Letting Go of Suffering 1

Guest Column by Amanda Guthrie

Letting Go and Our Identity

In first considering the question “Why do we sometimes choose our suffering?,” a number of potential answers came to mind. You may, for example, have heard of the phrase, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Change is always scary – even good change. Sometimes it seems easier or less challenging to accept one’s suffering rather than to let go of it and experience a new thing.

Or, you may have heard of the song “Hurt So Good,” written by John Mellencamp. [1] Check out the chorus. In it, he speaks to the perverse way we can almost enjoy a pain that “hurts so good.” Sometimes our relationships (with ourselves or others) don’t feel healthy or life-giving, but we don’t want to change them. There’s something about being in the pain, the drama, the dissatisfaction. It hurts so good.

As I reflect on my own suffering, a couple of other answers come to mind, too. There was a time, for example, when I could not imagine letting go of the deep sadness I felt at the death of my dad. Somehow, I equated letting go of that sadness with letting go of him.

That loss and other forms of suffering, like experiencing chronic pain, are sufferings that have defined me. I am a woman without a father. I am a woman who experiences daily pain. If I let go of this suffering, who will I be?

colorful balloons sailing into the sky - letting go of that which we no longer need

The Healing in Letting Go

A quick google search confirms these (and other) reasons as ones that make it difficult for people to “let go.” A blog on the website Simple Mindfulness adds “the need to be right” to this list. “Letting go can be hard because it means letting go of aspects of your past – aspects of you.  It also means letting go of your expectations of how things should have been.” [2] Other articles describe why it is difficult to let go of a whole range of suffering. Google “why letting go is so hard,” and you’ll find articles about the difficulty of letting go of: a toxic relationship, things, the past, someone you love, and on.

For all of the articles written about why it is difficult to let go of X, there are just as many that offer insight on how to begin to let go and what it means to do so. These range from the very practical (“40 Ways to Let Go and Feel Less Pain”) to the poetic and poignant (“Letting Go is Seeing Farther”). Practical tips (from “40 Ways”) include “learn a new skill”; “use meditation or yoga to bring you into the present moment”; and “metaphorically release it.” [3]

Lea Gibson Page, in “Letting Go is Seeing Farther,” concludes her piece with this insight which I loved: “Letting go is more a process of seeing differently than you have before. Of seeing farther. And wider. It is making room beside your old habitual perceptions, beliefs, and experiences, the ones that may — or may not — have served.” Letting go means widening your horizons and creating room for other truths. [4] Her goal in this piece is not to tell us how to let go but, rather, to help us imagine the healing that can occur from doing so.

Ambiguity and Human Desire

None of this seems very controversial. We hold onto suffering. It is difficult to let it go. We know that doing so will provide healing and new possibility. And we would like for that to happen.

What strikes me most about these realities is that they point to the ambiguous nature of human desire. We want to hold on, and we want to let go. Sometimes we feel one desire more strongly than the other. If we are to take a meta-view here and let go of judgment about these desires, neither is right or wrong. They simply are. Each phase plays a role in shaping (and perhaps refining!) us.

As I reflect upon my own experience of grasping and letting go, I can’t help but think about the important notion of time. Not time as in “time will heal all wounds,” but time as in “for everything there is a season.” When I first exclaimed that I never wanted to let go of my feelings of deep grief and sadness about the loss of my dad, I meant it. I could not imagine my life otherwise. Feeling that deep sadness meant to me, at that time, that I would carry him with me as vividly as I could.

Learning from Our Suffering

Thinking about that experience, some ten years in hindsight now, I don’t think it was time for me to feel otherwise at that point. For whatever reason, to become the person I am today, I needed that period of deep clinging to grief. I can’t point to the time when I began to feel otherwise – when feeling otherwise finally felt okay. But I’m assuredly there now.

Years of reflection and self-care (with lots of help from others!) gave me tools and the ability to let go of the sadness. And I know without a doubt that having lost that sadness does not mean that I’ve lost my dad and what he meant to me. For some time now, it has been a time of letting go of that grief (and clinging to plenty other things instead!).

In one of her iconic poems, “In Blackwater Woods,” Mary Oliver writes of the need to love when we can and to let go when we must. This cycle repeats itself in our lives over and over again. My hope is that we will have the wisdom and awareness to know what time it is and the courage to respond accordingly.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Mellencamp, John, “Hurts So Good, on the album American Fool, recorded Cherokee, LA: 1982,  http://www.metrolyrics.com/hurts-so-good-lyrics-john-mellencamp.html.
  2. Burkes, Paige, “Why Letting Go Is So Hard and What To Do About It” Simple Mindfulness, accessed 7/11/18,  https://www.simplemindfulness.com/letting-go-is-hard/.
  3. Deschene, Lori, “40 Ways to Let Go and Feel Less Pain,” Tiny Buddha, accessed 7/11/18, https://tinybuddha.com/blog/40-ways-to-let-go-and-feel-less-pain/.
  4. Page, Lea Gibson, “Letting Go Is Seeing Farther,” On Being, February 23, 2016, accessed 7/11/18, https://onbeing.org/blog/letting-go-is-seeing-farther/.

Photo by Ankush Minda on Unsplash

Copyright © 2018 by Amanda Guthrie

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