“You just need to …let it go.”
Maybe you, like me, have used this phrase with minor events such as, traffic, parking spaces, referee calls, grudges, etc. “C’mon, Jonathan! Breathe in, breathe out. Just let it go.” In these scenarios, this might be okay to toss out the “let it go” locution. To develop the resiliency required to let small things go is certainly a healthy achievement. But how many times do we try to rush to this statement as a resolution for some more big-ticket events? Some things require more time and hard work to let go, and it is okay.
I was doing dishes in my messy kitchen while recovering from strep throat and an ear infection earlier last. I was feeling a mix of emotions as I was slightly refreshed being back on my feet, overwhelmed by the pile of dishes, and heavily medicated on antibiotics. While financial pressures and critical decisions were weighing in on me, so was hope, which, thankfully, never rests. I began thinking about particular incidents in my life involving heartbreak and loss. Soon I heard those three “magic” words. It did not have the feeling of a positive or warm sense, but more of a cold, rigid mockery of my situation. This incident propelled me into thinking about all the times we try bringing comfort to people by passively saying these words with no real thought.
“Just, let it go!”
Do I think we should not just let things go? By no means. If anything, I am stating the opposite. Life is full of letting things go. Letting things go is a powerful part of life. It is a necessary and essential part of being human. It is so important to the heart and soul of every person, which is why I believe it is too good to be dismissed passively with three pathetic words such as these. Some life events can’t be dismissed by such words, especially when it is inappropriate timing, or the speaker only knows a portion of what the receiver is going through. Letting go is essential, but timing and process are everything.
Letting go is a process. While “letting go and letting God” is a commonly used catchphrase in our culture, it is important to recognize the human condition and understand that if letting things go was so easy, we might miss out on the learning and growth that takes place in the process. Even God is all about the process and not as much into quick fixes. How many years were the Hebrew people in exile?
Some things require more time for grieving and sorting thoughts out. Grief and loss does not look the same for everyone. A broken relationship. The loss of a loved one. A traumatizing childhood memory. A loss of a dream. The loss of a home or job. These events certainly require the process of letting go. But it would be insensitive, not only to the feelings of the one walking through it, but also to the process to passively say out loud or to ourselves, “just, let it go.”
My sister and brother-in-law recently moved from Pasadena, California to Portland Oregon. The housing market they moved to is making it difficult to find a house they can make a home. The home they sold and left behind they had lived in for more than twelve years and each of their three children have only known that house as their home. It has been a few months since the move, and they are still grieving. They did not anticipate the process being so difficult. It would really be easy for me or anyone else looking from the outside to write off their emotions by thinking or saying “just let it go!” But it is not that easy. I am grieving the loss of a ten year marriage. If someone came to me and said I needed to just let it go and move on without an ounce of sensitivity, I might imagine punching them in the throat, to be completely honest.
Letting go is not easy. If we could, we would. I work in mental health and offer skills building for young adults who are lagging skills and need help working through difficult challenges in their life. If I told every survivor of PTSD, depression, anxiety, etc., to “just let it go”, I would be out of a job. I recently learned that people do well if they can. If they cannot, it is not necessarily because they are lazy or just do not care. Do we not realize that if letting go was so easy, more people would have already done it? Some trauma inducing experiences take a lifetime to work through and letting go looks different for you than it does for me. Our society could learn to be more empathetic and gracious with ourselves.
Letting go is a process. Letting go can be painful. Letting go takes work. Letting go is really, really hard.
Why stop saying it? Because it is not empathetic. It is more of a knee jerk reaction than a thoughtful response. It is more like something that just falls carelessly out of our mouths in a stressful situation. Much like a cuss word. Only with a little less thought and perhaps less empathy. We humans have developed short term, non-reconciling phrases like these for moments when the air is thick with awkward tension or sorrow and someone feels the need to say something smart, when it actually sounds stupid and careless. There is certainly a time and a place for when it may be appropriate. But, perhaps, only when we save it for those times when the words hold more power and meaning.
This is a difficult concept for one to consider who appreciates resolution, and the tidy feeling of having all of their thoughts and emotions in order. We have become poor at giving ourselves grace and time to process difficult decisions and painful life experiences.
One of the best things I have heard about empathy comes from author, Brene Brown:
Brene Brown on Empathy
My five year old dropped his cake pop earlier today, after a long exhausting day. No doubt, strong emotion followed. As his father, I had a choice: to act on instinct and say, “Ahh, c’mon! just let it go!”; or, “Hey buddy! It will be okay! I know that really sucks!” While picking him up in my arms. Which do you think will be most effective? The third option, I should mention, is what actually happened which included me picking the dropped morsel off the gravel, blowing the dust off and popping it back in his mouth. We both laughed. Which scenario creates a safe place for him to vent in the future when it is not a cake pop, but something more important? What about his first heartbreak? His first terrible grade? His first time not being invited to the party? What kind of father would I be if I hid behind the facade of “tough guy” by rehearsing, “Just let it go!”? Do I really think I could ever expect him to open up to me in the future if I shut him down in the process of expressing his emotions right now?
When you are at the edge of a cliff and you are hanging on for dear life, hoping that whatever “it” is does not slip from your tight grip, the last thing you want a passer by to say is, “just let it go.”
I believe the process of letting go includes:
The moment one realizes they cannot hang on much longer.
The actual slipping and ripping from a death grip.
The devastation of the loss.
The healing that follows.
Each time frame looks different based upon the person and the circumstances. While there is a certain freedom that can come by letting things go and holding on is no longer an option, we must not allow such dismissive words to ruin the experience. Words are cheap if not accompanied with empathy.
Letting Go May Not Be The Answer. Some things are worth fighting for. I have heard it said that if we are at the end of our rope, we should tie a know and hang on for dear life. I fear the entire concept of letting things go has become such a catchphrase that folks will rush too quickly into letting things go without hanging on and giving it a solid try. Could this possibly be contributing to the vast disconnect in our society? I wonder if one cause of more and more attachment and commitment problems stem from people letting go too soon. As a society, we don’t like to camp out too long in a feeling of the awkward unknown. We want quick results and if things are not going the way we plan, we prefer to “cut bait” before things get too complicated.
If we want to practice empathy, can we please withhold the use of these three rather insulting words from the person who is processing the pending death of a belief, a relationship, a loved one, etc. If anything, we should get on our stomachs to reach over the edge and help hang on to whatever it is they are not quite ready to let go of. When the time is right, we can be there when whatever it is is tragically torn from their grasp. We can console them when they come to the decision to let go on their own. We can embrace them when they process the loss and walk with them as they move forward. We can help bandage the wounds when what feels like flesh is torn from their grip.
But please, for the love of everything, let us stop saying “let it go” so haphazardly. We are more than that. Life and relationships are more than that. Let us not be the people walking by spouting nonsense. Let us be the people declaring hope to the situation and being there when life is torn or nothing else is left to do but to let go. Letting go is certainly therapeutic when the timing is right, but very devastating. We all could benefit from being more gracious and kind to ourselves and one another.
While I work though my present loss, I am so grateful for family and friends who allow me to process my grief. Even if much of what I say is repetitive nonsense. I know that letting go of what was and what I thought would be is something I will need to work through and I appreciate others who believe the same. Simply saying, “Good riddance!”, does nothing for my personal growth. I am grateful for the grace and space offered by those who practice true love and empathy. I have confidence in the process and I know when the time is right, letting go can be one of the most beautiful and rewarding experiences. Perhaps the more difficult the process the more rewarding the outcome.