. But, our attachment to memories could also prevent us from propelling forward. Perhaps I’m attached to the memory of having a “fairy tale romance”, which prevents me from seeking other, more practical relationships. Perhaps I’m tied to the traumatic memory of losing a loved one, which causes me to have feelings of regret and guilt. Perhaps I’m tied to a memory of a time that never even existed so that I can ignore an issue I need to confront.
But, what all of these attachments lead to is a life in constant anxiety. I start working 60, 70 hours a week, so that I can have more money. More money means I can have more stuff. More stuff (hypothetically) means I can have better relationships, stronger identities, longer presence, more existence. So I live anxiously, trying to scoop up as many attachments to things, people, places as possible.
As humans, we are also great projectors, and great avoiders, of our problems (which, our “problems”–feelings, insecurities, fears–are often intangible, abstract, unseen). This unease often presents itself through attachments–I’m attached to my job, because I’m unhappy in my marriage, unhappy in my single-dom, unhappy in my living situation, that find validation in my work, money, material items, relationships, identities, memories beacause I’m insecure, unsure, “insignificant”.
I think when we can finally free ourselves of these attachment is when we can finally exist in the ebb and flow of time. One particular venue these attachments always seem to prevent themselves is in grief and loss, whether it’s the loss of a job, loss of a pet, loss of a person, because we think that, if that job, that pet, or that person is gone, so is a piece of ourselves that we irrationally think is gone forever, and the time we spent is wasted (that we could have spent validating our existence in other ways).
When we free ourselves of our attachments to our jobs, we see the boundaries between work and private life, so when something goes wrong at work, or something goes wrong in the private life, we don’t feel like “our whole worlds are crumbling”, because we have existence in both places. When we free ourselves of our attachments to our money, we center our happiness on moments, events, conversations, people that are no longer shallow and meaningless, and we dump our energies into fulfilling venues: helping others, deep conversations, enriching our knowledge base, spending time with puppies and dogs. When we free ourselves of our attachments to our material items, and our cars break down, our water pumps go out, our favorite pair of shoes is eaten by the dog, we are able to replace, and look for excitement in new cars, new water pumps, new shoes. When we free ourselves of our attachments to people, and our family moves away, our friendships drift, we break up with our significant others, we are able to appreciate the bonds, we see the value in the journeys, and we welcome a new era that brings new opportunities for relationships, memories, self-enlightenment. When we are able to free ourselves of our attachments to our identities, and we no longer attach ourselves to those identities that no longer serve us, we see each as equally representative our ourselves, but also not boxed in and finitely defining; I can be an athlete, but I can also be a scholar; I can be professional, but I can also be fun; I can be a co-worker, but I can also be a friend. And, when we free ourselves of our attachment to our memories, we no longer hold onto unrealistic fairy tales stories, we allow ourselves to exist in the present.
So, how do we reach this state? Like anything, I believe small shifts lead to big changes. We first have to become aware of having those attachments in the first place. I could notice this when I make a mistake at work, and realize how much of my self-worth is tied to my success in my job. I could notice this when I find myself eager for a large raise, and I realize how much of my existence is tied towards how much money I earn. I could notice this when I find myself hoarding objects, and how difficult it is for me to throw them away. I could notice this when I can’t quite seem to dump a relationship, give up an identity, forget a memory.
Once we realize that we DO have these unhealthy attachments, the next thing we have to do is find a way to get rid of them–force ourselves to spend more time away from work, offer to pay for dinner, buy someone else something, donate money to another cause. Get rid of our material possessions. Put away those love letters, delete those text messages, give away those t-shirts that remind us of those relationships. Explore other identities, put ourselves in uncomfortable situations, reflect to find a new sense of self. Reconstruct our memories, admit reality, remind ourselves that life is supposed to change, and in new periods of our lives, things serve us in different ways.