This week’s New Yorker has a story by Adam Gopnik about a little girl who was traumatized by the death of her pet fish. It’s an interesting story, not available online (subscribe, already!) but I thought its critical message, about our attachment to creatures and things, got short shrift. The writer’s psychologist sister explains that children go through a phase where they ponder What is Life? before they move on to pondering the deeper questions of Why? Though I confess I’m always quick to quibble with psychologists, I think this is a very simplistic way of looking at it. I don’t think we ever really outgrow our attachment to people, other creatures and things. We’re just socialized to see such attachments as excessive, and to sublimate, rationalize or at least not talk about them when we get older.

Is there really any difference between the imaginary friends of our childhood and the invented and half-invented people of our adult fantasies (sexual, romantic and other)? Don’t tell me I’m the only one who can’t bear to throw out a stuffed animal toy, no matter how sorry its condition. And don’t tell me I’m the only one that feels a pang of remorse when they trade in their old car for a new one.

We all have attachments to people, places (how many of us have never been homesick?) and things. It serves a Darwinian purpose — to keep us in ‘our place’. It’s nature’s counterbalance to the yearning to learn and explore new places: Some of that is OK, but without some centripetal force to counteract the centrifugal, we’d all go flying off in every direction and there would be no community, no continuity. What we think of as nostalgia is perhaps our equivalent of the instinct that keeps migrating birds and animals coming back to the same nesting and wintering sites every year, even if their experience the previous year was traumatic.

At the end of Gopnik’s story, his little girl moves past her rejection of the replacement fish and becomes re-attached to it, even calling by the old fish’s name. If we were honest about it, we’s admit we are all constantly looking for replacements for people, places and things we were once attached to. It’s all about connection to the Earth, and to each other, and there is nothing more frightening or difficult than ‘letting go’. So many human emotions are tied up with this inability to let go of ones’s attachments: nostalgia, grief, remorse, inability to achieve closure, the thirst for revenge, ‘rebound’ relationships, and the shock when our possessions are stolen or repossessed, just for starters. And the more, and more valuable, these attachments become, the more anguish their loss costs us.

I’ve always believed that even the love that people (and perhaps all creatures) feel for each other is largely a construct of attachment. The way person A loves person B is probably utterly different from person B’s love of person A, yet each sees their love as mutual, reciprocal, more or less equal. My guess is that if we could somehow change bodies with a person (or pet) we loved, we would be shocked, absolutely bewildered, at how different their feelings for us are than what we project them to be from our own, lonely, frame of reference. (When I was younger and I was asked what I would wish for if I were granted just one wish by a genie, I always said I would want to change bodies with someone else, just for a moment to feel what it was like to be someone else — a loved one, a female, a beloved pet, or more recently a bird. My answer today would be the same.)

Such projection goes along with every attachment. When we become attached to someone, or some place, or some thing, we accord it attributes that are entirely imaginary — we cannot possible really know how (or if) they really feel, how our relationship to them is reciprocated. But it is absolutely essential that we do so, because otherwise we could have no relationships with people, animals, places or things at all. We can anthropomorphize all we want, but my guess is that all living creatures become attached to other creatures, to places and things, in ways that are not substantially different from the way we do. That is perhaps why, except for modern ‘detached’ man, there is such extraordinary mutual respect among Earth’s creatures, and respect for the Earth. We cannot bear to hurt what we are attached to.

This entry was posted in Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Attachment

  1. Dave – And, therein lies the present day problem: Man’s modern day detachment from the Earth…is the very thing that enables him to have no conscience about destroying it.Dave, I am very glad I was recently able to find your blog (via Iddybud). My blog (Hope 4 America) and my other websites are all about reconnecting through art and nature…and healing our planet and ourselves.

  2. BZTV says:

    Fascinating blog… thanks for taking the time to write it!

  3. I confess, sometiems your blogs are just a bit smarter than I am but sometimes I am touched by your blogs all the same way.Yes sir, in my opinion, elephants and pet fishes have an equal importance in all of our “worlds”.Which are the most important: Fish, elephants or humans?Damn good question. This isn’t meant to be just another funny… I’ll write those at other times Dave.All the best,

  4. zach says:

    Man I hope I don’t end up like you Dave. What an unhappy person you must be. I hope that someday you find healing and peace.

  5. SB says:

    Anthropomorphize.We don’t even have a word (do we?) for what we more often do: pretend that other creatures, all the other animals, are completely different from us.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, gang. Patty: Great blog. SB: Perhaps ironically, I think the word that describes this is ‘rationalization’.

Comments are closed.