Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Mysterious Virtue of Detachment

Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Mat. 10:37)
These words of Jesus are about what the Church calls Detachment.

... which is not this
Detachment is a cold word, and implies that we can go through life with a Mr. Spock attitude toward people and things.  But that's not what Detachment means as a spiritual virtue.  Christians must always care, and care deeply, even to the point of self-sacrifice (as Jesus did), so Detachment is not a kind of clinical emotional distancing.

This is why I prefer the word Disinterest to Detachment.  But this word has problems, too, because most people think that to be "disinterested" is to be "uninterested", or bored.  As I wrote a while back ...

To be Disinterested is not to be uninterested.  To be disinterested means to have no claim on personal profit from a given situation.  We cannot love without being interested, but we must love for reasons other than our own selfish interest, otherwise it's not love.  

But what does this mean exactly?  Does this mean that we should put up with abusive relationships, remaining with people who take advantage of us or who treat us poorly?  Does this mean that employees should never negotiate with employers for better wages or for a share of the profits that they help generate?  Are we simply to give and give and give and ask nothing in return?

No, it does not mean that.  Detachment does not mean being a push-over or a floor mat.  In fact, even apostles spreading the gospel are to be Detached, and this Detachment means quite specifically not getting taken advantage of, not getting too wrapped up in anything, even in the success of your ministry.

And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them. (Mark 6:11)

This is Detachment.  This is Disinterest, not taking a personal share of the interest or gain that is, after all, God's business.  Indeed, it is usually egotistical Attachment on our part that allows people to take advantage of us.  This is especially true for actors, who are always seeking to please others and to become stars who are worshiped and adored, leading us to bend over backwards, to work for little or no pay, to put up with horrific treatment and abuse by directors and producers and grad school programs, to keep giving and giving because we're never Detached, always looking to take a share of that Interest that is not rightly ours.

To be Disinterested means that we realize what Paul says ...

I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. (1 Cor. 3:6

The "increase" is not ours.  While the "laborer is worth his wages" (1 Tim. 5:18), and while human dignity and the dignity of work make a claim on just compensation (in business relationships), and while friendships must be based on a mutual giving (in personal relationships), the "increase" is nonetheless never our own.  We can't make anything happen.  This is at the heart of Faith vs. Works - all we have are gifts, even though we are required to work in order to develop those gifts and allow God to make them "grow" - for, no matter how hard we work, we, ourselves, can make nothing grow.  We can merely plant and water, but God gives the increase.

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.  (Mat. 6:28)

Jesus here uses the same Greek word translated "grow" that Paul uses above, there translated as "increase".

But what does this have to do with ordinary life?

Well, a lot if you're an actor.  Because we actors tend to think that the magic that sometimes happens on stage or in film is of our own making, forgetting that our very talents are gifts and assuming that the good that these talents produce - the increase or growth - is ours and that this somehow means that we-are-god.

And so if you love show business (or another person, or anything else), you fail to practice Detachment or Disinterest when you (usually slyly and in hidden ways) start doing things to stroke your ego, feed your Hungry I, or establish yourself as the miraculous cause of growth and increase, seeking to become an idol to the thing you love.  We all tend to do this, even though, after all, we are mere instruments and can never be more than secondary causes, vehicles for God's grace.

Here's an example of Lack of Detachment in an actor.


He toured with Theater of the Word.  He was a good guy, but had little professional experience.  After almost every show he would moan, "I was horrible tonight!  I gave a terrible performance!"

"No," I would tell him, "You were about the same tonight as you were last night.   Your performance was adequate.  It was fine.  We got the check and nobody tried to kill us.  Stop worrying about it."

By contrast, those of us who perform (as I do) about 150 shows a year, and over a dozen different scripts don't get as emotionally involved in each performance.  We certainly want each performance to be our best, and we desperately love what we do and work very hard at it, but we don't see our time on stage as the crucial thing that makes us or breaks us as human beings.  We don't get our value defined by any particular thing we do onstage.  Like a baseball player who may lose today's game, there's always tomorrow.

We develop a kind of professional Detachment.  In fact, I'd venture to say that with expertise and practice a certain measure of Detachment always develops in every profession: surgeons, psychiatrists, roofers - every skill that you become adept at or that becomes your trade becomes somewhat automatic for you, as it should, for Detachment - Disinterest - is one of the things that sets a veteran apart from a rookie.

But when ego's involved, Detachment is tough.  And, to be honest, I'm just as guilty of Attachment as my rookie actor.  But when I am, it makes me miserable.  And when I'm guilty of Attachment in personal relationships, of clutching and grasping, of not wanting to let go of the Ring, or of whatever person or thing I feel "validates" me, I'm even more miserable, sometimes becoming obsessed or sulky, crabby or sleepless.

And yet we know, as actors, and as human beings - we always know at some level - that it's not about us.  Some of us plant, some of us water, but God gives the increase.  We may toil and spin, but the lilies we cultivate grow miraculously, of their own accord, by God's mysterious design.

And any time we forget that, and secretly and shamefully invest our talents so as to have the interest accrue directly to us, and not to God, to whom the interest is due, we are far from Disinterested, far from Detached.

So, misunderstood as the virtue is, let us pray this Lent for Detachment.


Kevin O'Brien said...

And here's an addendum - the irony is that the less Detached we are, the less productive God is able to be through us. We have to lose our lives to gain them; we have to grow smaller so He can grow larger.

For example, most groups of semi-professional actors I know who do one show after another become involved in a kind of mutual admiration society, they become "circle jerks", and, as with the sexual practice to which the metaphor "circle jerk" alludes, there's a built-in waste of talent, an inherent sterility, a missing of the proper mark. These performers become less and less productive as actors as time goes on, as their self-referential circle (they attend one another's plays and stroke one another's egos a lot more than anyone from outside their circle does) grows more and more constricted.

Anonymous said...

For a (wannabe) performer, this post is intriguing and full of relevance for me...

even the "circle-jerk" aspect, I've gone to open mic venues where the organiser incessantly does crowd-work with his gang of favored comics...

the lines exchanged are mediocre at best and yet they still feed off each others in a kind of closed circuit adulation-fest..

it makes me cringe so awkwardly as an audience member.

Amd you're right about inexperience influencing emotional attachment to a given performance, I haven't performed much but dying on stage is getting less painful for me.

- Michael R