Attached or Committed
Rachel Naomi Remen


Thirty-five years ago, I had as a patient a young man who had become separated from his ski party and spent three days in below-zero weather yet somehow had managed to survive.  He had been hospitalized for several days in the ski country, and then flown to our center in New York because of frostbite and progressive gangrene of his feet.  The local surgeons had wanted to amputate and it was hoped that our world-renowned vascular surgeon team could avoid this difficult choice.  He had some initial surgery and for three weeks the outcome was not clear.  Then his left foot began to improve and his right became steadily worse.  The time for amputation at hand, the young man flatly refused.  He preferred to keep his foot.

Gradually he became sicker and sicker as the toxins from his injured foot began to flood his body.  His family and friends were desperate, but he would not be moved.  He would keep his foot.  The situation came to a head late one evening when for the third or fourth time a group of doctors shared his most recent laboratory studies and reviewed his worsening condition with him.  In the midst of this discussion his fiancée, overwhelmed by the possibility of her beloved's death, was driven beyond her endurance.  Weeping, she tore his engagement ring off her finger and thrust it onto the swollen black little toe of his right foot.

"I hate this damned foot," she sobbed.  "If you want this foot so much, why don't you marry it?  You're going to have to choose, you can't have us both."

We all looked at the small bright diamond, surrounded by the black and rotting tissues of his foot.  Even under the fluorescent lights, it sparkled with life.  The young man said nothing and closed his eyes with weariness.  Weary ourselves, we left to continue the medical rounds.  The next day, he scheduled his surgery.

I continued to follow him through the fitting of his artificial foot and his rehabilitation.  At the end of the year, only a slight limp marked his difficult choice.  Two weeks before his wedding I revisited that final medical conference with him, asking what had changed his mind.  He said that seeing the diamond on his toe had shocked him.  Jenny had been right.  He had been married to his foot.  Her dramatic gesture had helped him to see for the first time that he was more attached to keeping his foot than he was committed to his life, to their life together.  Yet it had been the promise of that life that he had clung to, that had enabled him to survive three days alone in the snow.

While attachment has its source in the personality, in what the Buddhists refer to as the "desire nature," commitment comes from the soul.  In relationship to life, just as in human relationships, attachment closes down options, commitment opens them up.  Modern life has made us people of attachment rather than people of commitment.  Indeed, many people have found that it is difficult to tell the difference between attachment and commitment in their own lives.  Yet attachment leads farther and farther into entrapment.  Commitment, though it may sometimes feel constricting, will ultimately lead to greater degrees of freedom.  Both involve in the moment an experience of holding, sometimes against the flow of events or against temptation.  One can distinguish between the two in most situations by noticing over time whether one has moved through this activity or this relationship closer to bondage.  Attachment is a reflex, an automatic response which often may not reflect our deepest good.  Commitment is a conscious choice, to align ourselves with our most genuine values and our sense of purpose.  Survival in a setting of life-threatening illness may involve a willingness to let go of everything but life itself. 

This remarkable collection of
true stories draws on the
concept of "kitchen table
wisdom"--the human tradition
of shared experience that shows us life in all its power and mystery
and reminds us that the things
we cannot measure may be
the things that ultimately
sustain and enrich our lives.


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