Necessary endings

I’ve not always been grateful when people told me that I should really read such-and-such a book. Too often what gripped their interest didn’t grip mine.

So, when my friend Steve recommended Necessary Endings, I thanked him but never got round to buying a copy. Then the book arrived through the post, a gift from Steve. ‘He must really want me to read it!’ I thought. I’m so glad I did. I’d put Necessary Endings high up in the top ten of important books I’ve read in recent years. Much of it is directed to business professionals, yet the insights relate to ordinary life for ordinary people.

Henry Cloud is the author, a clinical psychologist who also wrote Boundaries which is subtitled ‘When to say yes; how to say no’. I needed to read that book 30 years earlier.

Necessary Endings* conveyed a message to me I needed to hear later on.

Cloud sets out his main ideas in the opening pages. Here are some brief quotes:

‘Today may be the enemy of your tomorrow.’

‘In your business and perhaps your life, the tomorrow that you desire and envision may never come to pass if you do not end some things you are doing today.’

‘…you will see that endings are a natural part of the universe, and your life and business must face them, stagnate, or die.’

The principle is simple: To get to the good that’s right for you, you must let go of what you have already.

That immediately reminded me of a critical scene in the 1975 film, The Eiger Sanction, which stars Clint Eastwood. (I won’t give away the story line or ending but will describe a critical scene. Those who think they might still watch the film may prefer to skip beyond this paragraph.) Near the end, the main character, Hemlock, leads the descent of the north face of the Eiger, heading for a tunnel in the mountain. Others fall to their deaths, but Hemlock survives, though left hanging from a rope over a 4000 foot drop. He’s only a few metres from the tunnel ‘window’ and rescuers standing in the tunnel throw Hemlock a rope which he catches. But he’s already held by his own rope. It’s saving him from falling to certain death. Yet he can’t be pulled to safety unless he cuts his rope, the rope which has literally been his lifeline. That’s a huge risk. What will he do?

I’m not answering that question! But the analogy to Cloud’s point is clear. There are moments when the only way to the next good thing is by cutting free from what holds you now.

Cloud develops his theme masterfully through his book. But, for this blog, the comments which follow are mine, because I’m sharing only what I’ve seen or experienced to be true.

What you have will usually feel safer than anything you don’t yet have. We are secure with the present, because we know it. What might happen in the future is unknown, uncertain and therefore unwelcome. But what we have isn’t better just because we have it! Or just because we understand it. I may know exactly why I’ve got a headache, but that doesn’t mean I want to keep it!

Familiarity doesn’t just breed contempt, it breeds complacency. Our self-preservation instincts bias us to stick with what feels safe. Hence, the person considering leaving secure employment to become self-employed will often choose to stay in the job with the regular salary. The ‘run your own business’ dream is at war with the ‘stay safe at all times’ instinct, especially when there’s a mortgage to pay and a family to feed.

But safer isn’t necessarily better. Some years ago a radio programme interviewed women who’d given up lucrative careers to be stay-at-home mums. They were abandoning professional ambitions and a second income in order to spend time with the family. The loss of income forced their families into more modest lifestyles. But the women reported that the overall quality of family life had increased hugely. Everyone was happier, more relaxed, more content. They’d no regrets about the change. The safe choice would have been status quo; but they ended what they had in order to gain something better for themselves and their families.

(By the way, I don’t know why the husbands weren’t those who let go of their careers! Perhaps another programme covered that.)

For others, the decision those women made might have been entirely wrong. My point, though, is that there are criteria other than ‘safeness’ to be considered when deciding between ‘change’ and ‘no change’.

The choice may not be between a ‘bad’ present and a ‘good’ future. Sometimes the present is good and the future looks good, but of course you can only have one. You must decide which.

That’s far from easy. Alison and I faced that situation choosing whether or not to have more children after we already had two. Two was great, a boy and then a girl, the exact family unit described in old-fashioned books. Yet we’d always thought we’d have a third. Hmm…? Inconveniently there’s no middle ground. You can’t have two and a half children, nor ‘return baby to store’ within two weeks if everything doesn’t work out well. A third would be a decision for life. Our family was wonderful with two, but having another would also be wonderful.  We chose to have number three, and we have no regrets. Nor did we regret it when we chose to have number four!

