‘There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference’
– T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding.
Someone walks down a road in winter: a broken king, let us say, taking the way to Little Gidding during midwinter spring, which is its own season. Amid the transitory blossom of the snow, one live flower flourishes in the hedgerow. Here are three responses our king might make. In the first case, he turns aside to admire the flower, and then decides to pluck it and keep it for himself. In the second case, he still turns aside, but only to admire. He examines it carefully, delights in its colour and fragrance, but then leaves it behind, perhaps with a smile and a wistful sigh. In the third case, the king does not turn aside. He glances towards it momentarily, registers its existence and its most obvious features, and then walks on unmoved. These, in ideally simplified form, are the three conditions of which the poet speaks: the first case is one of attachment, the second one of detachment, and the third one of indifference.
The right attitude, of course, is detachment. ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple’ as Jesus puts the point most starkly in Luke 14:26. Detachment is the second step of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, written in the 7th Century by a monk of Sinai: ‘The man who really loves the Lord…will not love, care or worry about money, or possessions, or parents, or worldly glory, or friends, or brothers, or anything at all on earth’. We are not, of course, commanded literally to hate, or even to refrain from loving, our parents. But the love we ought to hold for them is not the sort of love we find it easy to feel. The love we feel most easily is the love that would pluck the flower: it is attachment. The love to which we are called is the love that delights in the flower without needing to pluck it: it is detachment.
It’s all very easy to advocate detachment in the abstract, or to illustrate it with an example as neat as that drawn at the beginning. But the poet puts his feet upon a problem: the three conditions ‘often look alike’. Just what difference is there between loving your parents in the ordinary way, and loving as we are called to? If the difference is small, why are we so called, and so sharply? If the difference is great, how doesn’t detachment collapse into mere indifference?
In practice, I admit that it’s very hard to say. That is partly why this call is so demanding. Though I will consider further examples, my main aim is provide a more theoretical account: what exactly is detachment, and why does it matter? I’m thinking of things like this. We have all our attitudes: our beliefs, desires, emotions, etc. Together, they represent the world as being certain ways. Specifically, they represent the value of things. The way we think and feel about a thing represents it as good or bad. The valuable world we represent to ourselves, however, is a centred world: it is necessarily focussed on us. The value we see in things is first of all value to us.
And that’s it. We are first of all, and most easily, attached: the value we see in things is first of all value to us. For me to be attached to something – a MacGuffin, let’s say – is for me to represent it as a good-for-me. My joy is bound up with it, and its goodness is bound up with the joy it offers me. Now it is unlikely that I would be completely attached to my MacGuffin in this way. On reflection, I would surely admit that, actually, I would probably be fine without the MacGuffin, and it would be just as well for the MacGuffin to MacGuff for someone else. But my habitual modes of thinking and feeling about the MacGuffin may nonetheless obscure this from me. I tend to represent it as a good-for-me, such that its goodness and my joy are bound inextricably together. Thus was our king moved to pluck the flower for himself.
The most radical alternative is not to represent the MacGuffin as good at all, not to think or feel anything in respect of it. This is the condition of indifference, and thus did our king pass the flower by. One could not maintain complete difference towards all things without soon dying of thirst, but it is still possible, though not at all desirable, to hold a deep and general stance of indifference. A further theoretical possibility also suggests itself: one could refuse absolutely to centre one’s world of value,: seeing things as good, but never relating that good to oneself. This is surely some moral advance on the case of pure indifference, but it is at least undesirable on the same practical basis: we need to think of water as good for us in order to survive. Nonetheless, one can imagine some approximation of this attitude resulting from an over-zealous attempt to cultivate detachment.
What, then, is true detachment? It is see good things as good, and to relate their goodness to oneself, without seeing them as essentially related to oneself. I am detached from my MacGuffin if I really act and think and feel as if my joy does not depend on the MacGuffin, and the MacGuffin can be good without my enjoying it. This is quite compatible with wanting to enjoy it, with loving and desiring the MacGuffin. My love, however, is thoroughly sensitive to the fact that, if necessary, I can do without it, and it without me. Thus the king admires the flower, and leaves it be.
