Ain’t Nothing but Mammals: Do the Reasons for Attachment Matter?

Posted on January 20, 2014

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AttachmentsA friend recently made the point to me that a woman’s decision to go home with a man on any given night might be something that simply happens, without explanation, and for no particular reason. I’ve been trying to figure out why I find the plausibility of this claim unsettling.

On the face of it, it certainly does seems plausible. From a biological perspective, we are on this planet because we mate, we mated long before the reason-giving part of our brain was fully functional, so, maybe, like so many of our decisions, the decision to mate happens at a level of cognition that predates and precedes the storytelling part of our brains. In other words, we don’t mate for any particular reason or reasons. We simply mate and, then, some of us tell elaborate stories to explain why we mated.

And for some reason, I find this conclusion very upsetting. If I dig down and settle into it, it creates in me a body-deep feeling that I don’t know how to describe, before it veers off into good old fashioned sadness. The weight of the feeling, the experience of the feeling, the profoundness of the feeling, the depths to which it invades my body is comparable to the feeling that comes when I reflect too long on the non-experience of death and the fact that my experience of life won’t exist one day. The two feelings are different, but the impact of the feelings are comparable.

Which, for me, is perplexing. I’m not upset by the fact that the universe, the planet, the species, and my life exist for no particular reason. Furthermore, I’m not at all upset by the fact that it is entirely arbitrary when and where I bump into a potential mate. I know and accept the fact of all this arbitrariness right up until the point of attachment. For some reason, I want that attachment to be motivated by a reason that isn’t arbitrary and that is directly connected to the people involved.

At this point, I should probably state specifically that what’s at issue here is much more than getting laid on any given Friday. It seems to me that, if the basic claim is true, it is probably true of the whole gamut of human attachments. From the perspective of my friend’s claim, we may form all of our attachments arbitrarily. They simply happen, one moment or the other, for this reason or that. Humans, from this view, are simply sticky beings. Sometimes, we stick to other humans that we have bumped into, and then we play out the consequences of those accidental stickings.

Because I’ve come to accept the more fundamental arbitrariness of existence, it puzzles me that I find this claim about human attachment so upsetting. Of course, to be honest, I probably shouldn’t claim that I’m not upset by the fact that I won’t exist one day. More accurately, I have come up with a series of reasons, a way of thinking, a story to tell, which allows me to enjoy and cherish living, even in the face of certain oblivion. The mammal in me, however, whenever I force it confront the fact of it’s own oblivion is very very upset by that certain oblivion.

There is, of course, a very important difference between the claim about my existence and the claim about human relationships. Most importantly, I know we are dust. Even if we develop an immortality pill, the sun, the universe, everything, it’s all going to end at some point. Period. Not even an exclamation mark. Ellipsis are probably the most appropriate punctuation to use here. In contrast, I don’t know that humans are sticky beings, that we develop relationships and form attachments arbitrarily. It’s a plausible theory, but one that might be falsified. In fact, it seems to me that the utter despair that rises in me when I really sit with this idea of all human attachments simply being sticky implies, at least this much: for this mammal, the reasons for attachment do matter. Of course, I suppose I need to consider the possibility that my visceral reaction is just a sign that I’m still too attached to attachments.

Coming full circle, it seems to me that my conclusion doesn’t really undermine my friend’s initial observation and it certainly isn’t relevant to a much less strident version of the claim, which is that some people sometimes arbitrarily form attachments for no particular reason, whether we are talking about one night stands, marriages, or friendships. It might even be the case that they are two different kinds of human — those who require reasons for attachments and those that don’t — and the survival of the species probably requires both of them.

Even so, I can’t shake the suspicion that whenever someone claims to do something for no reason at all, it may really mean he or she doesn’t want to recognize, acknowledge, dig down, or settle into the actual reasons s/he is doing something. For fear that if s/he did, s/he might also encounter an anguish s/he’d rather not experience.