Union and Separation:
Morrie’s Philosophies and the Attachment Theory
One of the encompassing foci in the study of human psychology is relationship. Since the ancient times, great thinkers have been enthralled by the connections men create between and among each other as well as with the reason – the cause – by and from which those connections materialize. Plato’s idea of a four-handed two-headed being split into two would show bygone attempts to explain why men are in constant search for another being to “complete” them. Moving back further, to the well-speculated history of early human species, modern accounts would say that even in that primitive stage of the human race, men has discovered the necessity of being with and among each other hence the formation of nomadic groups. By these scenarios, it can be gleaned that indeed, relationships – the convergence of two or more human beings – and the circumstances revolving these relationships (i.e., formation, annihilation) are essential aspects of human reflection.
True, indeed, until the more recent history of the human race, attempts to enlighten this aspect of humanness are inexhaustible in the society – be it in the field of research or in creative literature. In the field of psychological research, the Attachment Theory which dates back to John Bowlby (1907 – 1990), Mary Ainsworth, and their successors has offered significantly scientific explanations towards understanding the human experience of relationship as seen in the point of view of union or separation which roots back to mother and child relationship (Fraley, 2004).
The major proponent of this theory has described attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” (Bowlby, 1969, p. 194). It was his idea that the relationship established by an individual in the infancy stage is very essential in such a way that it can influence his life and decisions during adulthood. He also propounded that the survival of the child is dependent to the support of the significant person, parent – either ‑
biological or surrogate. Mother-child relationship and the establishment of a secure environment for the child by the mother is the major premise of the attachment theory. First, the mother (surrogate parent) serves as the source of comfort and security when the child is in a great level of stress, harm, or anxiety. It is the mother who provides the child with security as the child begins to learn and explore the environment. Hence, it is common to the child to seek nearness with the mother as he feels safe when in proximity to his comfort provider. It is, therefore, expected that when the child is separated from the mother, he will be experiencing distress and anxiety.
(Ainsworth, 1978), on the other hand, has observed that there are three attachment styles; namely, secure attachment, ambivalent-insecure attachment, and avoidant-insecure attachment. Main and Solomon (1986) has later added the disorganized-insecure attachment style. Ainsworth characterized the three attachment styles she observed. She claimed that a child who has a secure attachment child tends to experience less anxiety when separated from the mother while would freely seek assurance when in state of distress. On the other hand, a child with an ambivalent style tends to feel extreme anxiety in the absence of the parent while is not likely to seek comfort when in distress. Finally, a child with an avoidant style has the tendency to avoid the mother and will not be able to distinguish the parent from a stranger.
All of these propositions are the pervading insights relevant to the attachment theory as established by long years of research. On the other hand, in the field of creative literature, the acclaimed book, “Tuesdays with Morrie” (Albom, 1997), which revolves around a student’s meeting with his teacher after a long time of separation, offered philosophical insights about why there is a need to relate, and how it is to deal with situations when it is time to let go.
Albom’s (1997) account actually focused on what we can call the “Mitch-Morrie experience.” Without both of the characters in the story, it would be impossible to discuss and ‑
show the essential philosophies being emphasized. Likewise, the insights were presented in such a way that they are relevant to the experiences of both Mitch and Morrie.
The narrator, Mitch, has begun the story by recalling his university graduation and an unfulfilled promise he made with his professor. A promise to keep in touch has been rued after that they when the teacher and the student have totally taken different paths. Morrie who years after has been devastated by a decapitating disease – ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – ended up under the caring of his wife. While Mitch, sixteen years after the graduation, has reached a point of dissatisfaction with his life. A life-turning, which then would have been far from Mitch’s thought, was when he again saw his professor on a late night show; and, from there, the real story started. Mitch has finally decided to take a break from what he was presently doing and again reunite with his professor whose condition constantly became worse every day. This would be a regular meeting and dialogue about some essential philosophies in life.
One of their early meetings was spent to recollecting their days together in college. And Mitch has described himself as a tough guy who sought his professor’s tenderness. Morrie has also recollected his childhood, having a dispassionate father and being left with no mother, and his experience of hunger for love and affection that despite the presence of Eva, his stepmother has been pervading until his adulthood.
Morrie has stressed that each individual must create an individual culture as opposed the popular culture everyone is brought up to have. Unlike the popular culture which revolves in greed and dissatisfaction, Morrie propounded that Mitch must create a culture within himself which is based on love and human goodness. Death is also something which cannot be avoided and therefore must be accepted whole heartedly.
Another side of the story is his Mitch’s relationships with his brother. Peter who is suffering with pancreatic cancer has decided to isolate himself during treatment, which ‑
created a distance between him and Mitch. Morrie had a foresight that this, just like any other conflict, shall be resolved.
