For far too many people, 2021 was a year of unmet expectations. With the latest Covid-19 surge, new daily cases have set all-time records. The widely circulating Omicron variant, while potentially less severe for the vaccinated, will invariably push more people into already overburdened and understaffed hospitals. Our return to ‘normal’ has been thwarted by a virus that continues to mutate—while callously defying our admitted exhaustion with the prospect of a third calendar year of virus induced disruption, sickness, death, and dashed expectations. Although some of us may be ‘through’ with Covid and ready to move on, Covid hasn’t gotten the memo. It doesn’t care how tired and done we are with it. It’s busy doing what it does best: infecting new people. We’re attached to the idea of ending this pandemic once and for all. But the virus is still attached to the idea of attaching itself to us.
What is Attachment?
Much of our ongoing frustration with Covid-19 (and our many other concerns in life these days) stem from our predilection for Attachment. It’s seemingly in our human nature to become attached to our expectations for people and relationships, desired outcomes, relief from human suffering, closely held values, and the belief systems that we identify with. In the Buddhist spiritual tradition, attachment (cravings/desires) is one of the core causes of all human suffering, in fact. At times, our attachments also include the power, privilege, felt safety and security, certainty, or sense of belonging that accompanies them. In other words, we’re attached to things that will benefit, protect, or give greater meaning to us and/or those we care about.
But here’s the problem: there’s almost always a gap between our attached expectations and the ultimate outcomes associated with these expectations. All too often, what we desire and actively seek is left wholly or partially unfulfilled. The ‘unfulfilled’ things in our lives might be a job lost or never offered to us; a spousal or partner breakup; the terminal illness diagnosis of a dear friend; or even the far less traumatic disappointment of a longed-for, expected vacation abruptly and unfairly denied us. In the specific case of Covid, we expected that last summer (2021) would finally mark our ‘independence’ from the virus. For those of us who’ve been vaccinated and boosted, we expected that the vaccinations would free us to fully rejoin the activities of life that we so sorely missed in 2020. Many people have continued to act in this mistaken belief, despite the facts on the ground to the contrary. Others of us have sadly, but proactively, pulled back in response to breakthrough Covid cases that now dictate continued vigilance and masking. We’re all left disappointed and disheartened.
Whether due to Covid-19 or any number of other rather unsettling developments in 2021, unmet expectations have led many to abiding feelings of fear, guilt, anxiety, indignity, contempt, or resentment. These feelings most often manifest themselves in Anger. Lots and lots of people are angry these days. In some cases, our individual anger is managed in healthy therapeutic ways. In others, it is internalized and slowly simmers within. Too often, though, anger is adversely manifested in outward, negative behaviors such as distrust, obstruction, radical and selfish libertarianism, withdrawal, grievance-based dialogue, and even violence. Our dysfunctional anger is often purposely ignited and magnified thanks to the outside proliferation of misinformation, manipulation, conspiracy theorists, and fear-mongering. Irrational, out-of-control anger makes logical, non-attached thought processes and decision making impossible.
Attached, Fractured Societal Identities
Manifested, aversive anger is most dangerous when our unmet, but attached, expectations center on notions of perceived harm to our ‘rightful’ Identity. Identity centers on how we define who we are, where we’ve come from, where we’re going, and what we believe in at a core level. And because we’re so strongly attached to it, we often feel like others around us should be, as well. We ‘form’ identities on both an individual and collective/community level. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing individual and collective identity wars throughout the United States. Verbal, emotional, political, and even physical combat has accompanied our beliefs and values surrounding vaccines, masks, in-person schooling for our children, social gatherings, business shutdowns, and event cancellations. The pandemic has become yet another symptom of a deeper, more fundamental battle for our Attachment-Driven Identity as individuals and a ‘community’. For some, that identity centers on the historical notion that we are, first and foremost, a fiercely self-reliant, independent, inherently noble, and an exceptional people in our country. There is simply nothing we can’t do or overcome as Americans if we lean into a problem. We’re stronger, tougher, smarter, and more resilient than any challenge we might face. Especially when we’re united.
The problem is that we aren’t. We’re certainly not united on handling Covid-19. Nor on much else these days either. The very nature of being fiercely independent and self-reliant means that notions of a universally shared identity, shared vision, shared notions of sacrifice, and shared problem solving go out the window. What we have instead is an increasingly disparate set of fractured individuals, alliances, regions, states, special interests, and religions. Each with their own idea of what our overarching identity should be. Then each selfishly striving to impose and attach us all to it by whatever means necessary, even in the face of our increasingly diverse and pluralistic society. For example, many Americans (although now decidedly in the minority demographically) are attached to our national identity as one of being White, Christian, living in small-to-medium sized towns, and holding culturally conservative belief systems. Adherents of this assumed identity argue that making America ‘Great Again’ means that we must return to what we once were as a nation. Believers long for happier days-gone-by when everyone looked like ‘them’, worshipped like ‘them’, acted like ‘them’, and believed like ‘them’. They hearken back to neighborly, safe, uncrowded, simple, and unencumbered times and places where those who were different than them were invisible to them in their daily lives. When and where the uncomfortable, inconvenient, unjust, inequitable, and sometimes messy state of reality for people different than them could be easily tuned out.
