The letting go
Dear Former Self,
I watched as you waited in that empty hospital room. I watched as time killed hour after hour and you wondered why it was taking so long, if something had gone wrong. I watched as you felt the depth of your powerlessness, as you realised that everything was out of your control and that, really, it always is. I watched as your fear rose and the pressure built. For someone who had grown quite adept at ‘letting go’, you suddenly wanted to hold on, to tighten your grip on the lives that hung in the balance—Meg, your wife, in spinal surgery, and the unborn child that clung to her insides. I watched as you tried to be calm, to breathe. And I watched as you began to understand that letting go of the people you love is almost impossible—because it cannot be done with rational thought, or with intellect, or with reassuring probabilities. To truly let go you need something else: something intangible. Call it what you want, but it’s something like faith.
You sometimes roll your eyes when you hear the phrase ‘let go’—it’s become a platitude, a cliché of New Age mysticism. And some people manage to make ‘let go’ sound a lot like an instruction to ‘get over it’. But its overuse and misuse hasn’t diminished its true meaning: that if you really want to stop being in pain you need to ‘get out of your own way’ by dropping whatever you’re holding on to. And that’s why I’m writing to you now: to remind you why letting go is so important. Even if it seems impossible, and even if the things you’re trying to let go of happen to be the things that mean more to you than anything else in the world—in fact, especially then.
Remember, Former Self, the first step in being able to let go is admitting that you’re holding on to something. It’s about taking responsibility for your emotions—not blaming yourself, but empowering yourself. Of course, you’d never consciously give someone else power over your emotions, but when you hold on to your pain and blame others for it—you do. When you say things like, ‘If only he hadn’t said that to me, then I wouldn’t feel this way’—you do. And it’s easy to do this, because the reality is so much harder to face: that in almost every case you are the only person capable of causing yourself emotional pain. Really, no one can force you to feel anything—happy or sad—they can’t access the controls to your emotions, you operate those. So when you blame others for your emotional reactions, you’re essentially saying that your state of mind is subject to their whim. But, by taking responsibility for your emotions, you take back the power. You admit that you are the only person capable of causing yourself pain, and you begin to see that the opposite is also true: you are the only one who can stop the pain, by letting go.
Once you take responsibility for your emotions, the threads of what you’re holding onto become clear. You’ll see the things you’re obsessed about—things you’ve convinced yourself that you need: a new job, a lover, a dream, a goal. And you’ll see the drama in your life that is causing you pain: a feeling, a fight, emotional attachments, judgements. But even once you’ve identified the things you need to let go of to move through your current emotional state or onto the next stage of your life, it’s still easy to get stuck halfway across the burning bridge to the ‘new’. You often stand there wondering whether you should turn back to the familiar territory behind you (even if it’s now well and truly on fire), or run towards the darkened woods at the other end that is completely unknown to you. In letting go there is always risk, there is always fear; you must face the unknown and take a chance with the unknowable. And each time you choose the new—each time you walk towards the darkened woods at the end of the bridge—you do something quite special. Without even knowing it, and probably without calling it this, you’ve taken a mini leap-of-faith.
For you and Meg, there had been three years of trying to get pregnant and trying to let go. And then, at the precise moment the money ran out and you began planning a never-ending holiday to Bali, and a life without children, suddenly IVF worked. Maybe because this was about letting go too—energetically you both had to move on with your lives and take the pressure down to truly create space for another life. Your moment of tentative joy lasted all of a week before the disc started to slip in Meg’s back again and she needed spinal surgery to fix it. All you could do was watch as she lay in bed for seven weeks, unable to walk and in constant pain, waiting for a ‘safe window’ to operate. Because of all this, though, you had to start living in the moment and letting go of everything else that wasn’t right in front of you. There was no other way.
Letting go is never easy to do because it requires subtlety and softness—it’s emotionless. At one extreme of human behaviour is control: holding on to something and attempting to get what you want by sheer force of will. And at the other extreme is giving up: pushing something away with negativity; saying, ‘oh well, it never would have happened anyway; stupid thing!’ Letting go is not ‘holding on tight’ and not ‘pushing away’; letting go is relinquishing control, allowing, surrendering, coming to a state of peace, and creating space for whatever is supposed to happen. It is sitting back and simply watching, observing—which is why you found it so hard to let go in that hospital room: you wanted to do something. Instead, you were left to stare at the Lego Star Wars desk lamp of Darth Vader you bought for Meg to ‘keep the dark side away’, and wait for her to return from surgery. If you weren’t so worried you would have smiled, because it all seemed so silly then. Still, you tried to invoke its power. But it wasn’t working; it just felt like there was too much at stake. Letting go seemed impossible, ridiculous—like the opposite of what you should have been doing—and anxiety was taking over. If you let go, you won’t have anything left—you’ll be left staring into a giant black hole of nothingness.
