Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Truth About Things

Things are here to break your heart.

It's a simple sentence and a simple truth.  Everything you have will eventually be lost, get broken or be stolen.

I learned this fundamental bit of knowledge many years ago, but it is only recently that I have managed to understand and articulate it.

I suppose I could best begin by asking you, Dear Reader, if you have ever had anything which was not lost, broken or stolen.  Oh, likely as not, you'll say yes, there are some things--usually inherited--that you own which can still be accounted for, things which are still fully functional and in no danger of being stolen.  And, I'd have to admit that you are probably right.

At least for the time being.

But in the longer term, what will become of that thing?  That dining table?  That vase?  The painting?  What about that gold and lapis ring?  The art?  The books?  Are all of these things destined to break and in so doing, break our hearts as well?

Yes.  Yes indeed.  Heartbreak is all things are, and all they ever will be.

Actually, the problem has not to do with the things themselves, but with our sense of ownership of them.  When we attach ourselves to objects by calling them 'ours' and making of them 'possessions' we create an attachment--a bond--to the object.  And therein comes this inevitability: This attachment--no matter how well meaning the 'owner' may be--will eventually be broken.  The result of the broken bond will be pain.

To be sure, this bond may not be broken until after the owner dies, in which case it is safe to argue that the thing is no longer capable of heart-breaking.  But the fact is, even in death, as the attachment is broken, the pain of detachment is still felt.  It may be felt by those who inherit the object, or by those who lament the loss of the owner by lamenting the dispersion of those formerly precious objects, now rendered with less meaning (if not rendered entirely meaningless).  The fact that the owner doesn't feel the heartbreak after death does not diminish it one bit.  The pain of detachment passes with the object.

So, loss is pain.  And the pain is from detachment.  Now, without attachment, we might reason, there would be no pain.  It's a simple dictum for a painless existence.  Do not become attached to anything and you will never feel pain.

But, is that realistic?  Sensible, even?  In the world today, to attempt to live without things is virtually impossible.  Even the homeless have some things that they carry.  These things may not be of any value to the rest of us, but that does not diminish their value to their owners.  Stealing from a homeless person would hurt them as much as a wealthy person.

We have cultivated the illusion in our society that our attachments to our things (and even those of others) is a good thing.  But is it?  It certainly can feel good to own things.  Having a few things gives us some comfort and peace of mind, after all.  A house, clothes and food all come to mind as things which we would not easily give up our attachments to just simply because we know they will, in the end, lead to some disappointment.

Now, I have to I admit to being attached to many, many things.  The truth is, even though I claim to be middle class, in real terms, in historical and even by comparison with the other seven billion inhabitants of this planet, I am a wealthy man.

I have a nice house, food in the refrigerator, clean sheets on a nice big bed.  I have heat and cool and light and two automobiles.  Even though I don't have a lot of things, I definitely have more than I need.  And I certainly wouldn't want to give these things up.  I like my level of comfort, and this means relying on those things.  It means relying on them even as I know that this attachment will eventually lead to some sort of pain.  It's a trade-off that I am willing to make.  A little pain in exchange for a little comfort ain't such a bad deal, after all.  We all do it.

But I would not trade any or all of those things for what really matters in my life: people.  There are a lot of reasons to be happy about who I am and the place that I live, but the truth is, things are not among them.

The loss of a thing, no matter how important and valuable, simply doesn't compare with the loss of a person, which puts the whole matter into some perspective.  I know that it was not until I lost someone suddenly that I finally understood the difference.  After that, the loss of a object--any thing--was so insignificant as to not even register in relative importance.

But if the attachment to objects is certain to lead to the pain of separation, might not the same also be said of human attachments?

No.  Our attachment to people is the exact opposite of our attachment to things.  Our links to people are vital.  I mean this literally, that links to other people are responsible for our health--for our very lives.  Even though some people cannot or will not live socially, the links are still there--felt by others if not themselves.  It's what keeps us alive.

For those of us that recognize and embrace the value of these personal attachments--in spite of the risk of loss and pain--for those of us who desire to live and love and laugh with others, the attachment and the loss are simply the price we pay.  And it's worth it.

What is not worth it is our attachment to things.  We accept the pain of loss and separation from people because we know that the benefits are so great, they completely outweigh the costs.  But things, well with them it is just the opposite.  It's all heartbreak.

I may not know exactly why we are here, but I do know this:  it sure ain't for the things.

Post script: Dear Human Reader, you might enjoy the irony in the fact that the first and only comment to this post was placed there by a thing: a bot/bit of software.  Is a 'bot' a thing?  Might 'Jason's' comment be titled: 'In Defense of Things?'

1 comment:

d2 said...

I don't have a Chanel bag, but I do have a brother who I love.

Thinking of Pierre this week and, I have to admit, the heartbreak I still feel.