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Decathexion

by on September 2, 2017

                                                                      Decathexion                                                                                                                                  (from Greek: Letting go)

                                                                  by Marco M. Pardi

                                                                       mpardi.com

“Desire is the root of all suffering” Ascribed to Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha.

“In the grand scheme of things, the vast majority of humankind will never know you ever existed” Me

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All comments are welcome and will receive a response.

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On paper, I have been retired from the last of my several intertwined long term careers since 2014.  I can recall living in Florida many years ago and picturing retirement as a vigorous day at the shuffle board court or, as I saw so often, a late afternoon on a park bench feeding pigeons from one paper bag and myself from another. Now, although I attend to my bird feeders daily, neither of those Florida options is appealing.

In a sense, we’ve been retiring from things, and people, all our lives.  This strongly occurred to me during my work with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, developing Death Education and Hospice Care in North America. Obviously, the focus then was on end of life issues, especially those pertinent to long term irreversible decline.  But as I thought more about decathexion (sometimes spelled decathection), the process of letting go of attachments, I began to see it in every phase of our lives.

As parents we watch our children lose interest in once favorite toys, we say they “outgrow” them.  All in the nature of things.  We move those toys to the garage sale pile or the donations pile, telling our children some other little boy or girl will have a toy. 

Sometimes those toys aren’t given up, they are taken by circumstance.  When my daughter was 3 years old the strap on a little bucket broke and her favorite tea set smashed to the driveway. The absolute anguish she expressed stayed with me to this day.  And, 40 years later I gave her a tea set I had found that was a close match. She had no recollection of the childhood set, but remembers the recent set as something from me to her.

Around the same time in her childhood she and I debarked from a train in Vienna very early one morning. Only after the train had left for Budapest did I realize I had left her favorite doll in the cabin. Despite the commitments waiting in Vienna, I rushed us to a toy store, waited for it to open and got her a little stuffed bear we named Orso (Italian for Bear).  Orso travelled with us through several more countries, eventually becoming Naturalized in the U.S.  Where he is now is anyone’s guess.      

Looking at the seemingly endless television coverage of terrorist acts, warfare, famines, wildfires, landslides, and victims of Hurricane Harvey I see the entire span of human life, literally from birth to old age. I mentally freeze frame the individuals, wondering what it is they feel they’ve lost. What were they attached to?  What did they presume the future held for them? No doubt the older ones have answers to their questions of causality.  But what do we tell the children? God’s will?  Man’s stupidity?  In Vienna I took what I thought was the easiest and quickest way out and told my daughter her doll had to go to Budapest.  Sure. Now answer “WHY???”

But even a 3 year old didn’t easily transfer from her doll to her bear.  And, as they age children lose the sense (some would say trust) that their adults have the right answers.  I’ve heard it said that the experience of loss, especially if suffered early, helps inure you against the worse effects of greater losses further on.  I have never accepted that, and do not now. Each loss has its own story, each is unique.  And, because each loss is unique it is difficult to categorize them.  A quick attempt might yield People and Things.  But no sooner do I think that than I think of the non-human companions who have meant much more to me than most humans I’ve known, and certainly all objects I’ve owned. These companions certainly weren’t “things”.  In fact, even a cursory examination of the concept, Mini-Death introduces us to a hitherto unrealized variety of potential losses. 

Recently I wrote a condolence card to a family that had to euthanize their dog.  In it I wondered at how we know we are likely to outlive our dogs and will likely face the difficult and painful decision they recently did, yet we adopt them anyway.  As old as I am, there have been several dogs, cats and horses. It never gets easier. But what would I lose if I decided to decathect from further adoptions?  I would lose a unique companionship and a mysterious bond I simply cannot find with another human.  I would also lose self respect; knowing I could save a non-human animal from confinement and death, and I did not. 

Watching television coverage of people fleeing their homes I see, particularly in the case of wildfires, people grabbing whatever is valuable to them and portable. Family albums are common.  But there are still people who cling to heirlooms, things passed from one generation to the next.  However, there seems to be an increasing trend among younger people to reject heirlooms, or to quickly sell them when they feel obligated to receive them.  Perhaps this is in some way an artifact of a consumer society in which the object you bought just yesterday has been replaced by a newer version before you finish reading the instructions (if you do).  People, at increasingly younger ages, seem quickly obsolete as well.

