Four weeks into 2017, and I’ve come up with my Word of the Year…
Every January I crown one word (maybe two) “Queen.” With the exception of last year, a significant word gets this honor, coupled with my intention to think, act, and meditate on it.
Previous year’s words were “Build, Listen, Thankful, Pray, Breathe, Ask, Joy,” etc. I literally apply the word (in sticky letters) to the steering wheel of my car, and post it on my office wall so that I’m reminded daily to follow it.
After several years of this practice, I know it has an effect. Adopting a word-of-the-year (a WOTY) provides a mental framework for the change you want to see and feel in your life.
In hindsight, I can identify a thread of purposeful action as a result of having an intention right in front of my face for 12 months. So much so, that I recommend choosing a single word as your focus, particularly if you’re not into setting specific New Year’s goals.
In past years, I’ve come up with my WOTY based on something I’ve been hoping for or trying to accomplish, but this year, the word chose me…
Early in the month, I had coffee with a friend, also a parent of teenagers. She showed me an inspirational card featuring the word “Detachment.” Through the lens of our teenagers’ shenanigans, we talked about what detachment might mean if applied to real life.
I thought I knew, but as the days passed, the word kept floating into my consciousness.
So many opportunities to detach…
- I heard a news story on the radio, and thought, “Detach.”
- A disturbing text from my child’s friend lit up my phone at 4:30 am, kicking off a few days of drama, as teenagers dish it up. Again, my mind presented the mantra, “Detach, detach, detach.”
- I read a Facebook comment I wished I hadn’t. “Detach.”
The word arose so many times in the past few weeks that I’m certain it’s my Word of the Year. Ironically, the seed of “Detachment” hitched in my brain and now I can’t stop thinking about it.
So I’m hooked. But what’s detachment really mean?
Detachment can be a negative emotional crutch, blunting feelings toward others. It can create a widening moat of isolation, a lack of empathy, or even abuse. But that’s not the kind of detachment I’m talking about.
I’m envisioning Detachment as a positive tool, and trying to employ it less as a protective device, than for moving ahead with creativity, and a “lightness of being.”
Backing up a bit, I should mention that I’ve never been known for an unwavering, long lasting attachment to anything. Fierce, yes; steadfast, not so much. Some people say my flightiness drives them nuts… “Whimsical” is a nice way to put it.
My mom attributes it to my being a Gemini. She claims she never knew which child was getting up in the morning. Diplomatic to a fault, I’m as comfortable with ambiguity as I am with black and white. I figure it’s just natural to allow folks the right to change their minds, while expecting the same consideration in return. You don’t know what you don’t know yet. My dad calls it “fickle.” Just don’t call me shallow, though it may look that way…
An old college friend told me once that he couldn’t “just cut his losses,” like I seemed to. He couldn’t just walk away from things, people, or situations.
It was a shot to the heart, to be sure. I took it as an admonishment to take more care of people and their feelings. And when I wipe out, try not to take anyone down with me!
Skating the surface allows you to quickly cover a lot of ground. (Think of Mercury, with wings on his heels.) Luckily, so far, every time I fall, I brush myself off, and – eventually – laugh. I may lack many admirable qualities, including a propensity for serious, focused pondering; but resilience, curiosity, and invention hopefully make up for a lot of them.
The silver lining of having a mercurial personality is that I couldn’t hold a grudge for thirty minutes if it had a handle on it. I get over things pretty fast. If you piss me off or I get my feelings hurt, I might forget about you for a day or two, but when your number shows up in my contact list, my first thought is probably, “Hey! Missed you!”
Why God made me this way is his business, but that’s the way it is and has always been. Sometimes I’d like to change…
Oh well, so much for true confessions.
This might not be easy…
Adopting “Detachment” as my word of the year seems like it would be easy for someone like me, wouldn’t it? But it’s not.
Detachment does NOT mean you have to pretend something doesn’t matter to you. No, life is messy and wonderful. You should let yourself feel it and react accordingly.
But oh my goodness, all that advice about finding one thing you’re passionate about stops me dead in my tracks. Should I list them alphabetically, or by season?
The trick is to hang on tight to a few things that make you feel happy or purposeful, then practice those things daily. Enjoy the people you love and let them make their own mistakes and live their own lives.
Why “Detachment” is my Word of the Year
Which brings me right back to my WOTY. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been trying to practice true, eye-opening detachment, detachment that doesn’t mean cutting my losses, or jumping the track, which (for me, at least) is the easy thing to do.
Detachment, in it’s best form, requires being open to Not Knowing. It’s knowing you’ll be OK not knowing; it’s a walk in faith.
