Finding Freedom in Detachment

There is a proverb which comes from ancient China and which states that the fewer interests a man has, the  more powerful he is; that the greatest power is complete disinterestedness. But that idea is foreign to us. The image of man which has become the standard since the middle of the past century is quite different. It presents the active man who moves with decision in dealing with the world and accomplishes his purposes.

That such a man accomplishes much would not be denied even by the  teachers of that  ancient  philosophy. But they would probably say that most of it is superficial and bypasses that which is really important.

How, then, does the man live who is ruled by his interests? In his associations with others, such a man does not turn toward another person with simplicity and sincerity, but he always has ulterior motives. He wishes to make an impression, to be envied, to gain an advantage, or to get ahead. He praises in order to be praised.

With such a man we are not at ease. We perceive his intentions  and draw back. The free association in which  true human relations are realized does not develop. Of course, our life with its many needs also has its rights. Many human relations are built upon dependence and aims. Consequently, it is not only right but absolutely necessary that we should seek to obtain what we need and should be conscious of doing this. But there  are many other relations which rest upon a candid and sincere meeting of persons.

Wherever the essential relations of “I” and “thou” are to be realized, interests must give way. We must see the other as he is, deal simply with him, and live with him. We must adapt ourselves to the situation and its demands, whether it be a conversation, collaboration,  joyfulness, or the  enduring  of misfortune, danger, or sorrow.

Only in this way are true human values made possible, such as a real friendship, true love, sincere comradeship in working, and honest assistance in time of need. But if interests become dominant here, then everything atrophies.

This article is an excerpt from Guardini’s Learning the Virtues. Click the image to preview other chapters.

A man who keeps interests in their proper place acquires power over others, but it is a peculiar kind of power. Here we approach the ancient  aphorism of which we spoke in  the beginning. The more we seek to gain our own ends, the more the other person closes up and is put on the defensive. But the more clearly he perceives that we do not wish to drive him, but simply to be with him and live with him — that we do not want to gain something from him, but merely to serve the matter at hand — then the more quickly he discards his defenses and opens himself to the influence of our personality.

The power of personality becomes stronger in proportion to the absence of interests. It is something quite different from that energy by which a man subordinates another to his will, and which is really a very external thing in spite of its dynamic quality. The power of personality stems from the genuineness of life, the truth of thought,  the pure will to work, and the sincerity of one’s disposition.

Something similar holds true of a man’s relation to his work. When a man who is dominated by his interests works, then his work lacks precisely that which gives it value; that is, a sincere service to the thing itself. For him the first and chief consideration is how he can get ahead and further his career. He knows very little of the freedom of work and the joy of creation.

If he is a student, he works only with an eye to his vocation, and very frequently not even to that which really deserves the name of vocation, which is a man’s feeling that he is “called” to a certain task within the context of human society. Rather, he works with an eye to that which offers the most opportunities for financial gain and for prestige. He really works only for the  examination;  he learns what is required and what the professor in each case demands. He is never touched by wisdom and understanding; his interests isolate him. What we have said of students also holds true of other forms of preparation for later life.

Naturally, we repeat, these other things have their rights.

A  man  must know what  he  wants; otherwise his actions disintegrate. He must have a goal and must orient his life to that goal. But the goal should lie mainly in the object to which be devotes himself. He will pay attention to remuneration and advancement, since his work gives him the means of which he and his family have need and gives him wealth and the esteem of others. But the real and essential consideration must always be what the work itself demands, that it be done well and in its entirety.

The man who has this attitude will not let his actions be determined  by considerations extrinsic to the  task. In this sense, he is disinterested. He serves, in the fine sense of the word. He does the work which is important and timely; he is devoted to it and does it as it should be done. He lives in it and with it, without self-interest or side glances.

This is an attitude that seems to be disappearing in most places. Persons who do their duty in sincere devotion, because the work is valuable and fine, seem to be becoming rare. Actions are increasingly based upon utilitarian motives and considerations of success apart from the real matter in hand. And yet disinterestedness is the only disposition which produces the genuine work, the pure act, because it frees man for creativity. It alone gives rise to what is great and liberating, and only the man who works in this way gains interior riches.

