Judith Viorst, an eminent psychologist, wrote a key book called “Necessary Losses”. I read it many years ago and found that the message in it is key for understanding life, the spiritual journey, and much of the confusion found in our modern world. Her main thesis was that life is a series of necessary loses; from losing the comfort of the womb to losing our life in our own death, we must go through many cycles of acquisition and loss. One of the secrets to living life in a productive and happy way is to learn how to let go and move on: to accept things and not to fight the inevitable.
In the spiritual life, the value that corresponds to what she is saying is the virtue of ‘detachment’. Now, unfortunately, the word detachment has a negative connotation for the modern world. It implies someone who stands apart from life and in his non-involvement contributes nothing to life and to people. This type of indifference rightly needs to be condemned. We must, as human beings and especially as believers, be concerned about the life of the community of humankind, particularly in the area of the suffering of this world.
No, detachment is not about coldness to suffering and to the plight of the world; it begins with our concern to have our wills conformed to the will of God and that everything that occurs be seen as potentially a fact of God’s doing that must be factored into my life and decisions. This may seem a very limiting doctrine until we see that in the insights that Buddhism provides (in a very detailed way) show a very significant advantage to detachment. Buddha’s philosophy begins with the concrete observation that in everything there is suffering and that the basis of suffering are our desires. Once we want something, there comes a great anxiety until we have it and then a greater anxiety that we might lose it. When we multiply this many times, we see that in our desires, agendas, and expectations, there is a hidden trove of suffering. We want, and until we get, we are unhappy. Then when we get, we are afraid that we can lose. This affects us in the family, at work and in every human situation. The way out for the Buddha is to see this and to dedicate oneself to the cultivation of a detachment or what the Buddha calls ‘desirelessness’. This continuing action of what modern man calls ‘letting go’ brings a continual sense of peace.
For the Christian, because we believe in a personal God that inspires and directs us when we cooperate (Buddhism says nothing about a ‘god’ and hence is less a religion and more a philosophy), this detachment is tempered with the one overarching desire to accomplish the will of God. Once the will of God becomes central for the planning and the evaluation of our thoughts, words and actions, then we are freed from the enslaving force of our self-will and our over-concern with pleasing others and establishing our own dominance in the affairs of our world.
All that begins to matter is doing God’s will. There is a vast freedom in that even though it places a burden on our ability to discern God’s will, which admittedly could be tricky since we all have a propensity to fool ourselves! It is easy to ‘baptize’ our self will and say that it is God’s will that we do what we really want to do! Hence the need to always consult a spiritual director or confessor to make sure we are being truly honest with oneself.
But putting aside this problem of discernment, we begin to see the advantage of seeking our God’s will and asking Him for the strength to accomplish it. It is the spiritual basis of the 12 step spirituality which has helped so many people to let go of the many addictions that plague the modern world.
Part of the problem we face in accepting this teaching is that we confuse the word ‘desire’ with the ordinary choices we make each day. To say I want chicken soup instead of split pea soup is expressing a desire; but that is not what is being talked about here. When we say ‘desire’, we mean ‘craving’, which expresses an almost unreasonable desire to have what we want at all cost. For an alcoholic, the desire to drink is not a simple choice, it is a compulsion. The desires that the Buddha inveighs against are the unreasonable cravings that dominate our will and cause unhappiness in us. It is like saying: If I don’t get my chicken soup it will spoil my entire day! Then the desire, innocent in itself, becomes a craving that tends to take away my happiness.
The art of letting go, or the virtue of detachment, is a necessary part of living a full and truly human life. When the only non-negotiable is that we do the will of God, we are on the road to peace and deep spiritual fulfillment.