Loss of Attachment and the Rise of Materialism

Attachment parenting

I felt disturbed after reading the following excerpts from John Bowlby's book on "Attachment and Loss" (1969), because it seems to foretell the general trend of western capitalistic society, towards materialism. Children, when cared for properly, naturally become extremely attached to their mothers. This bond, however, can be broken or damaged through neglect or because of mistaken beliefs regarding proper parenting, leading to children growing into "detached" adults who are superficial, materialistic, narcissistic and potentially violent. What is disturbing is that this appears to be a self-perpetuating cycle, in that we, as a society become more materialistic, and manufacture more and more things for ourselves, will tend to neglect our children in favor of work, and thus create another generation of adults who do the same thing. As long as the earth's resources hold out, this scenario can increase exponentially, but at some point in time, it must collapse.

When a child is taken away from a caring mother, the child goes through a predictable sequence of behaviors, which can be divided roughly into three stages:


"This initial phase may begin immediately or may be delayed; it lasts from a few hours to a week or more. During this stage, the young child appears acutely distressed at having lost his mother and seeks to recapture her by the full exercise of his limited resources. He will often cry loudly, shake his cot, throw himself about, and look eagerly towards any sight or sound which might prove to be his missing mother. All of his behavior suggests a strong expectation that she will return. In the meantime, he is apt to reject all alternative figures who offer to do things for him, although some children will cling desperately to a nurse."


"During this phase, which succeeds protest, the child's preoccupation with his missing mother is still evident, though his behavior suggests increasing hopelessness. The active physical movements diminish or come to an end, and he may cry monotonously or intermittently. He is withdrawn and inactive, makes no demands on people in the environment, and appears to be in a state of deep mourning. This is a quiet stage, and sometimes, clearly erroneously, is presumed to indicate a diminution of distress."


"Because the child shows more interest in his surroundings, the phase of which sooner or later succeeds protest and despair is often welcomed as a sign of recovery. The child no longer rejects the nurses; he accepts their care and the food and toys they bring, and may even smile and be sociable. To some this change seems satisfactory. When his mother visits, however, it can be seen that all is not well, for there is a striking absence of the behavior characteristic of the strong attachment normal at this age. So far from greeting his mother, he may seem hardly to know her; so far from clinging to her, he may remain remote and apathetic; instead of tears there is a listless turning away. He seems to have lost all interest in her.

Should his stay in hospital or residential nursery be prolonged and should he, as is usual, have the experience of becoming transiently attached to a series of nurses each of whom leaves and so repeats for him the experience of becoming the original loss of his mother, he will in time act as if neither mothering nor contact with humans had much significance for him. After a series of upsets at losing several mother-figures to whom in turn he has given some trust and affection, he will gradually commit himself less and less to succeeding figures and in time will stop altogether attaching himself to anyone. He will become increasingly self-centered and, instead of directing his desires and feelings towards people, will become preoccupied with material things such as sweets, toys, and food. A child living in an institution or hospital who has reached this state will no longer be upset when nurses change or leave. He will cease to show feelings when his parents come and go on visiting day; and it may cause them pain when they realize that, although he has an avid interest in the presents they bring, he has little interest in them as special people. He will appear cheerful and adapted to his unusual situation and apparently easy and unafraid of anyone. But this sociability is superficial: he appears no longer to care for anyone."

Note that if the child is reunited with the mother prior to the detachment phase, the relationship between mother and child appears to heal without scarring. For example, consider the following observations by Micic (1962) of a child admitted for bronchopneumonia, and who now appears to be in the stage of despair:

"Dzanlie was well-developed and well-nourished. She was admitted without her mother and was alone for a couple of days. She lay listlessly all the time and did not want to eat, but she only cried in her sleep. During examinations she did not resist. I raised her into a sitting position but she at once turned away and lay down again.

On the third day her mother came. The moment she saw her mother the child got up and started to cry. The she calmed down and became ravenously hungry. After being fed she started to smile and play. When I went into the ward the next day I did not recognize the child, the change was so complete. She was smiling in her mother's arms whereas I had expected to see a sleeping child lying there. It was inconceivable that a child who had been psychologically depressed and had slept continuously could turn overnight into so happy a little girl. Everything pleased her and she smiled at all."

If a child is not reunited with the mother and is allowed to enter the detachment phase, then "he will become increasingly self-centered and, instead of directing his desires and feelings towards people, will become preoccupied with material things such as sweets, toys, and food." It seems only natural that this would happen, because the child has learned that people cannot be relied upon, but instead are a source of pain. From this detached state of being, the child then grows up to be an adult who has learned that security and comfort come from material things and not people. Yet, it seems that such adults are forever attempting to acquire more and more material wealth to assuage a pain and emptiness that presumes this mistaken belief.