As Morrie was in constant fight with his illness and Mitch with his dilemmas in life, insights about the essence of love and care have materialized during their Tuesday dialogues. In this paper, these insights shall be presented side by side with the attachment theories earlier shown. The discussion would split in two directions. First, it delves into the experience of Union – of Attachment. Second, it engages into a discussion of loss and Separation. The paper is concluded by an integration of attachment theories and Morrie’s philosophies to create a holistic intervention approach to attachment issues.
Morrie has always been consistent in his philosophy. Every human being needs love or shall perish. He believes that the absence of love creates emptiness within an individual and this can only be patched by experiencing a tender, loving, and caring relationship with others. Morrie also propounded that love is what makes a person feel a higher degree of satisfaction. The professor has established this philosophy especially since he retired after being diagnosed of ALS. Without love from his wife, he would have perished. As Morrie believed “if you don’t have support and love and caring and concern that you get from a family, you don’t have much at all. Love is so supremely important… ‘Love each other or perish (p.91).”
This philosophy, beautifully written by Albom from Morrie’s lucid thoughts, is scientifically explained by a long history of psychological research from the time of Bowlby and Ainsworth and their colleagues in a comprehensive body of propositions called the Attachment Theory.
When Morrie, in one of the Tuesdays, said this line: “In the beginning of life, when we were infants, we need others to survive, right? (p.157)” he is actually touching the main proposition of Attachment Theory which stresses out the importance of mother-infant relationship and the potential influence of this relationship to adult life.
Bowlby stressed out and explained why “love and caring” is necessary by pointing out the role that the mother (significant person) serves in child’s development:
It is not surprising that during infancy and early childhood these functions are either not operating at all or are doing so most imperfectly. During this phase of life, the child is therefore dependent on his mother performing them for him. She orients him in space and time, provides his environment, permits the satisfaction of some impulses, restricts others. She is his ego and his super-ego. Gradually he learns these arts himself, and as he does, the skilled parent transfers the roles to him. This is a slow, subtle and continuous process, beginning when he first learns to walk and feed himself, and not ending completely until maturity is reached. . . . Ego and super-ego development are thus inextricably bound up with the child’s primary human relationships. (Bowlby, 1951, p. 53)
On the other hand, the Ganda Project (Ainsworth, 1963/1967 as cited by Bretherton, 1992), one of the foundational studies, conducted on mother-infant relationship has established association between child behavior and the kind of attachment. Bretherton quoted: “Securely attached infants cried little and seemed content to explore in the presence of mother; insecurely attached infants cried frequently, even when held by their mothers, and explored little; and not-yet attached infants manifested no differential behavior to the mother (p. 13).”
In the absence of a biological parent, a surrogate parent may take the place just like what is apparent in Morrie’s account of his childhood. At the age of eight, Morrie’s mother died and he was left having a dispassionate father. Fortunately, his father married a compassionate woman, Eva, who provided him with the tender loving care he and his brother needed as a child.
If the childhood desire for love and care is unsatisfied, this may reveal in adulthood such as Morrie’s desire to “enjoy being a baby again,” in a state of figurative infancy, to compensate the hunger for affection in his childhood.
With all these, it can be gleaned that the role played by the mother or the parent is very essential in the light of attachment theory. The kind of parent that a mother is directly influences the kind of attachment that a child shall develop. Morrie has recognized this parental role by saying these lines: “There is no experience like having children. That’s all. There is no substitute for it. If you want to have the experience of having complete responsibility for another human being, and to learn how to love and bond in the deepest way, then you should have children. (Morrie in Albom, 1997, p.93)”
Most importantly, the attachment theory’s proposition that attachment is greater in times of separation has also been a theme of Morrie’ philosophies when he said: “and at the end of life, when you get like me, you need others to survive, right? But here’s the secret: in between, we need others as well.” (p.157). It shows that even at the verge of separation, say for example dying, the need to attached and be taken cared of is pervasive.
Another theme permeating Albom’s (1997) book is death, loss, grief, and separation. Real indeed, union and separation are two related concepts. Considerable attention has also been given in the experience of loss. Certain researchers in the field have concentrated not on the union side of attachment but on separation.
Kubler-Ross (1987) for example has delved into the experience of death and dying. Looking at these stages, as it will later be presented, it can be gleaned that a dying person is in constant used of mechanisms (defense mechanisms) to handle the devastating situations associated with dying. It is the hope and the strength coming from loved ones and personal ‑
decision to maximize the remaining time which is assumed to fuel the dying during the stages. Vice versa, the terminally ill person may also be capable of imparting wisdom and positive insights to his loved ones. This is clearly shown in the case of Morrie and his student Mitch
Kubler-Ross proposed that there are five phases of dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This can be seen in the experience of Morrie and his fight against ALS, the brother of Peter who is battling against pancreatic cancer, as well as among their loved ones such as Mitch who finds himself amidst Peter’s and Morrie’s crises. In both the cases of Peter and Morrie, there is no assurance whether they would live or die; hence, they are in a crucial situation of dying – yet again – fighting for life.
