Tethered Hearts

and Untethered Souls

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“My heart is tethered to yours.”

These words were spoken at a wedding I attended last weekend. Spoken during a toast from a brother to the groom. “You are more than a brother and more than a friend,” he said. “I feel as if my heart is tethered to yours.”

What could feel more like home than this?


At the root of the American mythology of independence is the idea of the self-made person, the go-it-alone trailblazer: pioneers and mavericks. Tethered to no one and no thing.

Yet our constitution is based on the idea of civic responsibility. While we untethered ourselves from the mother country, we chose to create a set of laws that tether us, and our actions, to each other. How else could we ensure general welfare and domestic tranquility unless every citizen participates in this responsibility?

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The assumption in this preamble is clear. Like it or not, we are tethered to each other.


Depending on the dictionary, tethered means to be connected, fastened, bound, or confined.

“If you love something set it free. If it comes back, it is yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.” Cheesy wisdom from the ‘70s. Except that nothing is ever ours. Ownership is an illusion. But connection is not. Connection is real.


Physics tells us we share atoms. In fact, the breath you just took and exhaled will eventually end up, at some moment in time, in my lungs and in the lungs of every other person on earth. Your breath is my breath. My breath is yours.

More than that, quantum physics tells us that nothing is solid. Each of us, and everything around us, is energy. Energy has no boundaries. Boundaries are an illusion.

Buddhism teaches that the Self—as a separate and autonomous being—does not exist. Instead, we are each part of everything else in a world that is interdependent. We co-exist. We are tethered to each other and to all things.

To be tethered comes with responsibility.


When I was younger, in my 20’s and married, I had this very strong, almost visceral sense that I could float away. I needed another person (my spouse) to hold onto my string, like a balloon, to ground me. To tether me to the earth somehow. To keep me from floating up and away. This wasn’t a romantic notion. The possibility felt very dangerous and real.

My father had recently died. Many friends were dying or sick. My immediate family was small and spread across the country. Marriage provided a tethering I needed.


Roots are entangled balloon strings. Roots keep us from blowing away, from being too easily pulled up and destroyed.

In the early twentieth century, new homesteaders in the Great Plains dug up the native prairie grass to plant crops. Rows and rows of seasonal harvests created a short-lived breadbasket, replacing an estimated 35 million acres of native grasses.

In celebration of this perceived bounty, Rogers and Hammerstein wrote the musical Oklahoma!, in which the title song exclaimed,

Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain
And the wavin' wheat can sure smell sweet when the wind comes right behind the rain.

But then the rain didn’t come. Drought came instead. Crops failed. Without the roots of native plants to hold the soil together, the soil turned to dust. And the dust took to the sky when the winds came. And the damage, terror, and pain of dust storms rocked the entire country for well over a decade, even when the rain returned.

We know we belong to the land, And the land we belong to is grand!

Have you ever tried pulling up grass? Or transplanting one plant out of a pot with many? Untangling roots is virtually impossible. If you’re not careful, if you damage a root system, you damage future life. We did that in the 1930’s. We’re still doing that today.

Roots are our home. Roots keep us grounded. Roots are a sense of community and belonging. To be tethered is to have roots. To be tethered is to know home.


A few years back, The Untethered Soul was a New York Times bestseller, with a cover featuring a beautiful horse running on a beach. The image evokes the idea of freedom, calm, and even a self-contained wildness. The general focus of the book is the idea that habitual thoughts and emotions hold us captive. If we can untether ourselves from these thoughts and emotions, we will be joyfully liberated from sorrow and discomfort. We will be free.

But sorrow and discomfort are not always pathologies. To be free of all our painful memories and uncomfortable emotions would be much like ripping up the native grasslands of our soul. We would dry out, become hollow, and wind storms of burnt possibilities would stir like tornados in our empty spaces. Because you can’t remove sorrow without also removing joy. As Kahil Gibran wrote in The Prophet, joy and sorrow are inseparable.

In the 2004 film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carey and Kate Winslet play a couple in a long-term tumultuous relationship. At a point of exasperation and deep heartbreak, they each undergo a medical procedure to erase the other from their memory. Afterward, they meet through a chance encounter and fall in love all over again. When they discover their past, they hesitate. Neither has changed – they will certainly experience the same challenges afresh. And then… they realize they are already tethered to each other. To part again would only cause them sorrow. And there is still so much joy to be had.

“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” – Kahil Gibran, The Prophet


“Do you promise to love, cherish, and respect each other? To care for each other in the joys and sorrows of life, whether in good fortune or in adversity, and to share the responsibility for the growth and enrichment of your life together?”

May we always say I do. In our families, our friendships, our marriage, our communities, and in the world at large, say I do.


To be tethered is to be connected, fastened, bound, or confined.

To be tethered is to be home.


Photos are of Girl with Balloon by the artist Bansky. This artwork first appeared as graffiti in London and later was sold at auction for $1.4 million, after which it immediately began to shred through the frame and then stopped due to a malfunction. The partly shredded work sold last week at a new auction for $25.4 million.