Freedom, Attachments, Authenticity, and Meaning: Finding Hope Away from Home

Nichole Flores writes:

The Cuban-American theologian Roberto Goizueta calls community “the birthplace of the self.” The loss of our community—along with the places and spaces in which we come to know that community—can shake our identity and sense of self to its core. Reading these reflections on the relationship to homeland in exile allowed me to hear Psalm 137 speaking to the spiritual dimensions of the loss of home and community in a new way. While it illuminates the spiritual dimensions of our political relationship with place, it also shows how our sense of self is shaped by attachments we have that give us a sense of home. Losing these attachments means losing our self-understanding, but also our sense of belonging both to the community and to God….

It was not until we had our first child that that feeling of home began to seem insufficient. A perfectly mundane pregnancy and labor gave way to unexpected difficulties with the delivery. It took only moments for sheer joy to become unimaginable terror as our first and only child was wheeled out of the delivery room in a plastic bassinet for emergency treatment in the neonatal intensive care unit. The attachment between my son and me, one that had been fully embodied for the better part of a year, ended abruptly. I was unable to cradle him in my arms for the first four days of his life. I spent those days surrounded by family, friends, doctors and hospital staff. But I had never felt more alone in my life. Thankfully, his treatment was successful, and we were able to take him home just six days later. But the rupture engendered a sense of the fragility of life and of our attachments that would become the central spiritual challenge of my earliest days of parenthood….

My experience of loneliness was complicated by the trauma I experienced during my son’s delivery and the first week of his life. Why had this horrible thing happened to my son? As the days, weeks and months of sleep deprivation wore on, I began to wonder if God was angry at me. I began to ask for the first time in my life whether God really loved me. While this kind of spiritual upheaval is commonly referred to as a crisis of faith, it seemed more accurate at the time to call it a crisis of hope. While I did not doubt that God existed, I lost hope that I had a home with God. I lost hope that God would rescue me. I felt the abiding sense of home beginning to unravel. I felt angry. For the first time in my life, I felt truly adrift….

The current state of our society’s relationship with home has been fraught with neuralgia because on a global and national scale, debates rage on about the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Unimaginable violence in Syria and the ensuing refugee crisis have led millions of vulnerable humans to seek asylum, only to be turned away by neighboring nations that are their only hope for safe harbor. Unbearable images of suffering migrants have been cast across social media, searing our consciences with the image of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed ashore on a Turkish beach, or Omran Daqneesh’s visage covered with blood and ash. These images are a reminder that the loss of home usually causes irreparable harm, especially for the most vulnerable among us….

Our social attachments have come under pressure in our contemporary society. Once viewed as the bonds of affection necessary for living in a society together, our relationships with others are increasingly seen as expendable. But, as Ms. Marandiuc argues, such attachments are necessary for a sense of authenticity: “Authenticity of the self in fact requires attachments,” she says.

To understand the role our attachments have in shaping the self, argues Ms. Marandiuc, it is important to understand how they are formed within a framework of meaning….

Despite this inherent subjectivity of our contemporary orientation to frameworks of meaning, however, Ms. Marandiuc argues that the loss of a framework is a profoundly disorienting experience that raises questions about the foundations of meaning. Drawing on the writing of Charles Taylor, Ms. Marandiuc says: “To lose such a framework is tantamount to being adrift ‘at sea, as it were,’ to lose one’s sense of orientation with respect to who one is.”…

It was this same feeling of loss more profound than loneliness that I experienced as I felt my attachments eroding as I tried to raise my son without the support of nearby family and in the context of trauma. My framework of meaning is my Catholic faith; to feel a rupture in that framework was to feel as though I was losing everything….

Similarly, contemporary life in an atomized, deeply individualistic society such as the United States can be antithetical to the formation of such attachments of love. The theologian William Lynch, S.J., wrote of the “problem of freedom” in this regard, noting that the “problem of freedom is not about the goal of freedom, but the far more difficult question of how, in our actual lives and in the life of the city, we move to attain real freedom—how, in other words, we understand the relation of freedom to the contrary reality of limitation.” When humans seek complete autonomy from concrete commitments, the result can be a loathing for oneself, for one’s background, and even for one’s country.

Our attachments, in other words, are central to our shaping of the self. They allow us to give and to express love, and thus give us a sense of belonging, and help us to “be at home” in ourselves and in our actual homes….

Our attachments—to people, to places and even to institutions and ideas—are fundamental to human experience and identity. Respecting and nurturing those attachments, as well as acknowledging the serious implications of both the loss of those attachments and the maintenance of harmful attachments, is thus essential to attending to human physical, emotional, intellectual and moral formation in the 21st-century global context….

I asked Ms. Marandiuc how Christian faith helps us to recover a sense of self resulting from ruptures in our frameworks of meaning. But she suggested that I shift the question from the theological virtue of faith to the theological virtue of love. “What helps us to recover the goodness of home is love more than faith,” she said. While we rightly conceive of the church as a means of communicating the overwhelming sense of God’s love, she argues that love helps us to form attachments with others….

I concur with her about the significance of love for forming these kinds of attachments. But it is also essential to highlight hope. It is these attachments that allow us to experience hope in an abiding sense.