“Detachment gives us the understanding that we are born into a world that is larger and more important than we; that we are drops in an infinite sea…and that we cannot have both intensity of experience and permanency of duration.”
So wrote Rabbi Joshua Liebman in his 1946 self-help book Peace of Mind, a striking and very American celebration of the value of detachment. It perfectly describes the impulse I felt in my youth when I went to the Colorado Rockies in search of the transcendence promised by America’s prophets of transcedence—Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson.
For Liebman, postwar America presented the ideal site for cultivating detachment, and Americans were especially equipped to usher in the new “mature” understanding of God that this virtue makes possible. Peace of Mind became a bestselling religious book, the first by a non-Christian. Today it’s out of print, having been eclipsed in 1952 by an even more optimistic self-help manual, The Power of Positive Thinking by Reformed minister Norman Vincent Peale. Liebman didn’t share Peale’s famous anti-Catholicism, but his ode to detachment offered a similar rejection of religious sensibilities rooted in place and memory.
Of course, the Catholic tradition has also regarded a certain kind of detachment as a virtue. When Catholic spiritual writers talk about poverty of spirit or abandonment to the will of God, they, too, are recommending detachment. More concretely, architectural and...