What Are You Clinging To?
“Stop clinging to me.” It sounds like something my kids say to each other all the time. “Stop touching me!” one kid cries. “I’m not touching you,” the other kid says, inching a finger as close as possible to the first kid without actually making skin contact.
“Stop clinging to me.” I’ve been known to say it to me kids when they are hanging on me like a fabric softener dryer sheet and I need a little space.
Jesus said it too. “Stop clinging to me. I haven’t yet ascended to heaven.” At first it sounds like a scene from He’s Just Not That Into You. To most of us, clingy means suffocation. Neediness has a familiar face: the close friend who asking for reassurance and advice 15 times a day. The spouse who is afraid of rejection and won’t make a decision for fear of disapproval. The buddy who will never decide what you should do for fear of hurting your feelings. The child who was told, “You’re fragile, you’re weak, you need someone powerful to look after you.” The partner who says, “You’re going to the store by yourself? You’re going to leave me here alone? You can’t do that — here, I’ll drive you.”
Sometimes, a clingy person clings because of a fear that if a loved one leaves, she or he will never return. In some ways, that’s exactly what’s going on in John’s account of the resurrection. In a stunning plot twist, Jesus returns from the grave and appears to Mary. In John’s Gospel, Mary is devoted to Jesus. She just loves him. You can imagine how crushed she is when Jesus is killed. Just when Mary thinks Jesus is gone forever, he appears. The love of her life, who was gone forever, is back and stands in front of her. Mary grabs onto Jesus. She clutches him tightly. She’s never letting Jesus out of her sight again. Having found Jesus, beyond her wildest hopes, she does not want to lose him again. And then Jesus says, “Mary, stop clinging. Don’t hold on to me. I am returning to my home. You think I have returned, but actually I have not yet left.”
I think I get where Mary is coming from. It’s actually a very human response. We all cling. We all want to hold on to pleasurable and get away from pain. It’s not a bad thing – it’s actually how we learn to survive. But clinging can become unhealthy. Our desire for pleasurable experiences can grow to be compulsive, and compulsive clinging has its costs. We can get trapped by the things we thought were bringing us pleasure. Constant clutching is exhausting. When we fasten to something that was supposed to make us happy and it ends up causing pain, clinging can turn into frustration and anger.
Harmful clinging can consume us with another person – we begin to think our happiness relies on being in relationship to another at all costs. We can also cling to an object - how many people do we know who strive to find happiness by accumulating possessions and status? We can cling to an experience and try to re-create an event from the past. We can cling to beliefs, even when they don’t fit us anymore. Think of the messages people taught us that aren’t true: Life is supposed to be easy! Life is supposed to be fair! Bad things are not supposed to happen to me! I should be further ahead in life! I’m not supposed to be ill, sick, dependent! God doesn’t let good people suffer. Other people should appreciate me more! I should be better, smarter, braver, more loving, more perfect! Even when we don’t believe these messages anymore, it can feel scary to think that if we let go of our worn beliefs, there may not be a satisfying alternative. All of this clinginess has a tightness, a severity, about it.
For example, suppose I’m craving a chocolate cake. I fixate on the thought that chocolate cake will make me happy right now. Even though it is 11 at night and I should be going to bed. Even though there is not a morsel of chocolate in my house. I want that cake. The more I tell myself I shouldn’t get it, the more I want it. Next thing I know, I’m in the car, driving to 7-Eleven, and buying not a delicious cake, but an old brownie that was cling wrapped sitting by the cash register since 5 in the morning. I get into my car and rip into it. I already known it’s not what I wanted. Even while I’m eating it, I’m not tasting it. I’m not enjoying it completely. I’m suffering. I’m criticizing myself for eating something so nasty in a parking lot at 11 PM. I’m comparing the taste of this awful processed convenience store food to my past experience of a delicious chocolate cake. I’m mad at 7-Eleven for selling this awful thing. I’m mad at myself for going to such great lengths to eat something I don’t want. I’m planning how to get something better next time. Cravings have a way of taking over our lives and causing suffering.
Our lives here on this earth are brief. Nothing about our lives is permanent. Everything is in a constant state of change. It can be so scary to face change, we start collecting things, or people, or experiences. We want this, or we need that. For a time we may get what we want. But, from the very moment we get them, it is only a matter of time before we lose them. Loss brings suffering. Whenever we hold onto a person out of fear; whenever we cling feverishly to an object, or an aspiration, or a memory; whenever we hang on to a prior experience or tired belief out of fear, we suffer.
Let’s get back to Mary and Jesus. Is Mary clinging to a wrongly-constructed view of Jesus? Maybe Mary clings to what she wants to believe instead of what’s really happening? Perhaps her idea Jesus is different than who Jesus said he is. And what if we do the same thing? We want to manage Jesus. We want Jesus to conform to our needs. We want him to affirm our assumptions. If we can keep Jesus in close, we know exactly where to find him when we want to know that he is on our side in our religious conflicts. We know where to find him when we need him to justify our moral debates. And even though we say we don’t, we want him in our politics, too. We build an image of a Jesus who is always on our side and backing us up.
And then Easter comes and tears our assumptions apart. The presumption and pretention. The righteousness and religiosity. The craving and the clinging. Jesus appears and says, “Stop holding on to me. Stop clinging to that image you made up. Let go of the Jesus you think you know. Stop demanding that God be your fix.” Easter reminds us that even our ideas about God can lead us away from God. We must walk lightly among our desires.
There alternative to compulsive clinginess is called detachment. Some of us might have a hard time with this word. It makes us think of someone who is aloof and unapproachable. Detachment is a virtue we think judges should have. We want human resource managers and mortgage brokers to be detached. We tend to think of detachment as a cold virtue which many of the most lovable people we know don’t possess.
In Christianity, detachment means emptying ourselves from self-centered fear. Detachment is letting go of the many things that we cling to. It is loosening our grip on anyone or anything that use to fill our inner emptiness. Detachment means learning how to be whole by letting go.
Think back to my hypothetical chocolate cake fiasco. Imagine the same scenario where I crave a chocolate cake. What happens when I detach myself from the idea that I need it, or that I can’t live without it? If I can stop clinging to the fantasy I constructed, I can think clearly about whether I really want to eat a cake. And if I decide to drive to 7-Eleven and get the Hostess Pudding Pie at 11 PM, I can decide to eat it peacefully, tasting every bite without craving for more or being dissatisfied because it isn't as good as I expected. When we stop clinging in unhealthy ways, life becomes more interesting. We are able to open up to what's happening in each moment.
Detachment means breaking our emotional connection to the many things that we tend to clutch so tightly and loosening our grip. Detachment means we learn to make choices out of freedom and not out of fear. When we stop clinging, when we detach from the fears that drive us to cling and suffer, we begin to get in tune with God’s priorities. When we detach ourselves from our fears, we begin to love others for who they really are and not who we want them to be. When we detach from our fears, we begin to rejoice with the joys of others, we begin to honor others needs, we begin to love strangers, and even enemies. When we let go our need to protect carefully-constructed beliefs and our tenacious religious agendas, then we become servants of the world, promoting peace and justice, extending friendship to other faiths.
What are you clinging to?
· “Detachment” in The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality edited by Philip Sheldrake