Detachment isn’t just about accepting other people and events as they are, and minding my own business. It’s not about turning away from them, either. It’s accepting that there exists an outcome I haven’t thought of yet, an outcome that means I don’t get to step out of the picture and let the chips fall; it’s accepting the task of participating in an outcome that involves everyone, just not necessarily on my terms.
Detachment is more connective than I thought, but it also means you have to get really comfortable with yourself, even the bullshit — and only you know what that is, for you. You have to stop believing all the stories you’ve come to tell about yourself and others.
A detached mind isn’t easily fooled.
Some particularly close-hitting fallout from this experiment in detachment is coming to terms with the need to temper any automatic, distorted thoughts. That means releasing my practice of defining events and concerns with emotional, value loaded words (a skill that comes easily to a copywriter); overgeneralizing a situation; or permitting a memory to loop over and over in my mind.
Just because something is this way now, doesn’t mean it’s always going to be this way.
This is nothing new to people familiar with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Healthy detachment feels more like hanging in there, and waiting to see, than like jumping out of a moving vehicle. It’s staying in place and accepting the outcome that presents itself. It even feels a bit like commitment. Ironic, huh?
There’s more creative challenge in that one phrase then an entire book of concrete advice! In business, relationships, sports, politics, and any area where you want to influence others; commitment without attachment is a lot harder than just following a prescribed list of expected behaviors.
Why? Because being committed to something means you get to (have to) define what you’re committing to without hitching your personal well being to it. In other words, beware of placing your bets on other people, physical things, and world/local events. You can lose your soul out there.
The Challenge in Detaching
The poem The World Is Too Much With Us, by William Wordsworth proves this is not just a contemporary problem. People are always looking for peace and a way to buffer themselves. Trying to find comfort in the midst of it all is the human condition, provoking the pondering of poets:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon.
Detachment, the way I’m thinking of it, means you take into account the chips you’re putting on the table — your experiences, values, expectations, talents, resources, relationships, etc. — and you decide the extent to which you personally own them.
By allowing a buffer between your emotional involvement and your work, you protect yourself. But this can cut both ways.
Your actions have an effect on others and your environment, but you don’t always get to own the effect they have. Sometimes, you’ll work like crazy to prevent something from happening. It looks like business as usual from the outside, but you struggle to maintain the status quo. You never get kudos for staying out of bankruptcy, paying your employees on time, keeping your family fed, and eating healthy. Yet you do it to avoid worse.
A happy soul does this work with benign detachment.
Then there will be times you are blamed for things you never intended. You can be the most generous parent, but your child remembers the rare event when you said no to his request. You can be the most productive, reliable employee, but everyone notices when you have to leave early. Your consistency is taken for granted, and you’re punished the rare moment it falters.
But when you are detached, you can simultaneously give it your all, and hold it close to your heart. You know — and God knows — even if others don’t.
It’s a mental trick that comes with personal responsibility, padawan. One you master with practice.
Abe Lincoln: A Master at Detaching and Staying on his True Course
As I read Team of Rivals, The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, a few excerpts moved me to tears imagining the steady detachment Abraham Lincoln. Most people know he lost more elections than he won, but are less familiar with his other personal and professional trials.
In 1855, as the popular candidate of the Whig party in Illinois, and a leader in the anti slavery movement, Lincoln ran for a Senate seat. A major blizzard prevented several supporters from showing up to vote on the designated date. Due to the storm and to a few men who would not vote across party lines, Lincoln could not gain the majority vote. Ultimately, Lincoln forfeited his candidacy to a candidate with fewer votes in his party, in order to uphold the cause of anti-slavery in general.
His supporters were crying over the loss, but Lincoln was not crushed. He magnanimously put aside his personal ambitions and committed to a cause, when it would have been easy to confuse the two.
We tend to think our involvement is so crucial to an outcome, that there should be some reward and rest at the end. Laying down your sword before the end of a hard-fought battle sucks. It’s only possible if you are able to detach, and offer up your hard work as a byproduct of your life’s trajectory.
Lincoln knew his path as a leader and a politician. He would unite the country over the slavery issue. Setbacks and slights were bumps on the road to achieving that dream. He couldn’t have known, or even hoped that slavery would be abolished, yet he persisted.
In another situation, a colleague treated Lincoln horribly, but he took it on the chin and transformed an injustice into one of his most elegant career moves.
Right after the Senate seat letdown, a prominent patent case was to be tried in Lincoln’s home state of Illinois. In spite of Lincoln’s lack of a formal, prestigious education, the lead lawyer, George Harding, chose Lincoln to assist him in the case because he “understood” the appointed local judge. Soon after Harding hired Lincoln, the case was moved to Ohio, where Harding changed his mind and hired Edwin Stanton, the star attorney he really preferred.
