Letting Go

“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.”

Anatole France

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.

9 thoughts on “Letting Go

  1. I agree with you. Have to say I’m also taken with the idea of the cosmic dancer.
    I have wondered if the point of life is to learn to let go – Do you think the art of dying is the art of living?
    Is life death and death life?
    [I think so]

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  2. Very thought-provoking and beautifully written. You’ve given me lots to think about.

    Lately as I’ve gone through a certain process I realized I was, in truth, giving myself permission to let certain things go — the art of allowing a part of me to die. Somewhat analogous to your love infatuation and how it ties into self-image. We define ourselves in many ways by the various relationships we have with others. When those relationships are less than what they should be, that disconnect what is and what we believe should be can negatively impact our sense of self. It’s quite an epiphany not only to finally realize *it is what it is,* but that it’s okay to let it go.

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  3. Thank you for your kind words, CD!

    I don’t know if this is the proper place for it, but I would just like to say that, from reading the blogs of ex-Mormons — and especially from reading your wonderful blog, CD — I think I’m getting a rough or approximate feel for what it’s like to let go of Mormonism.

    I know I don’t completely understand what folks go through. But I’ve formed an impression that letting go of the Church, the Community, and the ideology is about as difficult as anything one can do in life. Anyone who follows through on it must have guts, regardless of what else they have.

    Now, you say: “We define ourselves in many ways by the various relationships we have with others.”

    I think that’s on the mark. Many years ago, when a series of events kicked and/or dragged me into taking a long, unwavering look at how I created and maintained my self image, I was soon impressed by how I defined myself in terms of my relationships with others. And quickly following that insight, I saw that my self image was actually entirely based on relationships. If not to other people, then to things. Consequently, your remark strikes me as hugely insightful.

    Of course, a consequence of the fact we define ourselves in terms of our relationships, is that the people we are in relationships with can have some control over our self-image or sense of self. And thus, there is created a potential for abuse, for someone can — through whatever influence on our sense of self they have — harm our self-esteem, twist our self-image, and generally mess with us in many nasty ways.

    At least that’s what I’ve seen happen.

    CD: “It’s quite an epiphany not only to finally realize *it is what it is,* but that it’s okay to let it go.”

    Indeed! After I left my second wife, who was abusive, it took me more years to realize it was OK to let go of it all than it took me to shake off my denial that she had abused me.

    In the end, I didn’t get a T-shirt for what I went through, but I did get a nice poem out of it. 😀

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  4. Thanks Mr. Sunstone. I’ll take it as a compliment 🙂

    I dunno are you a T-Rex fan?

    I love their song ‘Cosmic Dancer’

    great lyrics
    I was dancing when I was twelve
    I was dancing when I was aaah
    I danced myself right out the womb
    Is it strange to dance so soon
    I danced myself right out the womb

    I was dancing when I was eight
    Is it strange to dance so late
    I danced myself into the tomb
    Is it strange to dance so soon
    I danced myself into the tomb

    Is it wrong to understand
    The fear that dwells inside a man
    What’s it like to be a loon
    I liken it to a balloon

    I danced myself out of the womb
    Is it strange to dance so soon
    I danced myself into the tomb
    But when again once more

    I danced myself out of the womb
    Is it strange to dance so soon
    I danced myself out of the womb.

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  5. Thanks for your insightful reply, Paul. Your thoughts ring true. We are *supposed* to have good relationships with various family members (a spouse or parents, for example). We’re never *supposed* to give up on family. So when certain family relationships are dysfunctional, we go the rounds, repeatedly beating ourselves up for things we can’t control. Until we learn to know better and to give ourselves permission to live a happier life.

    Leaving something like Mormonism is difficult for many reasons, primarily because of family connections lost but also because of the way Mormons are indoctrinated from infancy with a certain perception of reality. However, it’s probably not so different from what many people go through as they practice — as you call it — the art of dying. Personally and in some ways paradoxically, I’ve found it to be incredibly liberating. And as you pointed out, it’s an ongoing process.

    I believe we all have to consciously choose to live a conscious life if we really want to live authentically and fully. Many people choose not to. Choosing to live a conscious life often means asking questions that result in having to let certain things go. Your prior post with quote on how faith turns to fanaticism is illustrative.

    Love your poem!

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