Letting Go and Freedom 2

A bouquet of flowers on a fence in front of a headstone - letting go of loved ones to death

Facing the Specter of Death

I rested in the hospital recliner chair. Beside me, my fourteen-year-old son lay still, unresponsive, tubes attached, his head bandaged to cover up the incision the surgeon had made to protect his life. He wasn’t saved yet. The doctor had said his body could still give up. Had the shimmering and fragile thread that tethered him to this earth stretched to its limit? Would it snap?

I didn’t try to figure it out. I didn’t even pray. I simply stayed near my child, touching his arm, surrounding him in light, and waiting. Waiting.

Unable to sit every moment, I took breaks to wander through the hospital’s peace garden. Being spring, flowers bloomed. Some were fragrant; all rustled and bent with passing breezes. Stones laid a path that I wound through, seeing and not seeing, hoping and not hoping, breathing and keeping silence. Later, when my mother was hospitalized there, I looked down from her room and saw the garden. Tears filled my eyes. I was struck by the near miss of a loss so huge my body could never contain it. Even today, I feel tremulous inside when I think of those days.

A bouquet of flowers on a fence in front of a headstone - letting go of loved ones to death

Letting Go and Loss

We were fortunate. My son survived with few effects of his head injury. Many mothers lose their children to violence, famine, disease, accident. Yet although the losses our family faced were not so grim, we will not be the same. Life is darker now, less certain. I know, if I hadn’t known before, that I cannot control life and death. I cannot even keep my children safe. Though they will experiment and test limits, get into serious trouble, lose their way, and though their bodies may be irreparably damaged, and they might not survive, still I must let them go. Survival is not guaranteed. Indeed, it’s pretty much the opposite we’re promised. One day, each of us will die.

Years ago, I read an article by a woman whose entire family died – her husband and all her children – in one horrible accident. After walking through the enormous anguish those losses caused, she found a gift. She realized she was free, untethered to relationship and responsibility. In that freedom, she discovered a new mission, some kind of work I can’t remember, and a joy fill her. It seemed to her she’d been created for this purpose.

Many Types of Losses

Was that why her family died? So she could fulfill her life’s work? The woman actually wondered if that were possible. I’m not comfortable with the idea of a God who would kill off four individuals so that a remaining person could do a particular job in the world. Not that any God requires my comfort to be who or what God is, but still, I imagine God sees opportunities in our losses and, from them, creates new meaning for our lives.

These losses take many forms. For my wedding day, I wore something old in the form of my grandmother’s diamond earrings. Afterwards, as my husband and I headed off on our honeymoon, I removed them and wrapped them in some paper, then stowed them in the glove box of our car to keep them from getting lost. My husband, thinking the paper was garbage, threw it out. I won’t say that was an inauspicious beginning, nor does it serve as a metaphor for what our relationship has been like, but the loss hurt. A lot. Yet I had to let go of them, since they were gone. How could I let go of the regret, resentment,and sadness? I’d lost part of my grandmother, because I’d been stupid, because my husband had been incurious, because the world turned and life unfolded in its way.

Our Faulty Memories

Perhaps the first step in letting go is much like the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous: we admit we are powerless. We can’t undo what we have done. I know of no way to escape the snare of time which moves forward relentlessly, relegating the past into memories. Of course, we are learning more and more that memories cannot be trusted. Our brains lose some facts, add others. Given enough suggestion, we can even invent entire scenarios that never existed. [1]

So did my son really have surgery? Yes. The hospital bills are still in my file drawer, I have journal entries, and my son bears the scar. However, the details I remember may or may not be an exact representation of the past. None the less, they tell a story of my life. My son’s memories of that event are part of his life story, and your memories help you understand your story.

We understand ourselves and who we are in part by the stories we tell. That’s why it can be so hard to admit our stories might not be totally accurate. It’s scary to give up the identity we’ve created, to acknowledge we may have misjudged others, and to open ourselves up to uncertainty. After all, if our past isn’t definite, what is? Certainly not our future.

So there we are, out of control, no matter where we look. Yet if we bow to the reality of life and release our desire to be the powerful master of our fate, and of our addictions, peace may surprise us; joy may sneak up on us. The gift of letting go is that we will be free.

