LOVE AS ATTACHMENT AND POSSESSION
Hal Pepinsky, pepinsky@Indiana.edu, “peacemaking” at pepinsky.blogspot.com
December 7 (Pearl Harbor Day, my Grandmother Pauline’s birthday), 2013
As memories of my mom return, I recall how bewildering, even painful it was that it was for her to let me kiss her on the lips—how tightly she compressed her lips when she did. I recall her stiffening when I hugged her until pretty late in her life. Today, “This American Life” (thisamericanlife.org) focused on attachment and childrearing. In the opening segment, they recalled how in 1950, the president of my mom and dad’s primary professional organization, the American Psychological Association, had been among experts admonishing parents that open physical affection would damage their children, rather than preparing them for the vicissitudes of life. I imagine my mom tried so very hard to follow that “scientific” advice. I never doubted she loved me. She taught me to share her belief that God is love. I came to recognize how hard she must have steeled herself against crossing what she was taught to believe was an incest taboo. She devoted considerable attention to exposing me to the learning of others and attending to my reading, writing, and most profoundly, attending to manners and protocol in my relations (which extended to the importance of saying ma’am and sir when in and around her Louisiana homeland). I came to see her manner of attachment as a balancing act between love that connected us, and self-possession. Even now among condolences, as from her nursing staff, I hear what a gracious lady she was. As part of that self-possession, she remained acutely sensitive to my feelings and respectful of my beliefs (albeit critical of my claims to knowledge); as an act of self-will, she encouraged and celebrated my intellectual and emotional autonomy.
I’m sorry my mother carried the cultural burden of refraining from emotional and physical displays (except with my dad when presumably she thought I wasn’t listening). Happily, she brought my dad with her, who taught me that a man could kiss, hug and be vulnerable, and loved and respected all the same. And both were professional iconoclasts (in the name of science and logic). In so doing, as autonomous actors rather than a monolith, they struck their own balances between self-possession and possession of others, me included. That left me with considerable room to turn my life and understanding of our lives into my own balancing act between separation from and attachment to others.
Trying to balance self-possession and possession of others’ lives is the central problem of social control, as individuals and in groups. The legal word for possession is “ownership.” From owning our own behavior as duty to others, to ownership rights as against others, whatever we possess is called “property.” In his 1957 speech “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions,” Mao Zedong contrasted the correct handling of conflicts “between the enemy and ourselves,” with the correct handling of conflicts “among the people.” Among the people, Mao embraced the Chinese tradition of mediation. Law, defining property and rights of ownership and wrongdoing, was properly reserved for handling disputes with one’s enemies. The law had created a class of landlords in China who presumed to own the working lives of their workers.
The history of the Great Leap Forward and later Cultural Revolution that followed Mao’s speech suggest that using the law to destroy property creates what Milovan Djilas termed a “new class.” Proprietorship may be diverted but not destroyed. Personally and socially, the human quest to gain trust and a sense of safety and security is an intergenerational experiment in adjusting our boundaries between accommodating conflict and carrying through one’s sense of duty—of doing what needs getting done for or to oneself and in turn, to others. The balance resolves to one between love as empathy, and love as possession, of ownership, of control over oneself and others.
Buddhists are said to preach non-attachment, but I don’t think that is quite true. Rather, in a Dalai Lama or a Thich Nhat-hanh, and in the story of Buddha’s life, I see a struggle to free attachment from possession both of others and by others. I infer that violence—enforcement of property claims—is transformed as a sense of ownership gets taken out of the attachment we call love.
I have been a bit perplexed by heartfelt consolations I have received for losing my mother last week, as curious as anything about how I can feel no loss at her death—in fact to feel a burst of attachment to her in the moment. I never possessed her; now as always, I live and learn from her always loving ever changing presence. That love is a force flowing through me—and between me and myself—that will not be possessed. Therein lies the trust and security I enjoy in my relationship with her. Therein lies the trust, safety and security I enjoy in all my relations. Love becomes what I call “peacemaking” when it loses all sense of ownership. Like the copies of my parents’ rings Jill and I wear, attachment without possession has no beginning or end. Love and peace--hal