Attachment

jasminum_beesianum_2A few months ago I planted some Jasmine beesianum (I’ll call her Jasbee for short) near one of the the wooden trellises with the hope of having her “delicate pink trumpets and a heavenly scent” (oh the come-hither descriptions of plant packaging blurb!) complement the deep purple of summer delphiniums, Cosse Violette climbing beans and their pale, maize-yellow cousins, the Neckargolders. As the Jasmine plant was a wee one, I didn’t provide any support for her, just into the ground with lots of compost and good drainage, and off we go.

IMG_2677Some weeks later: fantastic growth spurts. Look how Jasbee had seemed to work out her own system of self-support with no help from me or anyone else. This consists of three or four stems winding themselves around each other, and creating a strong, banded together reinforcement by which to hoist herself a foot or two closer towards the sky.

Cleverly, this should also allow her at some point to hit a supportive branch or another taller plant through which she might be helped upwards.

Today, I see that these braided stems are starting to droop and fall back to the ground. Unattached, self-support systems it seems can only get us so far, both in the plant world and outside it. For a climber like Jasbee this is not a catastrophe, as I have no doubt that even without me and my garden wire, she would trail around in the dirt for a while until horizontally, as opposed to vertically, she’s able to reach the Aquilegia, delphiniums, and bean trellis growing close by.

Less so for us. As infants we are unable to fend for ourselves in the way that a plant can, and as we grow older, especially in times of stress and crisis, we still need supportive attachment in order to flourish. I like the way John Bowlby unequivocally put this in his groundbreaking work on adult-infant bonds, writing in A Secure Base: “all of us, from cradle to grave are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures”.

These attachments start out as our parents and care-givers, who do the job as best they can, and sometimes with a certain amount of insufficiency which we weather or not depending on our constitutional resilience. As we grow older, and some of our early SBs are no longer there for us in this core way, friends and partners might take their place, as well as valued projects, perhaps even our gardens. If our growth is a healthy and adaptive, internally as much as externally, we might also get a little bit more adept at being a Secure Base for ourselves. Cue Whitney Houston.

However we get our attachment needs met, it does seem that in order to take on risks and new challenges we need to know that someone, and/or something, will be there to comfort, support and assist us emotionally, and possibly even physically if things don’t go as planned.

A picture from Larry Harlow's 1958 study on attachment,
A touching/creepy picture from Larry Harlow’s 1950s and 60s experiments with newborn rhesus monkeys.

Which also helps to explain why in times of crisis, lacking this secure base, we might seek out a therapist, a homeopath, a priest, imam, a shiatsu practitioner, or some other kind of caring bod with the hope that they will help lift us out of our floundering and flagging life-slump back into the realms of growth and flourishing.

It’s always a delicate balance offering support to someone in a life crisis. Providing that secure base as well as cultivating self-care and self-agency. “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise,” writes F. Scott Fitzgerald wisely in The Crack-Up, echoing Keats’s notion of negative capability. This dialectical wisdom was of course something Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, like all wise writers, from the stoics forth, struggled to follow themselves.

There is a school of therapy that takes all of this this very much on board, Dialectical Behavior Therapy which recognises that life is frustratingly complex and often in opposition to itself, and so to try and create a synthesis out of these oppositional forces is reality-denying. The complexities of life, writes Kelly Koerner, lead us to recognise that the existence of “yes” invariably gives rise to “no”; “all” to “nothing”, “closeness” to “distance”. Why is this we ask? “Maybe,” she suggests, “it is the nature of reality or maybe simply the nature of human perception or language. Whatever the reason, we often fall into processes in which oppositional elements are in tension with each other. When applied to human conflict, often both opposing positions may be true or contain elements of the truth.”

On a daily basis I stand in the searing heat of this dialectic, knowing, in the words of Albert Bandura, that “the capacity to exercise control over the nature and quality of one’s life is the essence of humanness” and so to enable someone to better regulate their own emotions and turmoil is more useful than me doing it for them. But I also know how important basic human attachment is, and that emotional regulation is first of all modelled for us. In fact, acceptance of dependency (both ourselves as dependent, and those dependent on us) creates less rather than more of the need. Research has now shown that mothers who attend promptly to their babies crying, by the end of the infants first year, have babies who cry less rather than more. We’re just not designed to make it on our own steam, alone.

IMG_2849I look to Jasbee to inspire me in this tricky dialectic. We shouldn’t leave a plant, ourselves, or another human being, to flounder around on their own (although we must also cultivate faith that if we did, they would on the whole survive and hit on something that works for them). So instead we offer attachments, a helping hand, and in this case garden wire strung across pairs of stainless steel screw eyes.

Attachment and care is given, but at the same time I also stand back and let Jasbee get on with her own independent life cycle: periods of growth and flourishing interspersed with dormancy, and dying back; delicate pink trumpeting flowers of ta-da accomplishment and long periods with nothing to show for herself. Thankfully as a plant, she doesn’t get frustrated by the latter, whereas we do.