Can your attachment to your thoughts make you do things you’ll regret for the rest of your life?
This question lies at the heart of the 1996 film, Primal Fear. (Spoilers ahead.)
Martin Vail, a Chicago defense attorney who loves the spotlight, takes up a case to defend 19-year-old altar boy Aaron Stampler, who is charged with murdering an influential Catholic Archbishop.
As the trial begins, Vail discovers that the Archbishop sexually abused and videotaped Aaron and other children. When he confronts Aaron about it, the latter breaks down and suddenly transforms into a sociopath named “Roy” who confesses to murdering the Archbishop and threatens Vail.
The psychiatrist examining Aaron witnesses the entire event and diagnoses Aaron with dissociative identity disorder, caused by years of physical abuse at the hands of the Archbishop.
This reinforces Vail’s belief that Aaron is innocent. He goes to dangerous lengths to prove Aaron’s condition in the courthouse and succeeds. Then he visits Aaron to inform him that he’ll be checked into a medical facility instead of a prison.
But as Vail is leaving, Aaron admits he faked his personality disorder. He brags about murdering the Archbishop and another girl. When Vail asks if there ever was a “Roy”, he replies that “there never was an ‘Aaron.'”
Vail walks away, stunned and disillusioned. But he knows he can blame nobody but himself. All along, he had dismissed people’s suggestions that Aaron (or Roy) was a killer. Because subconsciously, he had bet the whole house on being right about Aaron being innocent. To the extent that he endangered the lives of people who cared about him to prove it.
The truth about Vail goes deeper. He unknowingly attached his identity to the case. He saw himself as a winner. And to win the case, he had to prove Aaron innocent. As a result, he blindly bought into a false story.
When we attach ourselves to a notion, our ego makes it hard for us to see the truth. We get blindsided like Martin Vail. instead of using logic to examine situations, we buy into any story that reinforces our beliefs.
If you have a crush on a woman, you believe she’s the only person you can be happy with. And no stories about her meanness can convince you otherwise.
If you’re convinced that stocks can make you rich quickly, you’ll buy into any story that promises quick and easy money.
If you obsess over being seen as the best at the workplace, you’ll micromanage others and dismiss any evidence that doesn’t align with your goals.
And the more you tell yourself the same stories, the stronger your beliefs become. As a Redditor confessed, the more s/he thought about a theory that Roy wasn’t faking his disorder, the more convinced s/he felt about it.
The results could range from harmless to catastrophic. The worst part is that you’ll always be underprepared to handle them since you’ll never have any idea how they’ll turn out.
How to Detach from Your Impressions
We don’t get attached to people, events, objects. We get attached to our perceptions of them. Events and objects by themselves are colorless. Our perceptions paint them with bright or dark colors.
To live a good life, view the world through the lens of logic and rationale. Yes, it makes life boring. The roller-coaster thrill of emotions won’t keep you busy. You’ll constantly have to check your ego instead of giving in to it.
But you’ll train your mind to detach from harmful aspects like external validation and obsession. You’ll learn to rein-in your impressions instead of making knee-jerk reactions. You’ll deflate the size of your ego which, in turn, will make it easier for you to see the reality.
Following this is simple: Each time an impression feels tempting, show it naked, see its shoddiness, and strip away its own boastful account of itself.
How good is it… that Falernian wine is the mere juice of grapes, and your purple-edged robe simply the hair of a sheep soaked in shell-fish blood! How good these perceptions are at getting to the heart of the real thing and penetrating through it, so you can see it for what it is. — Marcus Aurelius
See things for what they are rather than what you want them to be.
Your crush is just a person like her and your friends. A stock price is a mere indication of the company’s performance and earnings. The designation you obsess over is merely about doing tasks, attending meetings, and responding to emails.
Had Vail detached from the subconscious lust for the spotlight, he would’ve seen Aaron differently, as just another person with a high motive for murder. He would’ve picked up signs about Aaron faking his disorder. A twitch here, a slip-up there. Instead, he gave into vanity and paid the price.
Attachments are good in emails, not in real life. In real life, they make us miserable.
So when an impression appears striking, strip away its boastful account of itself. See it naked. And you’ll notice its shoddiness.
Nobody learns the art of detachment overnight. Like all good things, you improve at it with practice.
But as you get better, you build deeper relations with yourself and others instead of succumbing to narcissism or the victim-mindset. When problems arise, you ask “What next?” instead of “Why me?” You see the world for what it is. And you can build a meaningful life.