Harding neglected to inform Lincoln that he wanted no further further help from him, so Lincoln continued to do the legwork he was hired to do, and showed up in Cincinnati on the designated day.
As it turned out, Harding and Stanton dissed Lincoln hard. They made it clear that Lincoln should withdraw from the case, which he did. They also treated him with such rudeness; it would have made a lesser man react in anger and spite. Lincoln never lost his composure, nor did he take offense. He had no negative words regarding the snub. Instead he endured the scorn of the man who had hired him to try a case; who not only sent him on a wild goose chase gathering material to try the case, but ignored the fact that Lincoln had spent months working on it, and had traveled far from home to help.
To add insult to injury, Stanton made fun of Lincoln’s clothes, his posture, etc. and even excluded him from taking meals with the legal team. Basically, their behavior was despicable and immature.
Lincoln responded by simply showing up and being 100% present, a true indication of a positive, detached mindset. He bore the mistreatment with poise and grace, and even stayed to watch the trial.
Afterward, he had not one negative word regarding the experience. Instead, he praised the quality of the lawyer’s expertise in trying the case and stated that he was heading back to Illinois to study law and improve his skills.
The whole nasty experience was a low personal blow, but Lincoln didn’t show it. Rather, he expressed admiration for Stanton’s professional prowess. Six years later, as president, Lincoln would appoint him to his cabinet as secretary of war.
The example of detaching from an outcome means that you’re going to be neither crushed nor elated. Detachment in the face of unanticipated results requires dogged endurance and quiet optimism. Lincoln never stopped pursuing his ambition for higher office. He encountered setback after setback, without letting them fester.
On his path toward excellence, Lincoln refused to let his failures take root or shred his resolve to make good. His unwavering detachment divested power from his past failures and opened doors to his future success.
By adopting an air of detachment, you learn who you are and what you’re made of, in spite of extenuating circumstances, and you reveal a calm face to the world.
This self-knowledge seems to manifest as reliability and prudence. It’s as comforting for others to see, as it is for you to feel, even if you don’t always like what you learn.
It’s the journey. It’s like being on a train and knowing your destination. You’re free to engage with other people, enjoy the scenery, get up and walk about, or doze off for a while. You’re assured of where you’re going.
Let me tell you, I’m not even close to having this down. It’s easy to get swirled into a conflict you can’t resolve.
The Inherent Rewards of Detaching from Your Emotions
Conscious detachment, while not necessarily uncommon, is not easily recognized nor frequently rewarded. Why do we crave recognition and reward anyway? Because that’s what ultimately puts food on the table and assures us there are people to eat with. Most everyone wants to feel simpatico with others. We want to know that all is well, that we belong.
Although practicing detachment keeps you steady on your path to excellence, but it is also a misunderstood source of personal power, which means sometimes you’ll end up just barely scraping by, or eating alone.
You’ve seen all those signs riffing on the British adage, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” right? Well you can’t keep calm without a sprinkling of detachment…
- Boss ignored your request for a meeting? Whatever, you’ll find another way to get the job done.
- Child chooses goofing off over studying, and gets a D on a math test? It’s his lesson to learn.
- Tree falls on your roof? That’s nature.
- Crappy customer service? It’s not you.
- Coworker bailed out again? Bring it on.
- Candidate lost? Get back in the saddle and work harder.
Masters of detachment have reserves of calm and quiet optimism.
The people who get the most attention in the news, the boardroom, and the playground are those who throw fits, and embroil themselves in messes trying to assert their will and personality on others. They’re not always the most effective, though.
Even if you don’t outwardly show distress, detachment keeps you steady. When you are inwardly involved in a negative or positive outcome, it’s easy to get whipped around by your own emotions. The stress that doesn’t serve you.
Yet who hasn’t experienced that? I’ve been there a thousand times, interpreting others’ actions or comments as personal slights, allowing events and circumstances to blur my core intentions and values.
This year, I’m keeping the word Detachment close, like a secret charm.
I’m hoping this theme takes effect in several areas of life, enabling me to peel away too much association with physical possessions, wasteful professional pursuits, unhealthy relationships, and even, to some extent, unnecessary personal goals.
While I’d never want to ditch the important things, I do want to create a healthy space in my mind and spirit where there’s no fighting paper tigers to maintain fleeting happiness and peace of mind.
With a long-overdue divorce finally on the horizon, some new resolutions regarding work, and my physical environment settling down after years of upheaval; it’s more important than ever to keep my little boat from capsizing in this swift-moving river of life. A little cheesy, maybe? I’m done protesting too much.
I hope a healthy detachment translates into growth this year. Having made some decent progress, I certainly don’t want to lose any ground.
It’s time to balance the paddling with the natural current; detach, and go with the flow.