Attachment: a Tale from Great Ormond Street Hospital

Young nuns with their breakfast at the Shwedagon Pagoda. January, 2018

Several years ago a friend told me about a certain documentary he’d seen that had featured the famous Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital In London. I can’t remember what it was called, and I’m not sure I ever knew what the whole thing was about, but part of it focussed on the relationship between the doctors and the nurses on the one hand and the children on the other. What it revealed about the effects of this relationship upon the welfare of the children was both fascinating and troubling

As you might have expected, the doctors and nurses naturally grew to become very fond of the children under their care. How could they not? Imagine being surrounded by dozens of toddlers with leukemia, brain tumours and meningitis – to name but a few of the illnesses with which they would have been contending. It must have been heartbreaking. And so the adults devoted their lives to helping these children. They weren’t just doctors and nurses, but friends and surrogate aunties, uncles, and parents, too. In many cases they loved these children as if they were their own.

But when the time came for some of those children to move on – perhaps to another ward, another hospital, or even to their homes – the doctors and nurses couldn’t let them go. They kept hold of them, even though to do so wasn’t in the best interests of the children. A child needed the new treatment; it needed the latest medical equipment only available in the next hospital; it needed to go home. But the doctors and nurses had, unwittingly, become emotionally dependent upon those children. They had become attached.

The love that those adults unquestionably felt for their charges had become tainted. It was no longer simply about the well-being of the children, but about the wants, feelings and desires of the doctors and nurses. Thus, when it came to say good bye, the feelings of the latter took precedence and the children were held back. By behaving in this way, not only had they hindered the children’s progress, they may even have caused them harm.

Did they realise what was happening? Could they see that their attachment was hindering their ability to judge what was best for the children? Were they aware that the children might be harmed? I can’t be sure, but it’s very likely that they didn’t realise. This is the nature of attachment: it blinds us.

This is why we emphasise the point that metta – loving-kindness – is free of attachment. Some people struggle with this. I remember speaking to my cousin about this very subject when he came to visit me in the monastery for the first time about ten years after I had arrived. He was sympathetic to Buddhist teaching and expressed interest in the monastic lifestyle and in particular meditation. But when I mentioned the problems caused by attachment, and that according to Buddhist teaching real love is free of it, he simply couldn’t understand. I don’t remember his exact words but he more or less equated love with attachment. Love is attachment.

But, as we can see from the story above, it isn’t. Attachment is about me. It’s about what I want, how I feel, what I think you should do. Loving-kindness is the very opposite. It’s free of me. That’s why we tack -kindness on the end. I know some scholars translate metta otherwise – goodwill being an example – but that word kindness is, I think, crucial. It reminds us that love is about giving and letting go.

2 Replies to “Attachment: a Tale from Great Ormond Street Hospital”

  1. As my daughter is a nurse who for a while worked at Birmingham Children’s Hospital I found this article of particular interest. In any kind of relationship there is always going to be some kind of attachment, but in some situations without sensible caution the emotions can hinder a situation. If we lived in a perfect World relationships between individuals whether working or being related could benefit from being unconditional, but that is more easier said than done. Experience in these situations usually comes through trial and error, and understanding how other’s feel and want to and should be treated.
    At the end of the day it can be down to personal discipline as how to handle situations which involve emotional contact.

  2. You’re right – it is easier said than done. Recognition of the pitfalls of attachment is the first and most important step.

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