We Struggle against Admitting We Are Powerless

But it’s not easy to let go. First, we have to admit we are powerless against the foibles of our memories, the unfolding of our future, and we are powerless to resist our cravings, desires, fears, and hates. They arise unbidden, even unwanted. Trying to shove them down, numb them, or exorcise them usually leaves us more angry, frustrated, scared, and desperate to hold on. Letting go is a kind of death, so our egos rage against this surrendering.

That is why Richard Rohr, in his book Breathing Under Water, quoted the poet W.H. Auden: “We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the present and let our illusions die.” [2]

Some of us can give up our drink, our sex, our gambling, our working, our criminal behavior, our sadness, our over-eating and over-exercising and over-cleaning, our bitterness, our lies. Some cannot. When I worked on the addiction unit, counselors would sometimes bring in the obituaries of patients who, once back in the world, hadn’t made it out of their addiction alive. Others succumbed to mental illness, whether because of “wet brain” from too much alcohol or meth psychosis or a psychotic disorder that might or might not recede if the person changed his or her lifestyle.

Often, if we won’t release the things that imprison us, like our drugs and toys and our illusions, fate will force us to let them go. We will lose our health, our homes, our jobs, our family, and our life.

God Is Found in Letting Go

Most of us, though not all of us, can figure out this letting go stuff before everything we thought we owned is gone. We can acknowledge that we powerless. We can find the humility to seek support from friends, neighbors, counselors, spiritual guides, and from a force greater than ourselves.

Richard Rohr tells us that to let go we must release our ego, give up attachments, and find our true center and worth. He quotes Meister Eckhart: “God is not found in the soul by any kind of addition, but by a process of subtraction.” [3]

When we can find God, our egos relax. It’s a paradox. To experience this peace, we must convince our ego to let go. Our belief that we are separate from the life and love and God around us is, Rohr states, an illusion. To find freedom, we must let that illusion go, just as we must let go of the illusion we know what’s real and what’s not, and the one that whispers that if we can just be good enough, some person or deity will reward us, and nothing will ever hurt us again.

To Let Go and Let God

For me, one of the most useful of the twelve step slogans is “let go and let God.” When my other son was in the navy, living in Japan during the earthquake and the nuclear power plant meltdown, I didn’t know how near or far he was from the chaos and the radiation. Sailors were being sent to help the Japanese in the center of the madness, and I prayed for all of them. When my son went to India to have surgery to lengthen his leg bones, I felt anxious and powerless. I prayed, because when I pray, I feel as if I am doing something. I wrote poetry and journaled, because in this way I imagine I can create meaning from my life, even if I have not a shred of control.

In the end, though, I had a choice: rail, rage, beg, plead, nag, worry, and basically be miserable, or realize that time would unroll itself like a carpet, and my children and my spouse and even my pets have their own destiny, their own fate, their own lives. As I have mine. So I let go and let God. Yet because I don’t do it very well, I must do it over and over and over again.

The Freedom of Letting Go

Sometimes letting go is forced on us. Then it hurts. Sometimes we choose to let go, and it can still hurt, as when we miss those comfortable addictions that brought us what we once thought was peace. At other times, the sting of letting go disappears so quickly we barely notice it, and we are left with freedom, lightness, joy, and peace. If we stop clinging to identity, to ego, to things, to sensations, to the fantasy that numbness will protect and save us, we might find we are saved in an entirely different way, by being who we really are and knowing the rightness of all things.

I’m still working on this, big time. Yet every now and then, I find I’ve given up a little more control, invited God to take charge sooner than usual. I’ll wake and realize that, even thinking about it, I’ve released my longing for youth, security, and those material goods I am so committed to.

Unfortunately, the release doesn’t last. As they say in twelve step programs, we always take “it” back: control, power, ego, illusion. With practice, though, we can learn to do pretty much anything, even fall into letting go.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. See, for example, Gazzaniga, Michael S., The Ethical Brain: The Science of Our Moral Dilemmas, New York: Dana, 2005.
  2. Rohr, Richard, Breathing Under Water, Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2011, 3-4.
  3. Eckhart, Meister , Meister Eckhart: Selected Treatises and Sermons, James M. Clark and John V. Skinner, trans., New York: Faber and Faber, 1958, 194.
  4. Rohr, Richard, “Staying Watchful,” Center for Action and Contemplation, Aug. 30, 2016, https://cac.org/staying-watchful-2016-08-30/.

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