Fear of death, in all its manifestations, is a big reason you find it hard to let go. It’s why, for example, you (and many other people) prefer drama to boredom: you know drama; you understand it. Drama makes you feel alive (even if it causes you pain). Whereas boredom is nothingness, it creates space for the unknown, for death. When you’re bored there are no distractions, and you often become restless, unsettled. Without distractions there is only one place left to look: at yourself. You’re left to stare into the mirror. Some people try to outsmart boredom by becoming like sharks: they have to keep moving or they’ll ‘die’. They’re in constant motion—so many things to do! Never a dull moment, but not many real ones either. They spend their whole life running away from themselves. (In reality, if they stopped moving, it would only be their false self that would die. The true self can never die; it can only be hidden.) Boredom is their enemy, stillness and introspection their worst nightmare. They act like their greatest fear is being confronted by their true self—and perhaps it is, because then they’ll have to let go of the false self they’ve constructed. It’s sad really, because everyone I’ve ever known that’s taken the time to gaze inwards, to get to know their authentic self, has never been disappointed or scared by what they’ve found—it’s the unknown that’s scary, not the known. And the irony is that when you truly let go you cannot be bored, in fact quite the opposite, you feel weightless: at peace. Sometimes you even feel free.
Fear of death has also spawned your tortured love affair with control. It’s like your burly protector from uncertainty: it works out at the gym most days and sleeps on the side of the bed closest to the door. You like to think that control is good to you, that it treats you right. What you don’t tell your friends, or even admit to yourself, is that control leaves you beaten and bruised. Control is the enemy of letting go and peace, and one of your greatest sources of pain. By having a relationship with control to prevent pain, ironically, you create more pain for yourself. And that pain is never greater than when you’re confronted with the reality that you’re not in control of much at all; when the illusion of control evaporates before your eyes and you’re left holding all the lies you’ve told yourself to make you feel better.
As you waited in that hospital room, you felt your own profound lack of control. For the first time you felt the fragility of life: beautiful and brittle, like it could snap in an instant. Something you’d tried to distract yourself from your whole life, with all this living. You tried to clear you mind, to meditate—but there it was: the promise of a future life, the threat of imminent death. And there was nothing you could do about either.
By now you know what happens when you try to control a part of life, don’t you? Your mind puts it in an airtight, see-through container so you can monitor it. In reality though, you are suffocating it; you are killing it. Control is closed, tight, dark, dead; letting go is open, loose, light, alive. Think about it: you do this with the things you love the most and you wonder why you are miserable. Many things in life aren’t given the chance to declare themselves to you, because you have already put them in a box, labeled it and decided what they’re meant to be to you. Of course, you can never know what someone or something is supposed to be ahead of time—but you decide, you judge, you categorise: all are forms of control. To let go, you must continually place everything in your life back in the hands of the universe, even the things you love the most—especially these things—so they can be free to be what they are supposed to be.
The pathway to truly letting go, and the antidote to control, is faith. And if you feel a bit nauseous when you hear the word ‘faith’—like some dude in an ill-fitting robe is going to throw water on your head, or a psych-ward escapee is going to yell bible verses at you in the street—remember this: religious people use the word a lot, but they don’t own it. Whether you are religious or not, you can have faith—you can trust in something bigger than yourself. And ‘having faith’ isn’t the adult equivalent of believing in fairy tales; it doesn’t mean that you think everything will work out exactly how you want it to every time—if it did, there would be no need for faith. Faith is simply ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen’. Faith is believing, trusting—despite having no proof—while accepting that whatever happens is meant to be.
If you try to let go without any faith, it will just be an intellectual exercise—and letting go cannot be forced by the intellect. Also, you can’t simply tell yourself ‘I’m letting go’, while deep down hoping that somehow by quasi letting go you will get what you want. For letting go to be real, it has to happen at every level of your being: intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual. And that can be scary. It’s hard to think about letting go, even as an intellectual exercise, of the people you love. You want to hold on to them; you can’t imagine your life without them. But the important thing to remember is this: no matter what you do, if something is meant to be in your life, it will be. It will keep coming back—even despite your best efforts to push it away. And if something isn’t meant to be in your life, it won’t be. It won’t matter how hard you try to hold on to it or control it—it will leave.
Former Self, I know that at certain points the idea of letting go of your wife and unborn child struck you as rather callous. But I want you to remember that letting go doesn’t mean you don’t care, in fact quite the opposite; letting go of someone means you love them so much that instead of stifling and suffocating them with your desire to control what happens to them, you give them back to the universe. You acknowledge that you do not own them—that they are an actor in the stage play of your life for an unknown amount of time. And in letting them go, you give them the space to be who they are meant to be, the time to do what they are supposed to do, and the freedom to go where they are supposed to go—even if that means away from you. Because, after all, it’s not up to you, oh it never really was.
I was still watching you, you know, as the orderly wheeled Meg back in after surgery, and the lonely hospital room filled with life again. The surgeon said that the operation ‘couldn’t have gone better’. You exhaled; they’d survived, but your nerves hadn’t. You couldn’t quite bring yourself to let go of Meg and the unborn child while they were under the surgeon’s knife. But I’m glad that you couldn’t, because you learned something valuable: that letting go of someone is one of the greatest forms of love you can show them, because you allow them the space to be. And just like a baby in its first few tentative moments after birth, between life and death, you have faith in them—you allow them to breathe on their own.
Yours forever in the here and now,