On Letting Go

Disclaimer dear reader: letting go is neither my favourite thing, nor my forte. But lately I’ve been hearing whispers that letting go might be just the thing for me right now in a few areas of my life. And when I go out walking, I cannot help but catch my breath at just how beautiful the trees make it look.

So it is that, in the last few weeks, I’ve noticed three things about letting go:

Letting go of something that has moved from being a Hell Yes to a Hmm, Maybe, (or a Hell No!) can feel like a risk, like a what if, like opening a vacuum – but it is, in fact, a making space for the unknown. And in this instance, I do not mean the unknown in the sense that we often think of it – unknown depths full of terrors just waiting to rise up and nip at the ankles of our lives. Rather, I refer to an unknown that is full of unexplored possibilities, of hitherto unimagined wonders, of “wow, how on Earth did I end up here”s. Because often, in saying “I do not want this anymore”, we are also saying “I now know that I want this instead”. And often as not, the unknown responds with kindness.

Letting go is not only or always a case of letting go of, but can also be a case of letting go into. Letting go of a little of my need for clarity, for example, in order to sink deeper into the messiness that is life. Or letting go of the scrabbling to know what comes next, in order to sit and have a cup of tea with not knowing, but trusting. Sometimes, the harder we cling to what was or what we think should be, the less we engage with the untapped wonders of what it.

And sometimes, letting go is just about being willing to sit with the space that is opening, or that is left. About being willing to greet that space like an old friend, to acknowledge it, and to let it open. And let yourself open with it. Who knows who you might be after that opening is complete.

“I think of the trees and how simply they let go, let fall the riches of a season, how without grief (it seems) they can let go and go deep into their roots for renewal and sleep…. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.” – May Sarton

 

But what about when you’re not letting go of unwanted thoughts, or patterns of behaviour that don’t serve you now, or an old pair of boots that don’t quite fit anymore – but rather a person, and your relationship to them?

When we lose a person to the end of a relationship, we do not just lose an individual. Instead, we lose access to the whole cosmos that person is, each of us being a unique, small world moving through the larger one we are all parts of. And the space they leave behind is not just the equivalent of a small world, but also of all the things we have shared, the needs that were met by them, the hopes, dreams, and fantasies we had projected onto them. Sometimes, when we have shared a life together with another, letting go of that life can feel like a kind of death in its own right.

No wonder the prospect of letting go can be such a terrifying one. Appropriately so; love, connection, and belonging are what give meaning to our lives – it is only right that the prospect of letting them go should be a hard thing to contemplate, and even inspire us to renewed efforts to nurture and sustain them.

And yet, endings and goodbyes have a vital role to play in our growth through love, and the capacity to create closure is an important skill for life. Below are some of the instances where letting go is an option that needs to be considered:

– An imbalance emerges between our intrinsic worth as a human being, and the way we are being treated. Of course, we all mess up in love; loving and being loved is a very vulnerable business, one most of us defend against in one way or another – even in relationships or friendships we hope will last a lifetime. However, if a hurtful pattern of behaviour is repeatedly identified, discussed, and still persists, there comes a time when we need to consider that perhaps actions speak louder than words; we must start treating ourselves as we would wish to be treated – which may mean letting go of the relationship in question.

– We discover a fundamental difference in values. This may appear early on, or develop further down the line – what is commonly referred to as “growing apart”. This is not a difference in taste – it’s not about the films or cuisine we prefer, or even necessarily who we vote for. Rather, this is about the fundamental beliefs that underlie the way we move through the world, and the way we relate. What are our priorities in life? What is our vision for relationship, and how do we conduct ourselves in relationship? How do we each treat the balance between work and love, rationality and feeling, the physical and the spiritual? What are our respective feelings (and behaviours) around gender, race, equality, ecology, human rights?

