“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”
Sometime ago I wrote about myself (but I think it could in essence be about many of us):
At thirty-seven, I lost nearly everything I owned, including everything I’d built my self-identity on, and consequently discovered the art of dying. I haven’t felt afraid of death since.
“The art of dying.” I often think of it today as “letting go.”
I know that at times in our lives, we must let go of who we are in order to make way for who we shall become. But some people say letting go is something a very wise person practices — not just now and then — but moment to moment. I believe them, but I myself am not wise enough to know how to do that. The only times I have come close to letting go moment to moment have been when I was forced to.
That does not surprise me. In general, the closest I come to being a wise person is when I am dragged kicking and protesting into wisdom. I sometimes think that’s true of many wise people.
I do know that when we cling to ourselves we create all sorts of problems. It’s a good thing when we are quickly forced by circumstances to give up the old, because the longer we are able to cling to the old, the more problems we create (both inside of us and in the world too), the more we suffer, and the more difficult it becomes for us to get out of the messes we’ve made.
Besides, how do we know when to let go of ourselves — or let go of some aspect of ourselves — except that circumstances tell us when?
All the same, the temptation and tendency to cling to ourselves beyond when it might be appropriate is understandable, isn’t it? For one thing, I bet an instinct or predisposition to self-preservation is hardwired into our genes. For another, it can be emotionally painful to loose even a relatively minor and comparatively unimportant part of our self identity, let alone anything very important to us. I know someone who once broke into frantic tears upon discovering he’d misplaced his favorite belt. Letting go can be very difficult. Even minor changes in who we think we are can at times upset us.
The threat of a huge change to our self identity can sometimes provoke us to cling to ourselves with a ferocity usually seen only in the largest tigers and lions. Growing up, I spent four or five years painfully infatuated with a certain girl. She was the emotional center of my life. Indeed, I suffered most days and every night for years. It wasn’t until much later in life that I had the experience to see how I had nursed and cultivated that infatuation — despite the almost crippling emotional pain it caused me — because I was so frightened to let go of my image of myself as her lover.
During those years of merciless clinging, I was usually heavy, depressed, spiritless, and controlling. You could have been forgiven if you had mistaken me for a religious fanatic. I had difficulty seeing more than one aspect of a thing, more than one point of view. I seldom — with a few exceptions — struck out on a new path, did anything different. Nursing and cultivating that infatuation took most of what I had.
Ever since those years, when I think of what extremes a person might go to to preserve their self image, I am very likely to think of what I once put into preserving mine.
Ironically, those were the years in which Nietzsche was my hero — Nietzsche, the philosopher for light spirits:
“The Cosmic Dancer, declares Nietzsche, does not rest heavily in a single spot, but gaily, lightly, turns and leaps from one position to another. It is possible to speak from only one point [of view] at a time, but that does not invalidate the insights of the rest.” — Joseph Campbell
While it’s true Nietzsche never wrote precisely what Campbell attributes to him, Campbell’s “paraphrase” of Nietzsche’s views ranks as a sharp and accurate enough insight into Neitzsche’s thought.
As I learned the only way I’ve ever learned a spiritual truth — the hard way — there are no light spirits, no Cosmic Dancers, among those who take themselves so grimly and cling to themselves so tenaciously that they cannot let go, they cannot practice the art of dying.
It seems to me Bob Dylan puts a pretty, but significant, twist on the notion of letting go when he sings, “He’s not busy being born is busy dying”. To me, Dylan’s lyric emphasizes the psychological or spiritual rebirth that so often follows upon our letting go of ourselves.
The dead cling to themselves beyond their expiration dates, so to speak, but those who are alive let go.