Implements and Attachments

A friend of mine is quarreling with a roommate about what seems to be the pettiest of things: he grinds coffee in the morning, in the kitchen just outside her bedroom. A coffee grinder is among the loudest kitchen implements known to man (though there may be louder ones yet undiscovered) and the grinding in the morning, of course, wakes her up before she needs to be awakened. To add odor to the premature awakening, he insists on “composting” the coffee grounds under the sink. Note to potential composters: placing coffee grounds under the sink does not compost make. Smelly mold and mildew yes; compost no.

They live in co-op housing, although at times times cooperative is one of the last adjectives I’d use to describe the situation. Plus, despite their proximity in living quarters, they have little in common in terms of day-to-day living. She is a graduate student in a stressful and demanding program; he is an assistant at a yoga studio. They both wish to live in a way that reduces their ecological footprint, hence living in a co-op. So they share values, to some extent. But as good as the intentions of such things as fresh coffee and composting are, these good intentions do not always make for a good situation.

I understand the appeal of grinding coffee just before making it; it supposedly makes for a better cup of coffee. The fringe benefits are also good – buying better, perhaps free trade, quality coffee; it even implies a step toward sustainability. But the moment a preference for “the best” of something takes precedence over everything else, especially if it causes others to suffer (and yes, I’m counting being awakened before one wishes as suffering, even if it’s not a huge deal) it’s a sign that that’s not the most important thing. That coffee, that composting, no matter how lovely and positive the goal, is attachment, and it becomes a negative thing. It’s something that has come to define this person.

Defining oneself with things outside oneself is a primary component of narcissism. Is that person grinding the coffee so dependent on having that freshly ground coffee (it’s the best after all) that he would simply not be himself without it? Is he using that as a substitute for something missing within himself? To determine this, one needs to look at the reaction the person has to the coffee grinder, the compost, what ever it is, being taken away. Is the reaction anger or defensiveness? Are inordinate risks taken to protect this “self”? Are others put in positions they’d prefer not to be in, positions that could range from mere inconvenience to being put in harm’s way? In yourself, what is there that would constitute a threat to your own sense of self? If  your clothes, your car, your apartment, job, bicycle, the city you live in, anything, were taken away, would you still be you? Do you define yourself with things outside of yourself, or with the way you act, what you do, and the way you treat people?

Perhaps a more famous example, and one I’m using despite knowing nothing of the specifics of the situation, is the financial problem faced by photographer Anne Leibovitz. The rights to her work were threatened when she took on a $15.5 million loan to pay off debts and mortgages on numerous properties; she was sued by the lender for $24 million and used her work and (ironically) her properties as collateral. Now as I said I have no idea how this may have happened and am not looking to pinpoint blame or to psychoanalyze. But the risk she had to take to pay off the mortgage debt is incredible. Was it necessary to own that many properties worth that much? Was it worth risking the rights to her life’s work? In the end, though, Leibovitz was able to restructure the loan, no doubt partly due to the bad press the lender would have received (and the decline in the portfolio’s value that may have occurred following a takeover). Would anyone else be so lucky?

Being dependent on things outside your self  for a sense of self is shaky at best. A person in this situation must always be on the lookout for others threatening to take this thing away. To some extent, nearly everyone in a consumer-oriented society is like this. But liking things, having preferences of some things over others, isn’t a problem. Attachment, as has been said before, is. Attachment places the sense of self outside oneself, in an insecure place constantly demanding defense. And constantly being on the defensive is hardly a way to live, whether alone, or, even less so, cooperatively.

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