– One or both of us feels Love is asking more of us than we can give. I’ve been reading Anne Geraghty’s work recently, and feeling touched by her assertion that “love keeps trying to teach us how to love, and we don’t realise how much we have to learn”. Sometimes one or both of us doesn’t have the resources (time, energy, money for external support) or the will to learn the lessons love is asking of us through our conflicts or struggles. These are often those endings that feel like “a waste”; we know there was most potential in the connection than we were able to glean, but we realise that gleaning isn’t going to happen anytime soon, and we need to value ourselves enough to move on. Never fear; love is a patient teacher, and will find its way back to you in a different guise, carrying on your lessons at a more conducive date.

– It becomes clear that the other person no longer cares for us, or in the case of intimate sexual relationships, desires us, as we do them. These are some of the hardest endings, the ones that seem not of our own choosing. And yet, to choose to be with someone who does not choose us back is not really a choice in favour of ourselves – and in all relationships, it is to the practice of loving ourselves that we must ultimately keep returning.

When it comes to letting go of a relationship, there is rarely an effective way to sidestep the pain, and the responsibility to do right by yourself, and the person you’re in connection with. I’ve written before about what I believe to be the most effective way to sit with that pain – treating it as you would an honoured guest. Here are some other things to bear in mind if you’re considering letting go.

– There is a fine line between what is understandable, and what is acceptable. When we have known another person intimately, as a friend or partner, it is likely that we gain some understanding of their inner world. We know a little of their history, of how they have suffered, of how life has marked them. This helps us to be compassionate when they struggle, or make mistakes, in relationship with us. It is however very easy to slip from being understanding towards our beloved, to accepting behaviours from them that are in fact hurtful or indeed abusive, just because we know our beloved is struggling. Understandable does not always equal acceptable, and the fact that you can empathise with the source of a behaviour, does not mean you should simply stand there and take it. Another person’s struggles do not negate your rights as a human being and a beloved.

– Is your creativity supported, or stifled, in this relationship? Does the other person enthusiastically support the unique gifts that you are drawn to bring to the world (and this may, or may not, be your career), or do they see them as a drain on your time, or their time with you? Do they see your creative pursuits as valid, and as valid as theirs, or do they dismiss them as inconsequential or silly?

– Your gut will always lead you right. If you can find the courage to breathe deep into your belly, past fear and anguish and turmoil, and ask your embodied, intuitive self whether it is in your best interests, and will lead to your best self and life, to stay in this connection or let it go, you are likely to find some wisdom therein. Also, it is usually the case that, if a connection is not sustainable, you will have had an inkling that was the case from the very beginning.

– There will be an after. It’s tempting to stave off an ending we know in our heart of hearts needs to happen, because we are afraid of the loss that will follow. Again, I refer you to my previous article on sitting with that pain, gifting it and yourself with the time and space it needs to dance its dance, and pass on. And it will pass, one way or another. This is one of the hardest things to imagine when we are on the edge of the ending abyss, looking into the unknown; it can seem as if all we will ever know again will be the loss of this dear person, this dear world. But often, if we look back on previous experiences of endings, it’s likely we’ll recall that they were, eventually, followed by meaningful life experiences, and joy-bringing connections we could not have imagined at the time.

In closing, I want to leave you with permission, on those occasions when an ending does seem to be the right way forward, to defy cultural assumptions about what that means, and what it ought to look like.

An ending does not have to be a failure, nor does it render the relationship you’ve had less worthy or valuable than it has been in each moment up until now.

It does not have to be steeped in acrimony or cruelty, and, whilst periods of separation and silence can be very useful when it comes to transitioning from one kind of bond to another, letting go of one kind of relationship does not have to mean a total severing of your bond with that person. An ending does not have to be a source of shame, nor does it have to be traversed in shame’s bedfellow, silence; it can be a life-affirming choice made by two people who commit themselves to creatively disentangling their lives, in order to support each other and themselves in building happier ones further down the line. With enough courageous communication, creative imagination, and, above all, mutual kindness to yourselves and to each other, it is possible to do things differently, and let your ending be the start of a very great adventure.