The initial stage of dying is denial. Morrie, being in constant struggle to live, has imparted his thoughts relevant to this concept on the Fourth Tuesday when they talked about death. “Everyone knows they’re going to die, but nobody believes it. If we did, we would do things differently (p.81).” In this conversation, he insinuated that everyone is in denial of death with or without having the experience of dying. Peter, who is battling against cancer, has also exhibited his own denial as when he told Mitch once that he is fine and he does not want to talk about his illness.
Anger, bargaining, and depression were not shown in detailed in Morrie’s experience, although they were apparent in Peter’s struggle. Mitch’s brother who is also fighting against pancreatic cancer has decided to isolate himself, and detach from his family. It can only be hypothesized that at some point of his life while having treatment for cancer, Peter has grown negative emotions and has developed hostility towards himself and his family. It could also be an experience of depression – of continuous worry and anxiety and helplessness – which is brought by the foresight of possible death.
The last phase of dying is acceptance. Apparently, Morrie has made a decision. He asked himself: “Do I wither up and disappear, or do I make the best of my time left?” and he decided: “he would not wither. He would not be ashamed of dying.” In this case, there is a full acceptance of dying. This acceptance does not mean surrender to death but it means making the most out of the time left to make it more productive and meaningful.
All these stages are primarily experienced by the one facing death. Bowlby and Parkes (1970; in Bretherton, 1992) on the other hand looked at dying from the perspective of the loved ones or of the bereaved. They proposed that there are four stages of adult grief: numbness, yearning and protest, disorganization and despair, and reorganization; respectively.
The second stage which is yearning and protest is very apparent in one of the scenes in Albom’s book when Charlotte, Morrie’s wife, saw a woman running to put money in the parking meter and “a million thoughts running through her mind: How much time do we have left? How will we manage? How will we pay the bills?” In this case, she was confronted by the setback of losing his husband, apart, of course from the emotional distress she is experiencing.
The reorganization stage is apparent to Mitch when at Morrie’s funeral; he remembers a promise to maintain the relationship to his professor even if the latter has passed away. In this stage, fulfilling this promise of having a silent, personal dialogue with the departed, may have contributed to Mitch as although it was supposed to be awkward it came out to be more natural than he expected.
The attachment theory and “Tuesdays with Morrie” are two masterpieces coming from two different disciplines. Scientifically researched and empirically tested propositions served as the basis of the attachment theory as Bowlby, Ainsworth, and their successors ‑
continuously engaged in understanding the human nature of relating and finding comfort and experiencing loss. On the other side of the coin there is Albom, writing a biographical account of his Tuesday discussions with his professor after losing contact with him for years, and presenting life-changing insights about love, aging, death, and living. Looking at these two sources of insights, no matter how different their disciplines maybe – one scientific the other literary – they have well represented the human experience of relating to others.
These have been presented in this paper which first provide an exegesis of Albom’s “Tuesdays with Morrie” and a summary of the Attachment Theory, then a comprehensive outlook of Union and Separation by interfacing the scientific theories and Morrie’s philosophies.
Indeed, human relationship is encompassing and it has never failed to enthrall even the great thinkers of the modern time. Up to date, there still thousands of questions which must be answered by futures explorations o n human attachment. Farley (2004) has posed these questions:
“For example, it is probably the case that, while some romantic relationships are genuine attachment relationships, others are not. It will be necessary for future researchers to find ways to better determine whether a relationship is actually serving attachment-related functions. Second, although it is clear why attachment behavior may serve an important evolutionary function in infancy, it is not clear whether attachment serves an important evolutionary function among adults. Third, we still don’t have a strong understanding of the precise factors that may change a person’s attachment style. In the interest of improving peoples’ lives, it will be necessary to learn more about the factors that promote attachment security and relational well-being.”
It may be true that Plato’s idea of a two-headed being split into two to explain men’s constant search for one another is proven unscientific, but just like Morrie’s philosophies, it would pervade man’s consciousness as long as there is union and separation in whatever form they may be.
Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1963). The development of infant-mother interaction among the Ganda. In B. M. Foss (Ed.), Determinants of infant behavior (pp. 67-104). New York: Wiley.
Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1967), Infancy in Uganda: Infant care and the growth of love, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,
Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1968), Object relations, dependency, and attachment: A theoretical review of the infant mother relationship. Child Development, 40, 969-1025.
Albom, M. (1997). Tuesdays with morrie. US: Broadway.
Bowlby, J., & Parkes, C. M. (1970). Separation and loss within the family. In E. J. Anthony & C. Koupernik (Eds.), The child in his family: International Yearbook of Child Psychiatry and Allied Professions (pp. 197-216), New York: Wiley.
Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology (1992), 28, 759-775.
Fraley, R.C. (2004). A Brief Overview of Adult Attachment Theory and Research. An online article retrieved last March 25, 2009 from www.psych.uiuc.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm.
Kubler-Ross, E. (1987). On death and dying. London: Tavistock.