Attachment to God & Others
Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William Cavanaugh presented an interesting perspective on our consumer culture and how Christians relate to it. The part that stood out to me was the chapter on attachment and detachment. In my work with clients in my counseling practice, I deal with the issue of attachment quite often. Attachment is a healthy process all humans are designed to experience with their primary caregivers. When we do not have a safe or consistent caregiver in our early years in life, we become detached individuals and experience anxiety and difficulty attaching to others later in life. This is a sad reality that has crept into our culture, not just in our significant relationships, but Cavanaugh points out that it reveals itself in how we operate as consumers. He states, “What really characterizes consumer culture is not attachment to things but detachment. People do not hoard money; they spend it. People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things.” He talks about the fact the greed is not the problem, it is the fact that people are not happy with what they have.
This constant sense of dissatisfaction is what plagues most Americans today. Those same clients are in my office complaining about how miserable and dissatisfied with life they are, yet they have more stuff than most people in the entire world. Our culture has convinced us that “whoever dies with the most toys wins”, as the bumper sticker reads. People are chasing that “thing” that will fill the empty void inside, which is actually a desire placed in each one of us by our creator to be attached to Him (Ecc. 3:11). Most of us have always considered consumerism to be the greed we all have to acquire more and more, but the author points out that “consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else; that’s why it is not simply buying but shopping that is the heart of consumerism.” People just keep shopping because the “thing” they have is not filling the void and they are hoping the next thing they find will. It is sad to observe this deep dissatisfaction with life on a daily basis. People are chasing the American dream, only to realize how empty and unsatisfying it is.
This process of shopping for the next great thing that will make me happy can become much like a religion itself. Since people are trying to fill that God-shaped hole inside without even knowing it, this process becomes much like a spiritual pursuit. Cavanaugh adds that “Consumerism is not simply people rejecting spirituality for materialism. For many people, consumerism is a type of spirituality, even if they do not recognize it as such. It is a way of pursuing meaning and identity, a way of connecting with other people.” It is interesting that as people pursue meaning in life through consumerism, they are in fact inadvertently connecting with other people who they come into contact with during this pursuit. This need to attach to other humans is also hardwired in us and will be the only thing on this planet that fills this need for connection. In this relentless pursuit of meaning, many Americans would do well to heed Cavanaugh’s statement, “The economy as it is currently structured would grind to a halt if we ever looked at our stuff and simply declared, “It is enough. I am happy with what I have.”
Freedom was another concept in the book that got turned on its head. In fact, Lake Lambert thought it was one of the greatest strengths of the book. “The great strength of Being Consumed is its willingness to question basic assumptions of free market capitalism, and this includes the definition of freedom itself. Economists seldom consider the philosophical underpinnings of their discipline.” I appreciated Cavanaugh’s approach to the free market by defining freedom as follows: “true freedom requires an account of the end (telos) of human life and the destination of creation.” If we don’t look at the true meaning of life, then any sense of freedom on this planet is short-sighted and empty in the end. Like I said earlier, and the author states, “economic freedom can only be a good if it fulfills some need in our nature.” Human nature needs to connect in order to fulfill that ultimate human desire of attachment. This happens when we get vulnerable with each other and take risks in taking our deepest needs to each other.
As I help people on a daily basis find true freedom in their lives, it almost always has to start with them gaining freedom from their negative beliefs about life and themselves and finding a higher meaning in their life. It is exciting when I see people find the scripture, 2 Cor. 3:17, to be true for them for the very first time. When they realize there is more to this life than the empty pursuit of the American dream, they become alive for the first time in their lives and start to realize why God put them on this planet. This is also when they realize their desires start to change when they “delight themselves in the Lord” I love the way Cavanaugh brings this idea of freedom back to relationships with other people and to God. I will close with this final quote that sums this up beautifully: “In Augustine’s view, others are in fact crucial to one’s freedom. A slave or an addict, by definition, cannot free himself or herself. Others from outside the self – the ultimate Other being God – are necessary to break through the bonds that enclose the self in itself. Humans need a community of virtue in which to learn to desire rightly.”
 William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, Kindle Edition, (Kindle Locations 403-404).
 Lake Lambert, “Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William T. Cavanaugh.” Dialog 49, no. 2 (2010): 169-71.
 William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, Kindle Edition, (Kindle Locations 84-85).
 “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” 2 Cor. 3:17 (NIV)
 “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Psalm 37:4 (NIV)
 William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, Kindle Edition, (Kindle Locations 153-155).
7 responses to “Attachment to God & Others”
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Your photo and the discussion about attachment really hit home as any day now I am going to become a grandpa for the first time. Newborns need the security that comes from consistent attachment to their mother; it’s a basic human need.
But in our societies, detachment is a serious issue. People are so disconnected, lacking community and relationship with God and others. My unproven suspicion is this sense of detachment and alienation has only been exacerbated by increased screen time and social media. A recent project my clients supported proclaimed that student suicides and depression have skyrocketed in the past ten years.
Would you agree that mental health is deteriorating?
I agree, our obsession with social media and digital screens has contributed to our already detached society and sadly increased mental illness, therefore suicide and homicide.
Of course we focused on the same concept of attachment vs. detachment! Great therapists think alike! A struggle we understand, that many do not, is that detachment is a coping mechanism which evolves from trauma. And it can be healthy for some. It broke my heart to speak about detachment on the day after the school shooting in Florida. What an example of extreme detachment! How do you work with clients on this idea of consumerism – especially in your community?
Yes great minds think alike, and yes so sad about the detachment of the boy who took so many lives in Florida. I talk a lot with clients about finding their meaning and purpose in life beyond their bank accounts, which is challenging here with all the government workers making well over six figures with a fairly low cost of living.
Jake (and Jean), I really like the conversation you have going on attachment and detachment. It seems attachment is not something talked about enough outside of counseling sessions. What would you tell parents/caregivers in the way of creating healthy attachments with their children? Also, I am interested in how you respond to the incident in Florida and the conversations about the shooter with people in your community. It seems we are looking for a lot of things to blame outside of his family system.
The spiritual aspect of our consumerism also stood out to me. There is little doubt that most of us, even those of us who know better, are frequently driven to be consumers as described by Cavanaugh and are attempting to fulfill spiritual needs through our efforts. There is little doubt that the accumulation of possessions is a road to nowhere thus, the pursuit of those material things to which we remain detached is even more foolish. Cavanaugh suggests some answers, specifically in regard to the Eucharist. What did you think about these as solutions to the problem? Do these line up with your own experience in counseling those trapped on this treadmill?
I think his is a possible solution, but I think the best solution is having an attitude of gratitude and finding meaning and purpose in life.