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Faith, Hope, and the Peril of Outcome Attachments

For many years, I was a firm believer in the working distinction between faith and hope that I first learned from Bennet Wong & Jock McKeen’s The Relationship Garden:

Hope and faith are different. Whereas hope involves a dissatisfaction with self and present circumstances and is dependent on external events or people to provide change, faith is self-affirming and accepting of life as it is. In Romance, people hope that life will be better, or fuller; their hoping involves a lack of acceptance and a thrust toward change.
Disappointment is the other face of hope like hope, disappointment is based in a discontent with the present. The Romance phase is generally destined for disappointment, because the things that people are trying to change probably will not alter at all; once they emerge from the swoon of Romance, they are once again faced with their basic insecurities, and their hoping flips into disappointment. (pg 84, Joining: The New Relationship Garden)

To be in a state of hope interferes with intimacy. Hope anticipates a better circumstance in future; hence it is rooted in a dissatisfaction and non-acceptance of the present situation. In relationships, to hope for something different is to fail to contend with the situation as it is. […] When relationships reach an impasse, as they frequently do, people who rely on hope will focus on the future when things will be different. Too often, such people become passive and helpless, tending to freeze action while waiting for a favourable turn of events. On the other hand, when people in relationship have faith, they stay present to address themselves to the issues at hand with the assumption that they can make some positive adjustments; they have confidence in their capabilities to handle all difficulties. (pg. 133)

Since my first encounters with this distinction, I’ve come to feel that we require a balance of both in healthy relationships. Hope for better states of being is often a motivation to begin making those adjustments in the present; I don’t believe faith and hope to be mutually exclusive, but rather complementary counterparts of an effective change process. After all, if you don’t know what the hoped-for target actually looks like, then how do you develop faith and confidence in the idea that current changes are moving you in the right direction, or doing so effectively?

Where things get really tricky when discussing this distinction (balanced or otherwise) with others, however, it rapidly becomes clear when we’re addressing someone who is fixated on a particular future thing, be it a person, event, or situational outcome. Such people have generally emotionally invested so much in a particular outcome that they have no capacity to consider alternates or options beyond their fixated target. As a result, should the desired outcome not come about as hoped, the weight of that heavy emotional investment collapses on itself and crushes them; there is no resiliency.

It’s hard to help people get comfortable enough in their own anxieties and secure enough in their relational attachments to learn how to stay present. Part of the work involved eases people into identifying their outcome attachments, the particularly-invested reliance on things going a particular way, then looking at what fears may be tied to any other potential outcome on the table. It’s usually in this kind of conversation we often hear people say things like, “There were no other options,”, or “I had no choice” (this is almost always code for, “I didn’t like or want any of the other options available, so I didn’t want to see/acknowledge/consider/believe in them as options”).

Next we consider with the individual the disempowering lack of agency that goes with investing all their emotional energy on a situational outcome that relies on someone else’s control to make the desired changes. Wong & McKeen certainly hit a nail on the head with their observation that most often, hope is predicated on someone else doing something to make us feel better. And giving away all our power to others is one of the most striking ways in which we render ourselves utterly miserable.

The first two Noble Truths in Buddhism (yes, I keep coming back to this 🙂 ) are that all life is suffering, and that suffering is rooted in our attachments. Outcome attachment, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I wanted to get out of working in High Tech and be a full-time therapist, for example, and I hoped that one day I’d be able to do this as a full-time thing. What I also had, however, was faith in my perseverance, and faith (some days stronger than others) that I could handle the workload of juggling two careers until I could find the “perfect opportunity” to let go of the ties to IT. We really work best when we hold the tension of both faith and hope in balance. where it becomes a subtle but pervasive kind of self-sabotage is when we forget we have to take care of the present tense. In relationships, we can get so fixated on “some day this will all just be BETTER” or “some day my partner will just magically BE the idealized version of them that I want them to be” that we forget we have to deal effectively with the day-to-day emotional tides and communication requirements.

When we get caught on the hook of those attachments, at the point at which, according to Wong & McKeen, we flip from hope to disappointment, is a brief but poignant point of pain and grief for many of us. It’s the point at which we have to confront the fear of not-having, the fear of being denied something we want. There will often be a lot of other narratives triggered at that point as well, but those are posts for other days. In Buddhist terms, this point is called shenpa:

The Tibetan word for this is shenpa. It is usually translated “attachment,” but a more descriptive translation might be “hooked.” When shenpa hooks us, we’re likely to get stuck. We could call shenpa “that sticky feeling.” It’s an everyday experience. Even a spot on your new sweater can take you there. At the subtlest level, we feel a tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down. Then we feel a sense of withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are. That’s the hooked quality. That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us. – Pema Chodron, “How We Get Hooked and How We Get Unhooked”

Humanity, as a general state, is all about avoiding its own discomfort. Religions that provide any explanation for afterlife (resurrection, reincarnation, or otherwise) are often thought to have roots in providing a target hope that counters the anxiety around our own existence. Investing in hoped-for futures explains why people play games of chance like lotteries and stock markets as much as it explains why we get into relationships: if we win big in love or Lotto 649, we’ll be happy (or happIER) *then*, right?

So, now the this-is-why-you-subscribe-to-these-posts question and answer: What the hell are we supposed to do about these attachments, once we’re aware we have the damned things?

Self-reflection, be it through meditation or other forms of self-focusing rumination, increases our awareness of the presence of these little mental gremlins. It also provides us a platform to listen for, and to, the stories we tell ourselves about the things that we want/expect/demand from our futures. WHY is the emotional investment so profound? What are the options we’re NOT looking at, and why do we discount them? (Sometimes it’s really difficult to look into willful blind spots when we’re talking about outcome attachments, especially when dealing with fixated-on-the-future mindsets. This is one place where working with a professional can be useful for perspective.) Then we get to work on deconstructing those narratives and looking for cracks where we can introduce other options to consider. We can take a direct, very cognitive-behaviour tactic here by introducing counter-narratives to introduce whenever we catch ourselves getting all wrapped up in exclusionary, future-tense hoping; “What’s going on right now that I don’t like, that’s prompting this future fixation?” “What can I see as options for adjustment in the here-and-now?” “What among these options are within MY power to enact?” “What can I shift in my emotional relationship to what’s happening in the here-and-now to make it easier to accept the way things are *right now*, while still giving me room to manoeuvre myself towards a more hoped-for outcome?”

Leo Babauta of Zen Habits provides a nice overview of the components he identifies as being crucial to learning to let go of our attachments, while in no way downplaying the challenges to the process. Learning to stay in the heat of our own discomfort is what Pema Chodron calls, “leaning into the sharp things”. Our ability to hook ourselves to the point of emotional chaos or disaster on rigid, specific outcomes isn’t necessarily one of humanity’s more endearing traits, but the idea of not-wanting is so utterly inalienable to many of us that the notion of non-attachment just boggles people. I contend that it’s not the waning that is problematic; even Buddhists want things. The difference is in learning to not fixate immovably on something that is not yet present in our current context, to the exclusion of all other options and choices. Closing ourselves to potential, fixating on rigidity, sacrificing present-tense resilience as we distract ourselves with rosy futures… these are all things that we can adjust and move on from, if we’re willing to be brave, and to have faith in ourselves as dynamic beings.

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