I’ve never been much of a collector, but there have been times I have had to part with things I might otherwise have kept.  Moving as much as I have that is unavoidable.  Once, while several thousand miles away, I contracted an auction house to completely clean out my four bedroom home and sell all the contents. What they couldn’t sell went to charities. Ever found yourself saying, “If only I had kept that”?  I’m well aware I parted with things for pennies on the dollar. So it goes – or went.

What about people?  When I was visible in the field of Death & Dying some people tried to fit me into the mold of grief counselor.  I’ve never been skillful in that area.  I do distinguish grief from bereavement. I do subscribe to the position that grief beyond a given time (commonly cited as 18 months) indicates an underlying problem not related to the subject of the grieving.

Short of physically dying, how about friendships? I’m guessing most readers have had “close” friendships that seemed to peter out and disappear over the years.  “I wonder what happened to old So & So.” At my age I increasingly find myself thinking of someone, and then thinking They must be dead by now. Long dead in some cases. I didn’t feel the loss. But surely some are still alive, and probably thinking I’m dead. And, thinking back I can remember the wildly popular sentiment in the 1970’s, “If you love something (someone), let it go.” That was a tough one.

In the past few years we’ve seen significant progress in the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder.  Some of these were familiar to me, seeming derived from techniques used to move a person through grief.  Others, however, are new, especially the pharmacological methods. Propranolol has been remarkably successful at chemically washing out selected memories. I have vivid memories of decisions I had to make and actions I had to take.  Dwelling on these for even a minute can plunge me into the darkest blackness of soul I can imagine. I’ve spoken to no one about these, even my very dear friend Mark (Br. Mark Dohle).  But do I want to wash them away?  It’s tempting, but No. They are part of who I am and I feel they are part of the well from which I draw compassion and understanding for others.   

Yet, we do let go. We decathect from things and from people.  Perhaps there is some unspoken assumption “there will always be another”, the commonly said More fish in the sea. But the aging process is more intimate than decathecting from things and other people; it is also decathecting from functions and aspects of the self. Unless one dies instantly, decathexion from self will face each of us. In fact, a primary fear in facing death is loss of self.  A common question people express about what they hope is an “afterlife” is, Will I still be me?

The acceptance of the possibility that one is no longer the self one has come to know and love is the ultimate decathexion, the ultimate “test”. Serious evaluation of what we love and why we love it is a Life Curriculum, one for which there is no CLEP or cheat sheet. Know it or not, we are all in class.

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14 Comments
  1. Julie permalink

    Great observations once again Marco, ah the letting go – it is a double edged sword and part of the balancing act we all have to negotiate – ties directly with depth of feelings and also how well we know ourselves especially as you get older. Learning a bigger perspective helps and realising the greater picture to life in respect of losing attachments – especially losing important people in your life – the funny thing is as humans i feel is it all catches up with you at some stage or another – eg losing someone important to you – there are two parts the rational thought and the emotional feelings and the human condition can’t always reconcile these together or it can take decades – and people can be so different ! I have just read your previous post about comedy and like you Marco some “comedy ” makes me sick – guess we’re all just different

  2. Thank you, Julie. I am always so glad to see your comments. I agree, we are “bicameral” in the sense you cite, Intellect and emotion. I’ve actually been surprised at my emotional response to some events, the old “Didn’t know I had it in me.” I’m sure some would say my observations are normal manifestations of aging. But, I do feel that is not the case for many, and that is sad.

    I hope you are well and I look forward to more of your thoughts. Marco

  3. I know my children do not want any of the heirlooms and antiques I have drug through time with me. With each move that load has gotten lighter. As you know, Marco, I have a unique history, growing up in a castle in Polk County, Fl. I can’t tell you all the stuff I have lugged about thinking it would mean something to my heirs. Recently, I realized, they have no knowledge of that history. I may be wrong, and it may be something they may wish to have something from that past, but I recently got rid of it all. I can’t tell you how much lighter I feel. I have looked on the Internet and all the history is there. So they can get it digitally if interested.

    • Thank you, Mary. Yes, I’m basically familiar with the castle you grew up in, as I briefly told you in the past. Again, I wish you would write about that period in your life. Even what little I know is truly fascinating.

      I suspect you are right about the heirs and the heirlooms. I confess to having feelings about that. But, I guess that is an artifact of the true nuclear family of the past decades – families don’t stay in homes through generations anymore. And, the accouterments of those homes thus become totally out of context. It saddens me.

      Still, I so much empathize with your feeling of liberation from those connections to the past. The few things I have saved present problems of who among my relatives I might give them to. Whatever I have left is at the disposal of my daughter, and that’s it.

      • Hi,
        I’m one of those children who doesn’t want anything 🙂 For me, the rejection of stuff is not intended as a personal offense. I just don’t want the responsibility of lugging around all that stuff. I’d much rather spend money on practical things than worrying about the safety of fancy jewelry to ‘save for never’. I was an impressionable teenager in 07/08, watched my parents get too upset over downsizing, and decided ‘what’s the point’? Like Mary said: its all online.

      • Thank you, E. I sense I understand how you feel, especially with the challenging life ahead of you. In fact, holding on to “valuables” would seem out of character for you.

        I think some of the attachment I have felt to some of the heirlooms is based in a need to connect and hold to my ethnic heritage. In fact, I can’t think of a single thing to which I was ever attached that could be identified as American. There’s a reminder of belonging embedded in the things I have valued, something I’ve never found here.

  4. “Just because something has survived for a long time doesn’t mean it has any value,” or so declares my daughter; I hope she is not referring to me. She and my son have already decided which few of my possessions they want, and I have been threatened with her manner of disposal should the excess still be here when I am gone.

    My husband and I recently had a discussion about the dispersal of his family Bibles; his is the last generation for which these will have any meaning. Sadly, if we live long enough, we find that we have outlived our own history. My offspring don’t know the names written on those pages, nor would they recognize the photos of people who died long before they were born.

    The passing of the ones we care about now, both human and non-human, gives me pause. I know that death is only the final part of life, but the closer I come to my own finale, the more I realize that it is the life we’ve lived that matters. Unlike yours, my own life has been primarily mundane. Not many people know that I exist, and of those who do, few will know or care when I am gone. I’ll try not to leave a mess behind.

    • Thank you, Rose. Perhaps you will be surprised to see how many people will mark your passing, in a very caring and memorable way. A cousin kept old family albums and recently sent them to my daughter. While visiting her, she asked me to tell her who the people were in the pictures. Many of them I did not know.

      For many years my mother said to my brother and me, “Now, when I’m gone…..” and would then lay out who was to get what. When I finally realized it was her way of getting us to deny she would ever die, I told her to write these things down and be done with it. I think the people who showed up at her funeral just wanted to be sure.

      Your stellar writings will live on long after you. But I would like to read your memoirs.

  5. Part 2: This was a beautiful and thought provoking piece, far more so than might be indicated by my first response. Downsizing a life is easier said than done. There are very few things which are not easily replaced; fewer still which would lessen our lives to be without. Having stored my excess several times to make room for other people to live in my house, I have learned the value (or lack thereof) of my many possessions. If I had just tossed what I didn’t need, I would have a lot more money and a lot fewer things. I cannot imagine the luxury of just walking away from it all.

    The government stored most of my things for the four years we lived in Germany. I came home to boxes full of things I didn’t remember owning. You’d think I would have learned my lesson then.

    My father died twenty five years ago; my mother still has all of his things, including all his clothing and the last money that was in his wallet. None of us thinks this is normal, but all attempts to change the situation were dropped long ago. Everyone mourns in their own way and time, but this is beyond ridiculous. I recently learned that she blames me for the condition which lead to his death, and now I feel as if I’ve lost her, too. It explains so much.

    I don’t cry at funerals; the one in the box (or jar) is the lucky one. By the same token, I don’t want people to be sad when I am gone. It is the ultimate purge, to just step outside this body and be free. I won’t mind not being me for a while; I could use the rest.

    • Rose, I love your last comment. (Last as in final sentence in the paragraph – got to be careful with my words in this context). Yes, coming across things in boxes or drawers brings to mind the saying, Everything old is new again. I agree, your mother’s adaptation is not “normal”. But sometimes all of us do it in some small way.

      I’m saddened by your discovery of her feelings. At this point, those feelings are unlikely to change. We do lose people even as they stand next to us. It sometimes makes one wonder if we ever had them at all.

  6. Marco, there have been many moments I thought I would never rescue another dog after Billie, feeling I couldn’t have that bond with another. Now after just a few weeks, it seems like Violet has been with me forever.

    • I would also like to add I never could bring myself to put away Billie’s water and food bowls. They sat empty in the kitchen for six months, even though I felt a stabbing pain every time I saw them.

      Perhaps they were just waiting for someone else to come along.

      • Yes, Dana. We sometimes resist seeing patterns and we recoil from “Plans” but this seems to be a reminder to you not only of Billie but also of other dogs in need. I’m so glad you acted on it.

    • Thank you, Dana. I am certain Billie is as happy as Violet that she is with you. You have done a wonderful thing that takes true courage.

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