For a long time I have been thinking about the concept of “love without attachment”, and though I do not misunderstand this thinking to mean “lightness” or “avoidance”, I still think that the concept deserves some re-examination.
I understand it when people say, “How you feel, how I feel, that isn’t our responsibility to one another. It is our job to love one another and give one another the room we need to be fully ourselves.”
For the most part, I think that’s fair. Self-compassion is giving yourself space and care to be your whole self toward having a sound mind and good health. Compassion for others is offering them much of the same.
However, the idea that this must exist in a space of non-attachment—perpetual liminality that suggests that our entanglements should start with passion and end with passively “compassionate” acceptance for which nobody is responsible, which nobody can or should address—is a notion that sounds exactly like avoidance to me. It sounds like erecting a wall of silence in the same way that “toxic positivity” insists that if we just believe hard enough rather than leaning into our emotional intelligence and digging in to do challenging emotional work, we’ll feel great. Most of us know that isn’t true in the context of toxic positivity, yet we use “just be happy” and “look on the bright side” both as words of encouragement and as warnings—”If you feel too much in a way that is too visible and too unpleasant for me, then you will be rightfully punished for being a drag. And I will not dirty my hands with you.”
The thing of it is—and this is in no way to suggest that to “cling” or to “love too hard” (neither being examples of loving behavior) are acceptable—that “love without attachment” as it is defined is problematic because it frames a dichotomy that essentially says that people either love in the good way (everything is emotionally convenient, there is no responsibility) or they love in the bad way (somebody dares to imply the weight of responsibility by way of being attached).
Life and human feelings are more complicated than that and, just as is the case with our positivity policing, we secretly all know it on some level.
But the point of my words isn’t to take down positivity or love without attachment as concepts. As I said, I think the latter notion just needs a little re-examination, so here is the case that I’d like to make:
Helping somebody, through my words, my actions, and my love—that is not a burden. It is not a responsibility. It is a privilege.
I have never forgotten a single person I ever loved. Even if I moved on with my life to do other things, I still care for them. I hope they are well. I hope my part in their story made their overall life better in some way. In that sense, I am attached to them forever. That I had the chance is a lucky thing in some way, isn’t it?
Being attached to the people in my life, being there for them in their times of need and want, giving them space when they need it, sharing a language, creating footfalls of memory in our minds, doing all of that—those are acts of compassion that signify attachment, and that attachment is a joy. It is something you get to do, not something you have to do.
If it isn’t, then maybe that isn’t your person. Maybe those aren’t your people.
Rather than dreaming up an entire reframing of how we understand our attachments to people in order to avoid our deep-seated fear of rejection—maybe instead of dressing that fear up as non-attachment—we should stop positivity policing ourselves and start doing the compassionate thing (for self and others).
Maybe we should take off our psychic gloves and engage in some much-needed emotional work.