In some of the most practical decisions of life – having children, moving home, changing jobs, buying another car – there are necessary endings. You have to let go of what’s great to gain something else that’s also great. When new opportunities are possible, we have to choose. And that, after all, is a great privilege.

Failing to recognise the time for an ending can be disastrous. We lived in the north of the USA, right alongside Lake Michigan, one of the Great Lakes. Those lakes are massive, almost seas. But there are smaller lakes all over the northern part of America, and in the far north they offer the opportunity for ice fishing.

There’s a Wikipedia page headed Ice Fishing. Here are the opening two sentences:

Ice fishing is the practice of catching fish with lines and fish hooks or spears through an opening in the ice on a frozen body of water. Ice fishers may fish in the open or in heated enclosures, some with bunks and amenities.

That description nicely sums up the sport, but almost underplays it. Use a search engine related to ice fishing, and you’ll find a myriad of special tools for sale: snowmobiles to get far out on the ice; augers to cut the hole in the ice; shelters to keep comfortable while fishing and overnight; super-warm clothing; books that will explain how to do ‘jigging with a spring bobber’. And much, much more.

That wouldn’t be my kind of sport, but if it was, there’s one thing I wouldn’t want to do. I would not want to be camped in the middle of a frozen lake as spring warms the air and melts the ice. The goal of the sport is to fish, not to have the ice beneath your feet collapse consigning you to certain death in super cold water.

There’s a time when something feels exactly right, and a time when the same thing has become seriously wrong. Knowing when an ending has come is essential. My friend wanted just a few more years to build up his business. He knew his health wasn’t great, but he’d stop soon. But his ‘soon’ never came. He died suddenly from a massive heart attack. What had been so right for him had become so wrong. There’s a time to end what we’re doing, and nothing good comes from ignoring that.

Sometimes there’s an ending which is not our decision. Elite sports stars may have to retire years earlier than they expected because of injury. Or firms merge and people are made redundant, perhaps with little chance of employment again in their field. Or someone is fired, deservedly or not. Or a relationship, perhaps a marriage, is ended by the other person’s choice, not ours. Or a talent someone believed would take them to the top proves not quite good enough, and the dream dies.

These situations are all very different. What they have in common are disappointment, sadness, confusion, anxiety, loss of self-esteem, and perhaps false guilt.

There’s a saying that if someone goes through life with no failures, then they didn’t try hard enough. There’s some truth in that. Ambitious people push boundaries, but not all boundaries yield. And not everyone wants to cooperate with our plans. So there will be an ending, with all the grief that brings.

Three short paragraphs of advice.

As best you can, end well. Our instinct is to get angry, and let everyone know how cheated or hurt we feel. But that usually only inflicts damage, much of it damage to ourselves.

Lean on others. The temptation is to keep our hurt secret, a private agony we don’t share. That’s not wise. There are times we need strength beyond our own, our burden shared, but others can’t help if they don’t know. Let them in, and they can listen to our anger or disappointment, reassure us of our worth, and give hope for the future.

There’s a saying that ‘when God closes a door he opens a window’. I’m not a fan of trite sayings. Yet, every ending is a new beginning. There have been things in my life which had to end so God could give me the even better future he had planned for me. When something ends and we let it go, we’re not left with empty hands. God gives us new dreams, new skills, new friends, new ways to be useful and fulfilled. There are good beginnings beyond even the worst endings.

I’m grateful to Henry Cloud for his book, and to my friend Steve for giving me a copy. The simple thesis – that there are ‘necessary endings’ – has become an important truth for me, and hopefully also now for you.

* Dr Henry Cloud, Necessary Endings, 2010, Harper Collins Publishers. It’s easily found online, but be careful not to confuse it with a book with the same title by another author.  Cloud also has his own website: