Lost to the fire
Someone once asked me “What would be the only thing you would grab if your house was on fire?” I stared at him with my lips parted, as if ready to reveal an answer that was at the tip of my tongue. But with my hesitation my mouth turned into a flustered smile instead. The suppositional basis of the question could not conceive a real answer within me, highly due to the fact that I have never perceived such a situation to occur. As I continued to contemplate the question, I thought of all of the things I cherished the most. There were my journals and my diaries, all my books and novels, and of course my laptop and my camera. How could I choose one when each was valuable in its own nature? The tug to make such a difficult decision forced me to abandon the question entirely. Until 3 years later… I found my answer.
I was once told that attachment is the cause of suffering and that in order to be at peace you must not attach meaning to physical things that would not last.
But how could we free ourselves from attachment when all we want is to love and be loved? How could we not have a connection to something or to someone, when we are constantly creating meaning in our lives? This meaning creation ultimately generates a simple yet overpowering notion to produce a sentimental value to things such that any ordinary item could become absolutely exceptional. This item could be old and rusty like the chain you keep from your first bicycle. It could be big and broken like a phonograph you possess which used to play your favorite melodies. This item could seem absolutely meaningless, cracked, or dull. However, for the possessor it is a piece of his being; it is a significant fragment that shapes actualizing his existence. Ergo, the sentimental value which forms attachments.
I’ve discovered what I was attached to in the summer of 2012 which for me was the continuous rise of the revolution in Syria. Although our house was not set on fire as the question supposed, it was invaded and vandalized. Closet and cabinet doors swung open and were emptied; pillows and cushions were ripped and thrown around; our TV and home cinema sound systems were stolen along with the computer and my brother’s play stations. I cannot continue to list down the things stolen or misplaced, nor can I draw an image of the condition our house was in, because by then I had asked my mother to stop telling me what had happened. She paused apologetically, and in that brief moment, without any hesitation I asked “What of our pictures?”
In our living room there is a sofa with a hidden compartment. Inside is a box which contains numerous pictures of our childhood spent in Syria and Oman. Every summer my sister and I would open that box and we’d stare at those pictures for hours, even though we had no recollection of ever actually living the memory that the pictures prove, we both knew that it was of a time when we were happy and safe. We were attached to the pictures simply because they were a proof of our precious, forgotten childhood; a childhood which we actually spent with our family when we weren’t moving around and relocating every 2 years (which was our lifestyle). They were a tangible evidence of “to love and be loved” and due to that, we have attached a great meaning to these pictures.
The army units had found that compartment. Naturally, they assumed it would contain something “valuable”. I wonder… how disappointed must they have been to discover meaningless pictures of strangers?
And so there they were abandoned; lost memories of scattered pictures all neglected on the floor.
However, I now realize that it wasn’t the pictures that I was attached to, per se. It was what I felt when I held them that I was attached to most.
We are all attached to what makes us feel warm and safe. But when that feeling becomes a memory, we specify it to an item which then becomes the spring of that moment and allows us to recollect that feeling. The thing is, we are not re-living the feeling as much as remembering how it felt. That’s what we’re attached to: memories.
So if attachment is the source of suffering, how do we forget what we hang on to remember? Is our only option to accept the pain that comes with willingly surrendering pieces of us to “meaningless items” and feel empty or hollow when we lose them? Or should we just hold on tighter until we have had our fill and satisfied our aching hearts and lonely souls? If so, then hold on to whatever makes you happy. Let it consume you and fill your veins until you can no longer recognize yourself. Embrace it and let it hold you up until it leaves you high and dry. Guard it jealously near your heart and let it create a void in it. Let whatever you love make you feel so alive that there is no point in living beyond that. Because that is the nature of love. That is the nature of attachment. Without it we are just a nasty person who didn’t throw away a rusty broken bicycle chain, or an old deaf man with a phonograph that no longer serves its purpose. So yes, form attachments to items and accept the profound suffering. And when it’s time to lose them to the fire, be prepared to be the one that gets burned. But I guess this is one of the beautiful tragedies in life because with it we know that at one marvelous moment in life we had loved and we had been loved in return. So now I ask you the same question: If your house was on fire, what is the ONE thing you would grab and protect?