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The Milkmaid (1658-59) by Johannes Vermeer

“Detachment is not indifference. it is the prerequisite for effective involvement. Often what we think is best for others is distorted by our attachments to our opinions. We want others to be happy in the way we think they should be happy. It is only when we want nothing for ourselves that we are able to see clearly into others needs and understand how to serve them.”

  • Mahatma Gandhi

What is Detachment?

Detachment is about fostering the right level of attachment, to the right kind of things. It is not mere indifference, apathy, or equanimity. Key to fostering a healthy detachment is being abandoned to higher values, and a higher calling – one that can yield genuine fruits.

The detached are free from the shackles of inward-looking self-seeking and preoccupation. If we are locked in the horizon of the present, of our own transient wishes and desires, to responding to this thought or that emotion, seeking praise from someone, or chasing the momentary thrill of success, then we can easily be blown about in the wind, and knocked off course. A key insight lies in recognizing that our feelings, possessions, abilities, even our relationships, are ultimately fleeting. By being detached, we can learn to love things rightly, never to the point of infatuation, or of an exaggerated enthusiasm, which demonstrates a failure to understand proper worth and makes us unable to enjoy things healthily. On the other hand, detachment helps us avoid excessive anger, and fatalistic despair when things don’t go our way or we experience loss. It helps us put everything in its proper place.

To become appropriately detached, we have to practice restraint, actively depriving ourselves when faced with desires. Eating moderately, not giving in to the desire to talk about yourself or make a comment, smiling when we find it difficult, refusing to criticize, offering up our time for a friend or spouse when we want to do something on our own – all of these things help us foster strength of will, and move us away from a compulsive fixation on our own desires. Ultimately, this is liberating, because the more we give in to concerns about our own states of mind, the more anxious and frustrated we become. It is in seeing things from a reflective vantage point that we develop a light bearing, and a peaceful, joyful demeanour.

Internally, detachment requires a poverty of spirit, which is to be content with what we need to live simply. It is not about lacking material things, but to give up our need of, and sense of possession over them. To be able to give freely of one’s time, lend one’s possessions and even forego them, for the sake of others out of generosity, is to be truly rich – not in financial wealth, but in contentment, by developing an expansive heart.

People can think of detachment as entailing coldness, and an unfeeling indifference to one’s own feelings, and those of others. Indeed, the close impostor of healthy detachment involves not caring appropriately about things, which is in fact motivated by a fear of loss, hurt, or negative emotions. This shunning of suffering is a rejection of reality, and only leaves a person dry, empty, and incapable of all the greatest goods which require deep, childlike faith, hope, and the investment of care and solicitude in and for others.

Counteracting the tendency to fall into such a way of being, requires attending to the positive side of detachment by fostering reflective gratitude. This is an intellectual and emotional exercise that involves appropriately recognizing the value in things, which are good in themselves in their own way, yet never the source of value itself. In seeing everything as a gift that we receive, and as part of a much larger world and story, we can recognize their goodness without seeing any one thing in particular as the key to our happiness.

In summary, through detachment we put things in their proper place, value them appropriately, and gain the freedom from our own self-oriented tunnel vision. In shedding that which keeps us turned in on ourselves and preoccupied with our own problems and desires, we become capable of filling up our hearts with the things that truly matter, and open ourselves up to the love of giving itself.

Written by: Peter Copeland

Interview on Detachment with Dave McKernan

How do you define detachment?

Detachment is a conscious decision to check your immediate emotional response to an unfolding event, which could otherwise swallow you up. For example, a day trader may or may not practice detachment when making his daily pick on a stock. A sudden swing in the price of a stock could cause him to panic. But detachment will enable him to master his fear of the price moving in the wrong direction. It is not the feeling he has about the price swing that determines his success, but rather the research he has conducted. As a result, a stock trader practiced in detachment should have a calm and controlled response to price changes.

How does the virtue of detachment relate to work?