A 2021 study by the Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings Institution notes that 80% of Republicans believe that “America is in danger of losing its Culture and Identity”. By comparison, just 33% of Democrats agree. Interestingly enough, the research study’s byline includes this very pertinent question about our nation: An Evolving Identity or a Culture Under Attack? The survey underscores the preoccupation of some segments of our population with attaching themselves to an assumed, longstanding identity that our country is somehow at dire risk of losing now. But the lamenting survey respondents forget that the ‘good old days’ were, in truth, never uniformly good for many of our nation’s citizens. Historically, countless Americans were (and still are) actively excluded, segregated, relegated, and otherwise made ‘invisible’ in our society. People most afraid of losing this supposed national identity are attached to a privileged, historically (and currently) fallacious illusion of sorts. But allusion is a powerful force. Sometimes, idealized fantasy exerts a stronger attachment pull on us than does reality, especially when some of our country’s past and present circumstances are painful to acknowledge.
An Important Cause of It All
How and why do we become so attached to outcomes, values, beliefs, and identities in life, even when it’s not in our own best interests—or even when they’re not reality-based or historically accurate? It’s grounded in how we see the world around us each day. As human beings, we continuously observe things and people around us. We gaze out, take in, and look at our external environment. In our own minds, we think we’re simply observing. Yet, we’re simultaneously doing so much more. For we also strive to understand what’s around us. We study it, we ponder it, we ask about it, and we reflect on it. That’s the definition of healthy human curiosity. Where things go wrong, however, is when we (either as individuals or on a broader collective sense in society) begin to chase things. Judge things. Control things. Coopt things. Identify with things. It happens when we move from perception to attachment. Instead of being present and loosely interconnected with things, we append and syncretize them into our own identities. And why do we do that? Because we incorrectly see things as being wholly independent of and external to ourselves. Then too often, our own safety, security, certainty, power, and belonging needs compel us to merge (and attach) these things to our own identities.
None of this makes any sense, though. That’s because human beings are inherently interconnected with each other, with everything around us, with our entire planet, and with the vast universe surrounding us. In many ways, we share some crucial molecular foundations with the very air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the stars that we gaze upon in the sky. Sure, we’re separate and unique from these things in important ways in our identities. But we are also inextricably interconnected with them. Secondly, impermanence governs all things. Nothing is eternal and everlasting except for God. The very act of human attachment implies, in error, that we can identify with something in ways that are controllable, everlasting, predictable, and powerful. Nothing in this universe is any of these things but for God. And we are not God.
As we enter the New Year 2022, then, let’s consider attaching far less to people, things, beliefs, expectations, outcomes, and assumed identities. Instead, let’s consider a new approach in the year ahead. This different way grounds itself not in alternative behaviors, belief systems, rules of engagement, roadmaps, principles, or even human values. Nor does it represent a set of neat and tidy resolutions for the year ahead. Instead, it’s a framework for ‘Being’ in 2022 and beyond. Thankfully, none of it involves attachment in any way whatsoever. For you can’t attach to it. And, unlike Covid-19, it cannot attach to you. So, think of it as an anti-attachment paradigm. My wish for 2022 is that each of us will be more firmly grounded in notions of:
Creating starts at the top: with God’s incarnational and sacred spiritual presence in all things via a continuous, unending, and transformative circle of birth, life, death, and renewal. Everything is, in truth, continuously creating. We can never fully understand the mystery, magnificence, ambiguity, and nuance surrounding this creative process in our lives. But we can take sure comfort in knowing that, however unsettling it may seem at times, the arc of creation (and the ongoing evolution of things that accompanies it) always bends toward God’s love, justice, and growth in the end… even if we can’t see it clearly now. As such, we can hold on far less tightly to the details of things; with far less attachment to whatever happens along the way. As human ‘beings’, we should simply do our part in constructively contributing creatively with a good heart. We do so when we ground our lives in fresh, more curious, more expansive, and more original thinking each day. We do so when we learn to see and act in the world with the heart and spirit of an artist or a designer—not with the jaded, possessive, clingy, and narrow mindset of a needy, withered soul. How’s that for a new ‘portrait to paint’ in the year ahead?
Becoming is the inherent, God-given ability of every one of us to consciously discover, experience, value, and embody the Spark of the Divine within ourselves as truly loved, peace-filled, enlightened, and ‘present’ inter-beings. This means that we, as God’s people, are always a work of progress ourselves, as well. Even as the world around us is creatively evolving, so are we in a parallel process. When we begin to accept this truth, we can let go of our needs to append things to us in unhealthy, attached ways. We can resist the urge to rigidly form our identities, whether personal or societal. Attachments (with their associated identities) can easily hinder our own development in life. They can get in the way of the inner growth that comes about within us through change, challenge, and possibility. And they’re cumbersome and heavy in any event. They just wear us down and slow us up. Perhaps it’s time to shed them a little more in the New Year?
In many ways it’s all about relationships in the end. About our transcendent, yet every day, behaviors and actions that embody authentic love, compassion and empathy, respect, and justice-seeking for all others—especially the poor, marginalized, sick and dying, persecuted, dejected, ‘invisible’, and ‘different’ people in our communities, our country, and our world. Yet it’s not simply about relationships with other people. But rather also our relationships with other living things, our environment, and planet as well. Someone recently lamented to me that ‘everyone has now become dead inside’– that we’ve lost the ability to genuinely care about anyone and anything other than ourselves. I don’t subscribe to this notion. I’d posit, instead, that we’ve mistaken attachment for authentic outward love. We erroneously believe that if we append and subsume someone or something, we’re loving it. That’s simply not the case. We can only truly love when we allow that thing or person to ‘be’. Authentically relating means letting go while also deeply and unceasingly caring. What about lots more of that in 2022?
Striving for Less Attachment in 2022 is a big, audacious, and challenging ‘Wish’, I admit. But what have we got to Lose and, in turn, Gain by doing so… as individuals, as communities, and collectively together as a nation? Think about it. And have a very Happy New Year in the process.