Here are some more concrete cases to consider. In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor Dashwood loves Edward Ferrars, and Marianne Dashwood loves Willoughby. Elinor is grieved to discover that her beloved is engaged to another woman, but she gets on with little difficulty. She is patient with the fiancée (who would try the patience of anyone less painfully connected with her) and attentive to her sister (of whom much the same could be said). Her love is true, but detached. She does not represent Edward’s goodness as essentially connected to her enjoyment of it in the least. Marianne, meanwhile, is utterly desolate to learn that her love is unrequited. For days afterwards, she does little but mope. She is attached to Willoughby. She cannot think of her joy and his goodness (such as it is) as independent of one another. I rather think that the novel would have been better had Elinor been less perfect at the outset, instead meeting Marianne halfway. We can imagine the plot going differently, such that Elinor begins by burying her feelings out of caution and timidity. She fails properly to represent Edward as good, and his goodness as related to her. Frustrated by her coolness, Edward makes a foolish engagement elsewhere, and the plot as it stands is set in motion. Thus would Elinor start as indifferent, and move towards detachment, as eventually Marianne does.
A further case is Der Rosenkavalier. The basic plot is this: a married woman takes a younger lover, who then leaves her for someone his own age. This could play out in one of three ways. In one case, the woman enjoys the sport of the affair, but does not really care about her lover or who he might turn to next. She is indifferent. In another case, she cares enormously about her lover, and cannot cope with his leaving her. Perhaps, in true operatic fashion, she plots to kill one or more of herself, her lover, and his new beloved. Or perhaps she simply despairs, unable to see a future without him, or to reconcile herself to his future without her. Finally, she could care about him while still accepting his decision. She does not despair, but feels joy for his new joy. Apparently, Strauss and his librettist originally intended to write the Marschallin as indifferent. The result would surely have been an indifferent opera. Fortunately, they were driven instead to create something of surpassing beauty. ‘With light heart and light hands, hold and take, hold and let go’ she sings in the first act; and so she does, splendidly singing, in the last. The Marschallin is marvellously detached.
So, how does one attain detachment? The most obvious way is also the hardest: go through the anguish of attachment and loss. Considerably easier is to do what I have been doing, and reflect on examples of attachment and detachment. But here are some more direct suggestions. First, concentrate on the whole range of what is actually good, and which one actually enjoys. The MacGuffin, whatever it may be, will only be a small part of it.I haven’t brought God in for a while. The mistake of attachment, from a Christian point of view, is this: the only good that is necessary for our joy is God, and everything that is good is ultimately so not because it brings us joy, but because it reflects God’s goodness. So the best solution to attachment is to remember the goodness of God. Remembering the goodness of cool water and birdsong and flowers wouldn’t go amiss, either, unless you happen to be a broken king. You can also try to change the way you think about the MacGuffin. Instead of concentrating on actual goodness and our actual enjoyment of it, we have a dangerous tendency to dwell on merely possible enjoyment, or lack thereof. We think of the good scenarios there might be with the MacGuffin, and the bad scenarios there might be without it. Now sometimes it is worthwhile to rehearse possible scenarios, but that is best done consciously and carefully. It is all to easy to slip into mere fantasy, and use those fantasies to fuel our feelings. Watch your thoughts, and try to keep yourself from getting lost in such fantasies. Those are the best strategies I know of for cultivating detachment.
I close with the trio from Der Rosenkavalier. The Marschallin’s song is as sad as that of any more conventionally tragic heroine, yet it also radiant. True, detached love is set forth for us in tones of lustrous renunciation. It is our part to love it and to imitate it. Whatever I should suffer, Lord, whatever I should lose, may my cry be as her cry: in Gottes Namen. With that same sorrow, and with that same strength. Let us all love like the Marschallin.