Attachment is the Root of All Suffering
I attended my second support group meeting this week. It was the third for Kelly – she found The Compassionate Friends after we read a book on grieving that was based on interviews with people who were a part of the organization.
It’s been over 9 months since the fire, and Christmas is just a few days away. The silence in the house is horrible. But silence has been painful ever since that day. It used to be something to savor, an opportunity to reflect, analyze, plan, create. Now it is a vacuum into which memories flood, and with them the inevitable feeling of helplessness and lack of purpose. Who am I now? Why am I here? What comes next?
When I was in college, I took a class in Buddhism. I was looking for a set of rules for personal action that equated to “God’s Will” but derived from logic. After many years in Catholic school, I had found that a set of rules like the Ten Commandments seemed necessary and logical, but as rules applied to behavior they could be torn apart by an endless series of “What If” questions. I wanted something that didn’t require exceptions. What I learned from the class was valuable, but not in the way that I expected.
We have all heard variations of the teaching that attachment is the root of all suffering. Money can’t buy happiness, for example. It is the want of something that creates the potential for the pain of deprivation or separation. If you want for nothing, then you cannot be deprived of anything. If you do not need food, then you can never suffer hunger. If you’ll pardon my extreme simplification, the ultimate goal of Buddhism is to eliminate all attachments, freeing one from this plane of consciousness so that you may achieve Nirvana (a one-ness with all things).
I had always viewed this teaching in terms of material things, and in a small way I adopted the philosophy successfully. I recognized loss as a pain that I created for myself, based on my attachment to the item or goal. I could dwell on the loss of an item that I coveted, or I could let go of my attachment, and with the attachment went the suffering. I tried to teach a simple version of this to my children. “Only you get to decide if you are happy or sad. No one controls you except you. You can’t control what happens to you, but you can always control your response.” Those words are haunting me now.
The strongest attachments that we create are to other people, and the greatest of these is to our children. My children were my limbs, they were a part of my body. So strong was my attachment that I can describe them as not being separate and distinct, but as a part of me.
Whenever a parent tells a child, “One day, when you have children of your own, you’ll know,” we hint at a truth. There is a difference between understanding and knowing. I can understand something without experiencing it, but I cannot know it. If you’re reading this as a parent, you know the attachment, the bond that I am describing. If you do not have children, you may be able to understand through analogies, but you can’t know. I mean no disrespect in saying this. There are simply veils through which we can see only shadows, but until we have passed through, we cannot perceive the truth on the other side. The bond a parent has that would truly allow them to sacrifice their life for the sake of their child is a truth that lies on the other side of the veil of parenthood. And the horrific pain of the loss of a child is a truth that is beyond yet another veil.
So when I say that losing my three children was as though my limbs had been ripped from my body, I am trying to provide some understanding to people who have not even passed through the first veil, who have not experienced a bond with a child of their own. For those who have children, I still cannot grant you knowledge of this place that I find myself, but I would use different words to help you understand. The only people who know where I am are those who have also passed through the veil by losing a child of their own. We are survivors of a calamity that has ripped us limb from limb. There are those still bleeding, and those whose injury has turned into a painful scar. We are all seeking a survivor who regained their ability to function fully, to give us hope that we can someday do the same, but we look in vain. I see those who have learned accommodation, like brushing your teeth with your left hand after your right has been lost. I see some with prosthetics. But no one regenerates after a loss of this type. You can only accommodate.
I am writing this because I wish to help those who, like me, have been torn apart by the loss of a child. I also want to help those of you who wish to understand, possibly because someone you love has passed through that veil and you are frustrated in your attempts to know what they are experiencing and therefore, to provide them comfort. I have been fortunate to have so many reach out to me, clearly wishing to ease my pain. But without understanding the nature of my injury, some have worsened the pain unintentionally. I love them despite this, but the pain is still real.
It is true that without attachment, there could be no suffering. But would you wish to be born without legs if you knew that sometime in the future you would be deprived of them? The strategy of letting go, as I did with material things, is beyond me in this case. And knowing the love I had with my three beautiful children, I would not want to stay ignorant, never passing through the veil of parenthood for fear that I would eventually be deprived of that love. How then, can I cope?
To continue under these circumstances, one needs to understand and feel their purpose. My purpose was my children, and without them I am forced to recognize a new purpose, or to cease living. Those who believe in God and can find a sense of purpose in their faith do not need my guidance. Their mantra of, “God never gives us more than we can handle,” is evidence of their sense of purpose. But I would submit that if this were true, suicide would not be the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Perhaps the state of mind necessary to attempt suicide is similar to the state of mind after the loss of a child in that it is beyond a veil, and the best we can do is understand without knowing. I believe the thought of suicide occurs to everyone who has lost a child, as it did to me. But I never passed through the veil to the point of believing that I should end my life, and so therefore I cannot know what lies beyond that veil. Still, I can see the shadows through the veil, and perhaps I can understand. And I can describe the signposts and the handholds that allowed me to stay safely on this side.
So I say to you, “You have a purpose.” That purpose is not dependent on the will of an unknown deity. I believe that it is possible to have an entire system of thought that is functional, even elegant, but pointed at the wrong target. Buddhism, Christianity, and other systems of thought have great merit, but my purpose is not to deprive myself of attachment so that I will cease to exist in this plane, nor is it to suffer through this existence in order to receive relief upon my death. I am here to affect this world, doing what I can, where I am, with what I have. I am destined to write this message, and you are destined to read it. My purpose is to share what I know, and to facilitate growth in myself and in you.