A news podcast I listen to ends one session each week asking presenters: Is there one thing from this week which you can’t let go? What is there that you can’t stop thinking about, perhaps could never forget? The answers they give are mostly light-hearted, but sometimes about something really significant. It’s fascinating. [Info on the podcast at the end]
So, to borrow their question, what can’t you let go? Don’t restrict your answer to just this last week. Think about things you’ve acquired but can’t part with. It might be a love letter! Or recall an event which was truly wonderful. Or maybe you trekked the Sahara and climbed Everest. Or experienced something so sad it’s darkened life ever since.
I’ll suggest some kinds of things which I’ve found people can’t let go. I’ll begin with the easiest to describe.
Can’t let go of things
I’m not the best but far from the worst about keeping ‘stuff’ I don’t need any more. But I do have a lot of possessions. I left home as a teenager with everything in a small suitcase; I shudder to think how many suitcases I’d need now for all I have.
I have no keepsakes that date from my youngest years, but I do still have the watch my parents gave me just before I left home. I’d never owned a watch but now I was 16 and heading off to work in Edinburgh. So Dad took me to the only place in town that sold watches, a tiny jeweller’s shop. There was a choice of about three, and I took the one with a grey strap and a straightforward watch face. As you’ll see from the photo, it was worn for years. It was a wind-up watch, of course, and the innards seized up a long time ago. Why do I still have the watch? Two things make it significant and memorable: it was a gift from my mum and dad, and I was given it just as I left home. So I’ve kept it.
But some folks seem to have the philosophy ‘everything we get we keep’. They let go of next to nothing. I visited one home where, once through the front door, I had to edge my way between mountains of stuff – broken appliances, stacks and stacks of papers, rails filled with old clothing, hundreds of books and magazines. I was invited to sit down. I couldn’t see where, but then my host cleared some heaps and revealed a chair. This wasn’t the only home I’ve visited like that. I can’t imagine what it was like to live there, or how great the fire risk was.
I’ve also seen overflowing work offices. I called on one senior official who had completely filled his private office with paperwork, so we met in his second office which was almost submerged as well. Apparently he was negotiating for a third office. I think it was Dale Carnegie who said a CEO offered to pay him any amount for advice on how to clear his clutter. He too had filled more than one office with ‘stuff’. Carnegie gave him just one bit of advice: pick up a piece of paper and don’t put it down again until you have done something final with it (like writing a reply or throwing it in the bin). In other words, do something that means you’ll never see that paper again. The executive called him just two weeks later. He’d done exactly what he was told, and he’d already cleared several desks of everything on them, and found two typewriters that had been missing for years.
The presenters of ‘de-clutter your home’ TV programmes often say the problem people have with parting with things is emotional. Memories are attached to everything they’ve acquired. I can only respond this way: the cost of keeping is higher than the cost of parting; parting is brief pain but keeping is pain that lasts for years.
Can’t let it go? Yes you can.
Undone and unfinished things
I studied bereavement counselling while preparing to be a pastor. I was told that, as well as grief, the most common emotion felt by bereaved relatives is guilt. Guilt – because of visits not made. Guilt- because of harsh words spoken in the last conversation. Guilt – because ‘I love you’ hadn’t been said for years. Guilt – because an argument that divided the family 20 years earlier hadn’t been resolved. When it’s too late to put things right, guilt is hard to let go.
The same is true for people who missed an opportunity which never came again. Perhaps a relationship was so special it would surely lead to marriage, but no proposal was made and the couple drifted apart. But one of them can’t let go of what might have been.
Or a missed opportunity at work. A big promotion is offered, but means moving to an overseas location. That would disrupt the family, involve learning a new language, and demand working all hours. So the promotion is turned down. But the firm is unforgiving. No other promotions are offered and as year after year of mundane work goes past, it’s hard not to think ‘If only…’.
Others have missed the chance to upgrade their skills. Martin’s employer was willing to let him study part-time for a PhD. With that qualification, he’d be on track for a top position. Martin began his studies, made good progress, but after two years got involved in significant work projects, family needs, hobbies and outdoor activities. With just one more year before getting his PhD, he paused. And he never finished. Every year since, Martin couldn’t let go of disappointment he hadn’t completed his PhD degree.
‘There is a time for everything…’ says the writer of Ecclesiastes (ch. 3:1). We mustn’t miss that time.
Everyone fails. But some failures stay with us more than others.
That’s especially true when we’ve betrayed a relationship. Cheating on a marriage is an obvious example. ‘How could I do that?’ is the lingering question.
Letting a friend down is also damaging. Imagine sympathising with a colleague who has been harassed by a fellow-worker, promising that if she complains about her harassment to the boss, you’ll support her because you’ve been harassed too. Your colleague lodges her complaint, the boss isn’t sympathetic, so now you keep quiet about your experience. Your friend feels abandoned and isolated. She resigns. You feel terrible. You let her down, and ever since you can’t let go of the fact that you failed her.
Or you promised to be with a friend at a special event – his wedding, or graduation, or a family funeral – but at the last moment someone gave you a ticket for a great seat to watch a top-level football match. You couldn’t miss the chance – you had to go to the match. But your friend never understood. You’d promised to be with him, and you abandoned him for a football match! He is hurt dreadfully, and you realise you’ve made an appalling mistake. You feel dreadful, and you can’t let that feeling go.
Choices have consequences, and those consequences can last a long time.
The good things
Usually negative experiences linger longer than positives in our minds. But, thankfully, the good things are sometimes the ones which we can’t let go. Wonderful times which we’ll never forget.
I’ll supply only one experience, though it happened four times. I’ll never let go of the immense privilege and joy at watching each of my four children come into the world. Men have it easy at childbirth. Alison took all the pain and did all the hard work while I just held her hand and said encouraging words. Then, after each of the children arrived safely, I proudly held them in my arms. I could never let go of that experience. (It’s mirrored these days with the joy of seeing how their lives have developed.)
That’s not an experience everyone has. But almost everyone has something or many things for which they’re immensely grateful. They’d never have wanted that part of their lives to have been any different. So they could never let go of those moments. We should all be grateful for them.
But, in closing, how do we let go of the bad or sad memories? I could write about counselling, about finding forgiveness, or about making a firm decision not to dwell on these times. All three of those would be appropriate.
However, on this occasion I’ll end by saying we can’t let go of certain experiences and, in one sense, we shouldn’t let go of them. Why? Because these things have shaped the person we are today. Because we got things wrong or because we went through dark times we’ve been changed. Perhaps we’re determined never to do something again, never to let down a friend, never to fail a colleague in their time of need. Or, because we’ve survived we’re stronger, and we’re more understanding when others face horrible tragedies. We can’t turn the bad thing of the past into a good thing, but we can transform its effects into something useful, something that makes us better, more careful, more considerate, and more resilient than we would otherwise have been.
So, what you can’t let go needs to become what you can’t do without to be the person you are now, or the one you are on the way to becoming. I realise that’s easy to write and hard to do, so my thoughts and prayers are with all who keep struggling.
Note 1 My apologies that this blog is posted later than I’d imagined. I anticipated a delay, but not for this long. I doubt if the gap has broken anyone’s heart, but I am sorry and hope pauses won’t happen often.
Note 2 The podcast I described is the NPR Politics Podcast: https://www.npr.org/podcasts/510310/npr-politics-podcast It’s refreshingly unbiased, serious but never boring. To hear the ‘can’t let go’ segment you need to listen to the Friday edition where they sum up the week’s news and then use the last five minutes to describe what they ‘can’t let go’ from that week’s news, whether it’s about politics or anything else. Enjoy!