Can’t let it go

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:  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!

Some things can’t be taught

I was listening to a podcast during which the hosts were responding to a listener’s complaint that his doctor lacked compassion. Seems the podcasters also knew compassion-deficient medics. The podcast conversation was about general practitioners (primary care physicians), people we’d expect to communicate care and concern. But apparently these doctors didn’t. And one of the podcasters said she was surprised about that, because, after all, ‘we can teach compassion’.

Really? We can teach the importance of compassion, and perhaps ways in which a doctor can show compassion appropriately. But can we make someone compassionate? Could any content of a lecture result in the uncaring people who walked in, later walking out as caring people? Compassion isn’t an idea or a piece of knowledge. It’s a heart-felt desire to love, support, encourage, sympathise. That’s how it is, not just for doctors but for anyone.

It got me thinking about what else can’t be taught. It wasn’t difficult to come up with a long list. I’ve set down only a few here.

Wisdom  Someone might have a fistful of university degrees, but that’s no guarantee they’ll act wisely. The captain of the Titanic had all the necessary sea-faring qualifications, but on one fateful night lacked the wisdom to take his vessel slowly through iceberg-strewn water. The Titanic was travelling at virtually full speed, leaving only 30 seconds from the sighting of the iceberg to the moment of collision. The captain had knowledge, but on that night lacked wisdom.

Kindness  A couple of years ago I was walking in our local shopping centre, when a female voice with a slightly foreign accent said, ‘Excuse me, didn’t you work in the offices just up the road?’

‘Yes, I did…’ I said hesitantly, turning to see who’d asked the question. I couldn’t place her. I wondered if she’d mistaken me for someone else, but she was right that I used to work in those offices. ‘I’m sorry, I said. ‘I don’t recognise you.’

‘That’s all right, but I recognise you. I worked in the early evenings cleaning the offices, and you often asked me how I was. And listened while I told you. You were kind to me.’

Now I felt slightly guilty, because I still didn’t remember her. But I did speak with the cleaners who came in when others had gone. Their work was important, and they were important. So I enjoyed getting to know them. And, for at least that lady, it had mattered.

But there was not a single class during my theological degrees or business degree on kindness. No-one taught that. Kindness, thoughtfulness, caring and similar qualities should have been talked about, but I suspect they were never on the curriculum for two reasons: a) no-one thought they needed to be taught; b) no-one thought they could be taught.

Spirituality  Now surely that was taught in theological college? I remember lectures on different approaches to spirituality, one of which resulted in the challenge to meditate for as long as we could, with one hour as the minimum. (I did reasonably well for about 30 minutes, after which my mind kept meditating on why the clock wasn’t going round faster. Failed that challenge.) And there was an interesting study on the theme of prayer in Luke’s gospel.

So, we talked about spirituality, but lectures could never make anyone spiritual. Why not? Because true spirituality is practising the presence of God, living close to God, longing to know God and to serve God. It’s the desire for every part of your being to belong to God, and every area of your life dedicated to his purposes. That’ll result in prayer, Bible study, and maybe even meditation, but these are disciplines of spirituality, not spirituality itself.

Someone could sit in classes on spirituality for ten years, and not emerge any closer to God. Spirituality is a thing of the heart, of the mind, of the will, of someone’s desires and motivations and goals. It comes from inside, and can’t be taught from outside.

I could go on with my list. There are plenty more ‘unteachables’: empathy; friendliness; leadership; humility; patience; virtue. And even the supremely important love. If only love could be taught, wouldn’t the world be a much better place? But it can’t, because, like other attitudes and attributes, it lives in the heart and flows out through all that’s said and done.

So, is there no way to help anyone discover and own qualities like these in their lives? It’s not hopeless.

First, some things are caught, even when they can’t be taught.

I was about 20 when I met Paul. He was 25 and married. Paul and his wife were warm-hearted, outgoing, friendly Americans. They’d come to Edinburgh so Paul could study for his PhD in a subject I didn’t really understand, other than it was to do with the New Testament. I had just left full-time journalism, and was studying to pass exams that would get me admitted to university. The long-term goal was to become a minister. Paul and I became friends. Soon I picked up on his passion for study, and in particular for understanding the New Testament. He inspired me to get hold of a book called The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1961 by Stephen Neill. I travelled by bus every day, and read a few pages going out and a few more coming back. Sometimes I read it while walking down the street. Some of it didn’t make sense, but I was hooked. That book, which I still have today, plus Paul’s enthusiasm for New Testament study, gripped me. I passed my exams, and was enrolled at the University of Edinburgh. After a few years I had my Arts degree, then began studying theology. I could have specialised in several areas, but I had only one aim: to do an Honours degree in New Testament. That worked out well, and I was awarded a national scholarship to study for a PhD in (you guessed) New Testament studies.

Paul never told me that I should love studying the New Testament. But his passion became my passion. It communicated. It inspired. It motivated. And therefore changed the direction my studies would take and therefore my life would take. He didn’t teach any goal to me, but I certainly learned one from him.

Second, sometimes coaching gets you where teaching can’t.

I learned to swim when I was about five years old. Who taught me? It would seem my Dad did. But not really. My Dad couldn’t teach me because he couldn’t swim. He understood the basic strokes with arms and feet, but he was hopeless at coordinating his movements and sank like a brick. But Dad wanted me to learn, so he’d take me to the swimming pool and coach me as best he could. Lean forward, arms out front, then pull to the side and push forward again, all while pulling my feet up and out and back. He’d put his hand just under my body, not holding me up but reassuring me that he’d never let me drown. And one day I took off through the water with a near perfect breast stroke, unafraid, somehow having mastered one of those abilities you never lose.

Dad couldn’t teach me, but his coaching and encouragement got me there. I’ve seen that model followed in other areas. It happens in sport when a football team coach, perhaps never the best of players, inspires and guides others to greatness. Or someone helping people become capable public speakers. There’s no formula for that, for each person must find their own ‘voice’ and their own mode of delivery. The good coach doesn’t impose a method, but helps each person become the best they can be by showing them how to apply their own gifts to the task.

Third, each of us can learn by finding our own mentors.

I’ve never had anyone with a defined role in my life of a mentor. But there are people I’ve pummelled with questions, whose example I’ve copied, whose thinking has challenged mine. My pastor friend Peter is one of those. So was Tom, whose life and mine were on parallel tracks through our twenties. He was my confidante, my guide, my companion. Caroline had a passion for mission and a toughness of spirit which motivated and strengthened me in my early days heading up a missionary society. Karen helped me understand and appreciate academic study, and modelled how to motivate as well as educate young adults for Christian service. There are many more, certainly including my scholarly friend Paul I mentioned earlier. (When Alison and I lived in America, we tracked down Paul and his wife and met up with them in Texas. He’s still studying the New Testament and writing books about it. So, still inspiring and challenging me.)

Learning from how others live, from what they think, and from their experience may mean more than anything we’ll learn in a formal classroom. It may not be ‘teaching’ but it’s certainly ‘learning’.

I’ve been immensely privileged with opportunities to study. I would never minimise the benefit of that. But formal learning is not everything. Whether it’s for career, for marriage, for parenting, for being a good citizen, there are qualities and attributes that matter deeply but have to be learned in other ways. In the end those ‘soft skills’ may be the most significant for living a life that fulfils us and serves others.