Recently, in Hawaii, there was a mass murder: In the local paper, this is what was reported about the alleged suspect's (Byran Uyesugi) demeanor:

"Uyesugi usually answers 'fine' when the guards ask how he's doing. Otherwise he shows almost no emotion and offers no insight into why he allegedly shot seven Xerox co-workers to death on Nov. 2 in Iwilei, said Francis Sequeira, OCCC's deputy warden.
During his daily meetings with prison psychologist Sim Granoff, Uyesugi says little.
It was Uyesugi's calm, almost detached demeanor that let prison officials to initially place him on 'strict suicide watch'...
'With the crime alleged against him, we expected Byran to be agitated and nervous,' Sequeira said. 'But he wasn't. His behavior upon arrival was as if nothing happened. It really concerned us.'
Uyesugi has cooperated with guards and offered no resistance when they shackled him for a court appearance Tuesday.
'A lot of time when guys are on suicide watch they can be combative,' Sequeira said. 'This guy's not like that. He doesn't put up a fight. He's very compliant.' "

So, it appears that Uyesugi feels virtually nothing after killing seven coworkers. How did this happen? While I am not a psychologist, I suspect that he is suffering from some sort of narcissistic disorder. He is in a desolate state where he cannot feel. He cannot feel because at a very young age, his adult caretakers did not respond to his feelings. Boys, especially, are trained not to show feelings, they cannot cry when they feel pain, and they are not supposed to be afraid. (Why? Because they are used as instruments of war.) As in the Bowlby example, if your parents don't come back to care for you, or they do not respond appropriately to your emotions as a child, then you become detached. And after not showing your emotions long enough, you don't even feel them. You become a robot, a dead person. Uyesugi seems to be already dead inside. Indeed, look carefully at the adults walking down any street. Judging by facial expressions, I would say two-thirds are nearly dead. In contrast, many primary school children I observe seem to be laughing all the time!

The inability to feel emotion is linked with narcissism, because narcissists are only concerned with how they appear and not how they feel. They wear a mask, striving to appear in a certain way, even though their underlying feelings are in conflict. As a result, narcissists can be very manipulative, striving for power and control in order to maintain their image. They are focused on their own interests, but lack self-expression, dignity and integrity. Because narcissists only value themselves, they become the ultimate competitive beings, willingly sacrificing the environment for personal wealth. According to Lowen:

"A society that sacrifices the natural environment for profit and power betrays its insensitivity to human needs. The proliferation of material things becomes the measure of progress in living, and man is pitted against woman, worker against employer, individual against community. When wealth occupies a higher position than wisdom, when notoriety is admired more than dignity, when success is more important than self-respect, the culture itself overvalues 'image' and must be regarded as narcissistic."

So what are the solutions? They must be sought along all fronts.

1. One solution is to go back to our roots of natural attachment parenting, where the mother responds naturally to assuage her baby's distress.

2. Another, according to Lech Walesa, Nobel Peace Prize winner, will be the challenge to replace capitalism. "If you do not, there will be a revolution - a bloody revolution." Walesa said that capitalism is the most efficient economic system in the world, but its very efficiency leads it to eclipse the value of individual workers and extend the gap between rich and poor. He said that he thinks the successor to capitalism most likely will develop through the cooperation of workers, managers and labor leaders.

3. And yet another solution is to adopt the American Plains Indians attitude of sharing, or what H. Storm calls Give Away. " ..all things with this Universe Wheel know of their Harmony with every other thing, and know how to Give Away one to the other, except man. Of all the Universe's creatures, it is we alone who do not begin our lives with knowledge of this great Harmony." In just the past few years, evolutionary biologists have been tracing the tree of life using gene sequencing techniques, and it turns out that all life is related, and must cooperate with each other in order to insure our individual survivals.


Blakeman, Karen (1999) "Solidarity chief says capitalism doomed," Honolulu Advertiser, October 3, 1999 pg. 1.
Bowlby, John (1969) "Attachment and Loss: Volume I: Attachment," NY: Basic Books, pp. 27-28 .Lowen, Alexander, MD (1985). "Narcissism: Denial of the True Self," NY:Macmillan, pg. xi.
Micic, (1962). cited by Bowlby.
Nakaso, Dan & Creamer, Beverly (1999). "Uyesugi quiet in prison cell," Honolulu Advertiser, Nov. 11, 1999. pg 1.
Storm, Hyemeyohsts (1972) "Seven Arrows," Ballentine:NY pg 5.

Last updated 14 November 1999

Copyright © 1999 by Duen Hsi Yen, All rights reserved.

E-mail: yen@noogenesis.com

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