A subtle virtue

The idea of detachment has puzzled me for a long time, mainly because its basic tenant – as pursued by many of the people I know – seems to embrace a fundamental contradiction:

If the aim of religion is to foster unity, amity, peace and contentment, how can a pursuit be called religious if it divides, provokes enmity and unrest, or leaves a person dissatisfied? Yet this is exactly what occurs when a person constantly rebels against their desires: they become an individual at war. It is a kind of internal jihad – as the Islamic word “mujahiddin” actually connotes.

A person who strives to be detached in this way – when the very nature of the heart is to form attachments – is committing internally what would appear as an atrocity seen from outside. If one group (the conscious mind) suppresses and dictates terms to all other groups within, this is awfully familiar to those theocracies who have already laid a bloody trail towards their God.

I think humanity’s relationship with detachment has suffered from an immature reading of the Holy Texts. When people feel guilty and undeserving, they will naturally look to take this out on the person they feel is to blame: themselves. Detachment becomes a perfect weapon in that pursuit, a tool for the righteous mind to chastise the “unruly (and hated) self”.

But what if the nature of detachment were actually religious? What would a religious detachment look and feel like?

I’ve thought of one simple example: Let’s say that I like hot dogs. I love hot dogs, those nice, beef quarter pounders slotted in a thick potato roll. If someone tries to tell me to be detached from hot dogs, they better go someplace else, because even if I were to deny myself from such juicy beauties, the memory would still carry on in my heart.

But along comes someone who offers me a perfectly cooked filet mignon steak. Now, despite my love of hot dogs, a steak is a vastly better thing. There is no way I would fill up my stomach with a hot dog, when I knew a steak was on its way. I would even wait, passing up the hot dog, if I knew for certain such a steak was soon to come.

In this situation, my detachment from hot dogs can only be driven by a love for steak. I cannot be detached from something in the absence of a better alternative. And I must have complete faith in that alternative – feel its certainty humming within me – if detachment is to become a natural resonance of my heart.

So I begin to think that truly religious detachment is not at all about denying one’s self the world, but of coming to anticipate the beauty of God – and that the specious beauties of the world sometimes hinder that perception.

If a friend of mine later came along and saw me not eating my hot dog, he would say, “My goodness, how can you be so detached?” But to me it would not be detachment at all. I’m simply communing with my steak-to-be.

Also, there is another aspect of detachment which has always felt like a deep conundrum to me: It is a basic feature of human psychology that to earnestly involve ourselves in something, we must care about it – but to care deeply is synonymous with being attached.

A young man who is attached to his automobile will take fantastic care of it: he keeps it clean, keeps engine running, the interior vacuumed… By contrast, a person who “doesn’t really care” often ends up with a messy car and too-late trips to the mechanic. (I know I certainly fall into the latter category).

I’ve seen the same thing at my work. As a programmer, I notice a vast difference between the quality of work of someone who cares about what they do, and the quality of someone “just looking to get the job done” – who only wants to create a functional solution and to move on as quickly as possible. At a cursory glance, this detached emphasis on a solution rather than its details seems best; but in actual fact, such hapdash solutions almost always come back to bite you once the initial feelings of correctness are gone. Programs written without care more often than not do not stand the test of reality.

And yet, if a person cares too much, they agonize so dearly over every detail of the problem that they lose sight of their original purpose altogether. This leads to equally poor solutions, owing to their inherent complexity and attempts to forsee issues which never materialize. A similar situation happens if the car lover mentioned above cares too much: He reaches the point of never driving his vehicle at all so that he can always keep it safe.

I’m not sure detachment is simply the middle road. You have to care to be involved. Heck, I have to care about something before I can even remember it. Care too little and you lose connection, resulting in a decrease in quality of attention; care too much, and you cut off perspective, decreasing quality of purpose. What is the answer?

Maybe it lies in what we care about. In the case of the car, you need to care about the car, but there are two forms of caring: direct, in which your concern is for the beauty of the machine itself; and indirect, where you concern is for the suitableness of the car in a driving situation. As long as you care about driving more than what you drive, you have a decent marriage of form and function.

So too, in life, we need to care about our bodies, our work, our education: but it is an indirect caring, as these are means to the realization of our soul’s ascent. It cannot be achieved through not caring about the world, but by relegating the world’s importance to its relative value.

But even this can go too far: Are we to regard the people we meet as merely our stepping stones on the path to God? Such insincerity is not what other hearts are looking for.

It strikes me as a delicate virtue, like a fine blade, that can cut before you realize your finger is lost.