In My Own Write: About letting go

There is physical need, and there is psychological need, and of the two, the latter is far more complex.

To every thing there is a season… a time to keep, and a time to cast away – Ecclesiastes, 3:1
I remember a colleague telling me, many years ago, about her persistent efforts to get her adolescent son to go through his closet and put the toys he had outgrown into a large plastic bag so she could donate them to charity.
“I pestered him for ages,” she said, “until one day, I pinned him down in his bedroom.”
Then she described, with some amusement, the ensuing scenario: Son, pulling out an old teddy bear and placing it in the bag: “I don’t need this any more.”
Mom: “But you’ve had that teddy since you were two! You can’t give him away!” (Son shrugs, and Teddy is retrieved.) Son, tossing a multicolored ball: “Goodbye, ball!” Mom: “But that was the very first ball you ever had... Grandma bought it for you – don’t you want to keep it?” And so on.
“I gradually realized,” confessed my colleague, ruefully, “that I was the one who couldn’t bear to part with these old things we didn’t need any more.”
WHAT AN emotion-laden word “need” is. It sounds like beseeching, almost like a wail.
There is physical need, and there is psychological need, and of the two, the latter is far more complex.
It’s bound up chiefly, it appears to me, with our memories and sense of security, which are of course themselves related.
My colleague, quite aware that her son, well on his way to adulthood, would never again play with his toys – but unable, nevertheless, to bear the thought of parting with Teddy and her son’s first ball, gifted by Grandma – was most likely holding onto the sweetness of her son’s early childhood; also, perhaps, to the happy recollection of her younger self; and to her bond with her own mother, who, if she was still with them, would not be around forever.
IT SEEMS, then, that there is a great deal more than meets the eye to the things we possess. Beyond their external, physical existence, they encompass a powerful internal reality that can play havoc with our feelings when it comes time to declutter.
Emotion enters every decision, particularly when the possessions we are pruning are things we’ve inherited from our parents. It can be true even when they’ve just been part of our lives for decades.
Security and familiarity lie in that clock on the wall, in that little table, that chair. Once they go, a part of ourselves – however small – and of our past, go with them.
It’s unsettling.
Just how unsettling was brought home to me by a friend who is making aliya this year from North America. He related how agonizing – no less – it has been for him to decide what to bring along or send, and what to get rid of. He realizes that in cleaning up his apartment and sorting through his stuff, he is confronting a lifetime of memories, layer upon layer, many of them buried until now.
That’s no simple thing. On the bright side, it might well make the business of settling into his new homeland seem easy by comparison.
LETTING go of people can be just as problematic as letting go of things.
There’s a wonderful Zen story about two monks, one older and one much younger, who were going on a journey. Arriving at a flowing river, they came upon a lovely young girl who was fearful of crossing.
Without a word, the older monk picked her up, slung her over his shoulder and waded to the opposite bank. Once there, he laid her down and continued on his way.
The younger monk, hurrying behind, was speechless at his elder’s behavior, and couldn’t compose himself for several minutes.
Finally, he said: “You know the strict rules of our order. How could you act as you did?” “I put her down on the other side,” his companion replied. “You’re the one who’s still carrying her.”
THERE IS more than one moral to this story, but it does illustrate the difficulty of delinking ourselves from those with whom we oughtn’t any longer to be preoccupied.
Ex-husbands and -wives, for instance.
There are divorced people who fancy themselves single again, but are in actuality as tied to their erstwhile partners as when they were wed to them.
They’re easy to recognize, seizing on every opportunity to talk about their dreadful exes, implicitly demanding understanding of their side.
It’s quite boring.
Some carry on lengthy legal proceedings way beyond the reasonable, aimed at righting this or that real or perceived injustice. Tragically many use their children as weapons against the former mates they are so furious with – and still so tightly wrapped up in.
They haven’t learned to let go.
AS FOR children, there’s a definite art to letting them go, allowing them to strike out on their own when they’ve reached the age and aptitude to do so – even when the direction they take isn’t exactly the one you’d hoped for. That’s what makes it an art.
The great, open secret about letting children go, of course, is that it’s the one sure way to bind them to you for always in love and gratitude.
WITH Yom Kippur ahead, it might be instructive to recall the reply of a man interviewed on television after reaching 100-and-something and asked what he considered the reason for his longevity. It emerged that his secret lay in his ability to let go of angry feelings and replace them with forgiveness.
“I don’t bear a grudge over anything,” he stated, simply.
Echoed a feisty and thoughtful almost-96-year-old of my acquaintance: “When I bear a grudge, it’s for five minutes only – and that’s all. Life’s too short for any more.”
Clearly, some are better equipped than others to respond to offense so positively, but it’s something to consider the next time someone gets up your nose.
THE ALEXANDER Technique, a revolutionary system of physical and mental reeducation discovered by F.M. Alexander in the early 20th century, holds as a central tenet the idea of “letting go” – of one’s habitual patterns, one’s preconceptions, even one’s ingrained belief in the “right way” to attain one’s goal. Only by letting go of these things is the body freed to regain its natural posture.
Said my teacher Dalia Altmann: “When you let go of something, you create space between you and it.
In that space there can be renewal. Without letting go, there is no possibility of renewal.”
It seems like a good thought with which to end this first column of the new Jewish year.