Monday, August 5, 2013

Letting Go

I’ve come to believe that the story of an average life is nothing more than a recitation of things given up. From the moment we leave the womb, or are wrested from it, to the time when we give up life entirely, whether by choice, nature or accident, we are governed not by what we have but by what we have been forced or agreed to abandon.

There’s nothing either nihilistic or particularly dark about all this. For most of us, the gradual leaving behind of infancy, childhood, adolescence, etc., has no mystery to it. One phase begets another with relative comfort. At an early age we go from home to school, abandoning the safe for the not-quite-so-safe. We realize that there is more to life than parents and siblings. In fact, we take these first steps toward separation with a great deal of anxiety. As we move from grade to grade we forsake subjects, teachers, fellow students, activities and interests, the buildings and playgrounds with which we’re familiar, even the familiar smells. We stop reading picture books and fairy tales and begin dealing with the stuff of life--we can identify large joys and bitter disappointments. Schooling is the proving ground of letting go; it is where we learn that nothing we have can’t be replaced.

Eventually we ditch our parents and, particularly in the West, our hometowns and states. We make strange places our own, adopt new ways, languages, mannerisms. We put down new roots, fragile ones to be sure, in different environments. We get jobs, bringing a halt to free time and freedom of choice, and with employment we establish a sort of Peter Principle that will guide us the rest of our lives. We live up to and somewhat beyond our means. We get married and give up the life of a single person as we assume a role that is part of a bigger unit than one.

Eventually, our children repeat the exact same process; they leave us as we have left our own families of origin.

In time, after a life of work and procreation, of raising and furthering, we retire. We abandon the trappings of a work-run, family-based life and take our ease, adopting a less demanding lifestyle that more often than not no longer includes the day-to-day rigors of work and children. We minimize the administration of life, and we happily abandon those things we once thought were vitally important.

Somewhere along the way, we also let go of harmful behaviors. As we get older, we strive to stop drinking, or smoking; we proudly give up sugar and gluten and red meat. Our mortality makes itself known. Or perhaps we contract an illness that forces us to stop behaving in a certain way. We can no longer safely comport ourselves as we did when we were younger. Our reflexes slow, our memory falters; we realize we have once again changed, and this new metamorphosis entails the forsaking of favored comportments. And so it goes. We give up small things for large ones and, on occasion, vice versa.

In 12-step programs, steps six and seven deal with the graceful--as opposed to forced and awkward--elimination of character defects and shortcomings.  Practitioners rely on a higher power to “remove from me every single defect of character that stands in the way of my usefulness to You and my fellows.” I am personally not sure whether adherents truly give up their defects or, becoming aware of them, simply try to minimize their impacts on others. I do know many people in 12-step programs who spend years trying to--and occasionally succeeding at--make a change, altering their persona radically by forsaking behavior that proved inimical to themselves and others. Does this quest make them happier? I don’t know. It’s another form of growth achieved by shedding the past.

I have no idea where this is going so I will now (ha!) let the notion go…



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