Every critical decision at work should involve detachment because we are human beings, and our emotions can have an undue influence on our rational decision making. Detachment doesn’t mean that we shun these emotions, but rather, that we keep some distance between them and our responses to goings-on in the workplace. For instance, if you are running a business, it is easy to become emotionally entangled in interpersonal work-related concerns and dynamics. While working closely with your colleagues and being attentive to their emotional concerns is inherently a good thing, it is often necessary to detach from these considerations to make wise business decisions.

Why is it important in a work context?

Much of work is about relating to other people, and therefore carries with it the capacity to be consumed by politics, gossip, and unnecessary drama. To practice detachment is to cultivate a disciplined mindset, and to return attention to the purpose of your work when you are facing distraction. A simple example of this would be to avoid engaging in disparaging comments about a colleague when they become the news of the day.

How have you personally built on this virtue?

I am fortunate to have studied Seneca, who is recognized as one of the great stoic philosophers, and was known to have practiced detachment. Here is a quote by him: “True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears, but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”

I think Seneca summarizes what I try to do while I am working, which is to be content with what I have, to try and enjoy the present, and not become anxious about the future. I don’t always do this perfectly, but one practical way in which I have been practicing this recently is to try and do a very good job on the small things in my business and not worry about the “grand vision” or the “strategic plan”. If I do good work each day, and I am humble about it, the rest will follow.

Did somebody mentor you on this? Have you mentored others about detachment?

Dr. Graeme Hunter is a philosopher that I had the honor to study with, and he is well schooled in stoicism and the virtue of detachment. He is also an expert on Pascal and Descartes, and he has taught me much about how they incorporated Stoicism into their work. Dr. Hunter helped me to incorporate this virtue into my daily life.

How have you lived this virtue at work?

I entered the staffing business in 2010 and quickly realized that it had the capacity to compromise my ethics. I have made mistakes over the years, but detachment has helped me make some critical decisions in my career, the biggest of which involved leaving prior employers and eventually founding my own business.

Do you have any examples of failing to live this virtue at work, and did you overcome that?

Before I started my own company, I used to grab beer with my colleagues after work. We would play a game of pool and “talk shop” about what was going on at the office or more broadly within the company. I was in a senior position to my colleagues. In hindsight, although I was having fun drinking and socializing with my coworkers, I was allowing my work to conflict with my family life. As a father, this became an unhealthy routine. If I had done a better job at practicing detachment, I could have been a bit more selective about post-work events, choosing to attend the ones that were appropriate and otherwise creating a healthy separation between my personal life and work.

Do you have any examples of friends or colleagues living this virtue at work?

I remember a Chief Financial Officer of one of my former companies saying, “David, it is not our making money that is the problem; it is our attachment to it that is the problem.” He was a practicing Hindu, and although I am a Catholic, what he said made an impact on me (I was only 24 years old at the time). He was overseeing hundreds of millions of dollars for the business. I realize now that he was an advocate for detachment. I think it is a good virtue to practice.

“Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be attained only by someone who is detached.”

  • Simone Weil

David McKernan is the founder of David Joseph Inc. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario, with his three children and wife. Coming from a family with a strong entrepreneurial and artistic background, David has carved his own path in the business world.

Born in 1987, David has cultivated a multifaceted career, marked by dynamic engagements with government bodies and industry giants. As a visionary entrepreneur, he has orchestrated remarkable achievements, steering his company to triple its revenue over the last year while spearheading ambitious expansion endeavors.

Outside of work, David's passion for the humanities is evident in his academic pursuits. He earned a Diploma in Liberal Arts from Augustine College in 2007, followed by a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from St. Francis Xavier University in 2010. Continuing his education, David completed a Master of Arts in Philosophy from Dominican University College in 2024.

Between managing his business and family life, David finds fulfillment in both spheres. Whether it's tending to his children's needs or leading his team at work, he approaches each responsibility with dedication and enthusiasm.

David's recent collaborations with the Mohawk territory of Kahnawake and cultural institutions reflect his commitment to community engagement and meaningful partnerships. These endeavors provide him with a sense of purpose and satisfaction beyond the confines of his business ventures.

Editor: Doug Kelly

Designer: Michael Bilardo

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