When I desperately wanted to save my family from the ravages of the disease of alcoholism, I would have gone to any lengths to force solutions, would have said anything, done anything. And I tried in all the ways I knew how, to adjust, to shape shift, to mitigate what was happening in our lives. The utter destructive power of the disease gave us not a moment, not a generation of rest. It’s still shredding our serenity at times. It’s a powerful disease and it often wins. How do I know? Witnessing slow deaths. Funerals.
Whomever/Whatever we love; people, places, countries, we tend to acquire a proprietary attitude toward them/it. We own and then wrap our expectations around our ownership. I love them so much, I have a claim on them. I love them so much, they owe me. I love it so much, it must be mine. People. Countries. Mine. Then I tie my happiness, my peace of mind to them, it.
And if my happiness, my peace of mind, my productivity and sense of safety are tied to you, then I need you to act right so I can sleep at night. My inventory of my day consists of a check in on how and what you are doing, so I know whether or not I can rest. Whether or not I can breathe.
I loved my father for his humor, his hard work, his generosity toward every helpless, hapless, hopeless creature that crossed his path. And when he drank he was awful. Violent and abusive, unleashing all of his pain and misery, every ounce of revulsion on us. Often on me. I was a target. I felt responsible and that sense of responsibility gave me a mistaken sense of power. I thought it was best I was a target. I thought I was tough enough to take it. Better I fight him than my sisters and brothers. The thing about alcoholism is that it is an uncontrollable disease. It’s like a hurricane. You can track it. Monitor it. You can develop some survival practices but you can’t stop a hurricane. Certainly not by standing in its path.
First, I removed myself from danger. I took my body and mind a thousand miles from the disease landfall. I put some distance between myself and ground zero. I got a different perspective. I got help. I learned new definitions. Diseases. Storms. Beyond our control.
Forty years ago, I still thought I had a claim on these people I loved until I accepted that their lives belonged to them. Fully and completely. I did not have a claim on their lives. They could choose and would choose for themselves whether to run, to find shelter, to get help, to hunker down or battle it out.
I came home to find my father much as he’d been when I fled. Flushed. Sick. Slurring. Hurting. There were things I needed to say. For myself. I loved him. I wanted him to live. I needed him. Will you go get help and stop drinking? His answer was a very impolite “no”.
I did not “give up” but I did let go. I released him in that moment, not as a survival maneuver, not in a resigned and “how sad” martyr-ish way, I just released him with love because he was not mine. His life was not mine. His life belonged to him and while I could ask whatever I wanted, could say what I needed to say, I had no right to demand anything of him. By the time he got help and sobered up, I was glad. For him. I had learned “loving detachment.”
You may want to argue here. Feel free. Everyone does. We are taught that other people owe us things. Certain treatment. Dues. Care. Therefore we have a right to be outraged or despairing when they don’t perform according to our expectations. Their behavior is atrocious, wrong. Our refrain: “How dare they?” We get up each day tallying up the abuses and raging about their horrible behavior. We rant and scream. Underneath is the fury of disappointed expectations. And the sanctimonious satisfaction of knowing no matter how flawed we may be or how disappointing our own performance at least we’re better than this slob.
Rage about his or her abuse. Her neglect. His moral failings. Ignore our own.
Some of us take the other route. Despair. We now have a right to be sad and feel very sorry for ourselves. To tell everyone how neglected, wronged, mistreated we’ve been. Life — such a disappointment. We mine our misery for the levers — weapons of guilt and sorrow aimed at getting ‘them’ to see what ‘they’re’ doing to us. Whining and pleading. Or we cry about someone else’s suffering. Make it our own. It’s not much of a strategy and I’ve never seen it save anyone.
These two dysfunctional ways to deal with catastrophes — pissed or pitiful. Neither works. Because we are powerless. Over the disease. Over other people. Over insanity. Over storms.
Pissed or pitiful. Both consume our energy. Diminish our chances of survival. Drain our resources.
I remember when how my day went, how happy or safe or peaceful I felt, was tied to how much my father drank and how angry my mother was about it. We could talk to our parents at certain times of the day — between painfully hungover and drunk again. We learned to time our communication to those shrinking windows. I have spent years listening to people who have adjusted to insanity — every day’s mood and measure tied to “what he did this morning” “what she did last night” and “then he said” … and “then she did”… Recitation of grievances and abuses. Now, it’s what she posted. What he tweeted. We log on to find out whether to be outraged or despairing today.
We die slow deaths as we wrap ourselves — our deepest selves — around this axle of insanity. Tying our cart to a runaway wagon as it careens out of control. And we blame the wagon driver, the horses, the road, the weather, the cart. Forgetting that we sling that rope around that axle by choice. As children we didn’t have much choice. Our parents were our reality. But as adults, we can choose loving detachment.
Loving detachment sounds like this: I care about you. I hope you can get help with your wagon. I hope one day your wagon can stay on track. But my life, my serenity are not tied to it. I am not signing up for the ride. I’m hitching my cart to something deeper. Larger than your choices. I own my own life and serenity and I am responsible for my actions. I love you and I release you. I step back into my own neglected life. Into my own power and responsibility. I turn my attention to my relationships and my work. To my own spiritual and emotional development. I focus on what I can do. What I can change. Minute by minute. Hour by hour.
I am not practicing cold indifference. I’ve tried hating from a distance. It keeps me tied to that which I abhor. It keeps me wrapped around the axle of insanity because I must feed cold indifference every single day. Rebuilding that wall. Brick by resentful brick. That’s not detachment.
I am also not practicing some sticky gooey love without self-preservation. I am not trying to get my picture on a holy card. Complete with halo. Look at me. How I suffer at the hands of this horrible person/country. Because I love them/it so much. I’ll overlook anything. See how faithful and loyal I am? No. I remove my body from danger. I don’t wallow in suffering or expect to be rescued and provided a nest of safety. My safe place is an inner conviction and clarity about my own power and responsibility.
I bring this wisdom of letting go to everything I do. I try.
I love this country and as a citizen I am accountable for what happens in this country. I have power and responsibility. Not unlimited. I have no expectation of perfection. Nor of protection. I cannot be outraged that a large collection of flawed human beings failed to construct a perfectly functioning form of government. Loving detachment is letting go of outrage. I cannot whine that somehow “things” are not better despite my having devoted a lifetime to trying to make the world work for everyone. I cannot scream that institutions that once seemed to work now disappoint. Now perpetuate cruelties. Abandoning entitlement and martyrdom, I take responsibility for my resources, my power, my responsibility to use them well.
I love this country but I am not tied to a madman’s actions. I am not him, nor am I the reaction to him. I am accountable for my actions. For taking my inventory. What strengths, resources, powers, do I possess? What can I do with them today to move the world in the direction I hope for? How must I change? What can I do for those with less power, fewer resources available to withstand this storm?
There is an entire industry determined to keep us in outrage or despair. Determined to keep us wrapped around an axle of insanity. Flogging and fanning. Despair and outrage.
If you sign up for it, tie your rope to it, you will end up exhausted, broken and bleeding. You will have nothing for those who genuinely need your gifts, your guidance, your protection. So, watch it with loving detachment. With the kind eyes of love and the sorrow of witnessing destruction. Use your energy on behalf of those who caught the dirty side of this storm. Be still. Be close. Prepare for the next one.
Practice loving detachment.
I wrote this for me and maybe for you too.