Sometimes we are absolutely sure that we are right and everyone else is wrong. We approach these judgments with a fervor and a conviction that seems to preclude any other viewpoint.
We see this clearly in politics. Tune-in to your favorite news channel and listen to all those talking heads, both of the right and of the left. They all are absolutely convinced that they are right. I often wonder whether these commentators have a life, or at least a job. Or do they live in the studios? They seem to be always there!
There is a definite caution in the history of Christian Spirituality in the whole area of the passions. Passions are irrational forces that compel us in certain directions even when their actions result in all kinds of collateral damage. Passions drive us to do things that, on quieter reflection, would not be done due to their negative sides.
I am sure everyone has had the experience of getting angry with someone and sitting down to write them about it, say in an email. We express our anger and our annoyance and then we hit the ‘send’ button. This unleashes a whole host of angrier interchanges that end up in creating a battle and a resentment that far exceeds the initial annoyance. Whenever I find myself writing something in anger, I do not send it until the next day when I have cooled down. Almost always I end up deleting it since I am no longer angry and can see how my email would cause further disruption.
The passions work this way. They momentarily obscure the facts behind a veil of emotion.
Passion, however, can be a good as well. Passion is what art is all about. It is passion that gets the artist to express something in art. Passion can also teach as well, the whole area of emotional intelligence for example. But it can also be a powerful force that can be seriously destructive. Just ask someone in the throes of jealousy!
Because of the way the passions work on us and disrupt our lives, spiritual authors often speak of a virtue to help us stay in the region of freedom: detachment.
For most Americans, the word detachment is a negative word. It denotes someone who is unfeeling and uncaring. But this is not what the spiritual masters mean by it. It does not help that some of the masters like St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis de Sales call it Holy Indifference. Indifference is a very negative word for us as well. So that term is also not a help.
Once we get around the initial expressions, however, the concept of detachment is very rich and useful, existing even in many non-Christian religions such as Buddhism.
What we mean by it is the ability to be able to step aside and not let the emotions run away with us; to be able to look at our feelings and our life situations with a calm and peaceful glance. In that look we can assess whether the situation and my response to it is a valid one and if it fits into the trajectory that is best for us and is in accord with the principles and ideals and beliefs that we espouse.
Whenever we say in the Our Father, “Thy will be done”, we are practicing the virtue of detachment since we are measuring and directing our response to any given situation as to whether or not God wants us to do it.
The virtue of detachment gives us tremendous freedom. We resist personalizing our opinions and the circumstances of life. When we begin to identify ourselves with what we want we are moving toward some real trouble.
There are times that we do this for fun, as when we identify with our favorite teams. As a Yankees fan, I am in agony when they lose and elated when they win. Who are the Yankees? Why do they have such control over whether I have a good day or a bad day? I gave them this power when I identified my happiness with their success and my sadness with their losses.
We all do this and we know that it is for fun (except Red Sox fans who have something strange in their brains!).
Detachment teaches us not to do this. It instructs us, rather, to identify our loves and successes with what God wants and our sad times with whatever is against the will of God. What freedom from emotional highs and lows this gives us! Our passions do not rule us. We can make our decisions based only on the facts and the teaching of Christ!
Freedom, whether intellectual or moral, requires this virtue to be dominant in us. Once we commit ourselves to be above the fray of the passions, we can truly say that we are living in Freedom.