What we have said also opens the way to the final essence of humanity — selflessness. One of the most profound paradoxes of life is the fact that a man becomes more fully himself the less he thinks of himself. To be more precise, within us there  lives a false self and a true self. The  false self is the constantly emphasized “I” and “me” and “mine,” and it refers everything to its own honor and prosperity, wishing to enjoy and achieve and dominate. This self hides the true self, the truth of the person. To the extent that the false self disappears, the true self is freed. To the extent that a man departs from himself in selflessness, he grows into the essential self. This true self does not regard itself, but it is there. It experiences itself, but in the consciousness of an interior freedom, sincerity, and integrity.

The way in which a man puts away the false self and grows into the real self is that which the masters of the interior life call “detachment.” The saint is the person in whom the false self has been wholly conquered and the true self set free. Then the  person is simply there  without  stressing himself. He is powerful without exertion. He no longer has desires or fears. He radiates. About him, things assume their truth and order.

Shall we say, with reference to essentials, that that man has opened himself for God, has become, if we may use the term, penetrable for God? He is the “door” through which God’s power can stream into the  world and can create truth  and order and peace.

There is an event  which reveals this marvel. When  St. Francis had lived through the long loneliness on Mount La Verna and had received the stigmata of Christ’s Passion in his hands, feet, and side and returned to his people, they came and kissed the wounds in his hands. Francis, so basically humble, would have, in former times, rejected with horror these marks of reverence. Now he permitted them, for he no longer felt that he, “the son of Bernardone of Assisi” was their object, but Christ’s love in him was. His exterior self had been quenched, but the real Francis shone — he who no longer stood in his own light, but was wholly transparent for God.

Every genuine virtue, as we have seen before, not  only pervades the whole of human existence, but it reaches beyond it to God. More correctly, it comes down from God to man, for its true and original place is the divine life. How does this apply in the case of disinterestedness? Does not God have interests — He, through whose will everything exists and whose wisdom orders all things?

We must be careful not to confuse meanings. To “have interests,” in the sense in which we have used the term, means something other than being active. Every activity has a goal, an end to be attained; otherwise, there would be chaos. In this sense, God looks toward the goal He has set, and directs His activity toward it. It is a different thing when the person acting is not simply looking toward the other person or the work to be accomplished, but regards himself, wishes to be recognized, and to secure an advantage. How could God intend anything of the sort? He is the Lord, Lord of the world, Lord of the divine life and existence. What could He need? He has — no, He is — everything!

When He creates the world, He does not do so as a man would make something, in order to boast of it or to serve his own needs, but He creates through pure, divine joy in the act. We may use the term joy here, in its highest sense. He creates things  so that  they  may exist, that  they  may be truthful, genuine, and beautiful. We cannot  conceive of the freedom and joyfulness of God’s creative activity.

But what of the government of the world, that which we call “Providence”? Doesn’t God have purposes? Doesn’t He guide man, every man, and all the events of his life, to the end that He has proposed? Isn’t the life of one man arranged in a certain way because the life of another is connected with it in this manner? Aren’t the lives of all men oriented toward each other,  and isn’t the  whole of existence arranged by divine wisdom according to God’s plan?

Again, we must distinguish the  meanings of words. Supreme wisdom does not will “interests” which accompany and are extrinsic to the essential thing, but the very meaning of that which is willed, its truth, and the fulfillment of its nature.

This divine will is the  power which binds one thing  to another, refers one event to another, brings one person into relation with another, and brings every man into relation with the whole. This does not constitute interests, but wisdom, the sovereign wisdom of the perfect Master who creates human existence as a woven fabric in which every thread supports all the others and is itself supported by all the others.

At present, we do not yet see the pattern. We see only the reverse of the tapestry and are able to follow certain lines for a short distance, but then  they disappear. But someday the tapestry will be turned, at the end of time, at the Final Judgment; then the figures will stand out brightly. Then the question never fully answered (or not answered at all) in the course of time — “Why”: Why this sorrow? Why this privation? Why can one do this and not another? — and all the questions of life’s trials will receive their answer from the wisdom of God, which brings it about that things are not a mere mass of objects and events, are not a confusion of occurrences, but that  all these together constitute a world.

Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Romano Guardini’s Learning the Virtues That Lead You to Godwhich is available from Sophia Institute Press

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Romano Guardini (1885–1968) was ordained a priest in 1910. He was a professor at the University of Berlin until the Nazis expelled him in 1939. His sermons, books, popular classes, and his involvement in the post-war German Catholic Youth Movement won him worldwide acclaim. His works combine a keen thirst for God with a profound depth of thought and a delightful perfection of expression.

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