Someone once told me that while detachment can be a very useful survival tool in certain situations, it should not be a way of life. Yet I’m finding that there are some circumstances and people with whom I have had to adopt a lifetime strategy of detachment. Well maybe I’m not employing the strategy of detachment so much as I’m just learning to accept people as they come.
Sometimes you simply have to do away with unrealistic expectations in order to enjoy better relationships without the baggage of resentment or the negativity that comes from simply throwing people away. Clearing away the webs of expectations that we use to keep people within our reach can give us the clarity of vision to see (and be thankful for) the good that exists in them.
The first person that I ever learned to accept on his own terms was my dad. He was the kind of guy who wanted nothing more after a hard day’s work than to kick off his shoes, turn on the game, attach a beer to his hand, and have one of us turn out the lights on our way to our rooms from–which we would not bother him for the rest of the night. Sure there were those nights (which I’ll never forget) when we’d all sit around laughing at those crazy episodes of Cops or crack jokes during episodes of National Geographic safari or whatever. But usually, he kept his distance.
I spent my entire childhood being friendly to him, wearing him down with good night hugs until he had no choice but to hug back, and learning to small talk with him. Small talk with my dad made me feel like I at least partially knew him. It didn’t make him uncomfortable, because I never got too close.
As a teenager, I thought I could change the world, or at least MY world. So I had a talk with him hoping that he would hear me out and start spending more “quality time” with my mom, my brother, and me. I can still hear his response clearly after all those years. It was a bit of a rant, but the ending went something like this: “Fathers and daughters don’t need to be close, and I don’t need to be close to you. Stop trying to turn me into something I’m not.” In that moment I had a most potent experience of clarity, and I began to learn the art of detachment, which serves me well to this day.
Eventually I came to learn that getting the love we want the way we want it from others is not always the point in life. As much as I needed my dad as a child—his approval, his time, his interest, his opinion of the guys I dated—he was just as much in need, or even more so. He needed something just as badly as we needed him. As lacking as he was in parenting skills, it seems he had been equally neglected and even more so.
As much as I wanted an affectionate, talkative dad who would wear a wedding ring, stay clean after rehab, and accompany my mom, my brother and me to the movies on weekends, I eventually made peace with the fact that that simply was not the hand that fate dealt to me.
Furthermore, it wasn’t about what I wanted for him or from him. It was about what each of us were supposed to learn in our individual journeys. He’s not beholden to my expectations. I don’t get to decide the timeline across which he should learn his lessons and finally “get it”. I am not fully aware of all the circumstances, memories, demons he has to fight through on the way to becoming the person he needs/wants to be. And it’s no one’s fault.
Now our relationship has evolved into one where the small talk remains, but I can immediately interpret his tone, his insistence that I call weekly to check in, as proof enough of his love, of his pride in the people that my brother and I have become. When he does say he loves me, it’s sincere. When he calls, again, to make sure we’re coming to town for that visit we talked about, I don’t feel bad about the fact that the call only lasts five minutes.
I understand his personality and appreciate some of his tendencies more now. I appreciate the artist in him–I only wish he would draw or paint more. I admire the debater in him, the objective thinker who won’t simply give President Obama a pass on everything because he’s black. I’ve come to agree often with the independent thinker who always so vehemently resisted religious dogma. I understand his need to be free.
This was a situation in which I had no choice but to adopt a strategy of detachment and acceptance. The slash and burn, just cut people off who make you uncomfortable sentiment that seems rampant these days just doesn’t work on a parent. I only got one dad.
And I’m learning that even in the relationships that I’ve chosen, there’s still room for detachment from certain expectations. I’ve learned to recognize those fair-weather friends and simply appreciate them for the fun and breaths of fresh air they provide when they’re around. Instead of resenting them for being themselves and entrusting them with things that they cannot handle, I keep them in the proper compartments. And yes, I have absolutely no problem with compartmentalization.
For me, this thinking goes hand in hand with developing a more balanced and realistic perspective on relationships, one where we stop expecting other people to be our all-in-all (or to be what they do not have the ability to be), stand on our own feet, and learn to appreciate people for who they are. Of course we need relationships, we need those relationships to be healthy, and we need to back off when they are not. We can also learn to appreciate each unique individual for the small pieces of the puzzle that they bring to the table instead of expecting each person to be one completed 1000-piece puzzle that we can simply look at and admire. We are each in a continual process of refinement.
So long as our interactions are not toxic, we don’t have to toss out the people who aren’t the “complete package”. And we don’t have to go without the relationships we want and need. We can simply seek out relationships with others who fill in the gaps. Variety is, after all, the spice of life!
What do you think of this way of dealing with relationships? Some people may call it a form of settling or allowing others to get off “scot free” for doing “wrong”. But is it really our responsibility to police the behavior and emotional/mental/spiritual development of others? Aren’t our own individual plates already full enough? Does trying to get another person to “do right” ever work, anyway? Who gets to define what’s “right” for a particular individual for a particular point in time?