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How to know what to let go of … and when to let it go

MOTHERLY LOVE
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I need to learn to let go of things that might be good in themselves, but end up getting in the way of greater goods.

My little girl is going through a very tactile phase, and holds on to many things throughout the course of the day. Favorite cups, books and dolls get strewn all over the place – easy come, easy go. One beloved pair of blue plastic sunglasses gets special treatment. They never get put down or forgotten about. If they aren’t on her head or face, they are clasped tightly in her hands, waking and sleeping.

Last night, as I watched her drifting off to asleep, yet again, happily gripping the blue sunglasses, I began to think of all the things that I too persistently hold on to, albeit in a less visible manner. Dreams. Hopes. Fears. As we grow up, we might stop sleeping with our favorite things, but we don’t grow out of holding on to things; we just find other ways to do it.

Sometimes holding on to things can be devastating.

I’ve heard it said that you can catch a monkey by putting a banana into a container and leaving an opening just big enough for the monkey’s hand to fit through. The monkey will reach in, grab the banana and then wind up stuck, unable to fit the banana through the opening, and unwilling to let go of it.

The monkey is trapped, therefore, not so much by a physical reality as by its own refusal to let go.

I feel like that monkey more often than I like to admit – trapped mainly by my own ideas or expectations, fully able to let go, but stubbornly attached to “my banana.” In a wide variety of situations, I need to learn to let go of things that might be good in themselves, but end up getting in the way of greater goods.

This could simply be letting piles of laundry slide in order to have more quality time with family, or postponing an article I hoped to write today until tomorrow, in order to listen to my children talk about bugs and dinosaurs and unicorns, things that might not seem important to me, but are truly deeply important to them.

Or I might need to let go of my own idea of myself and take a risk once in a while instead of holding back – like saying something to comfort or encourage another even when I’m not sure I’m saying exactly the right thing. There are times I’ve been truly amazed at how grateful people have been for small words or gestures in moments when I felt like I was mumbling out nonsense but said something because I wanted them to know that I cared. Those moments of encounter are far more meaningful than my fear of sounding ridiculous.

While there’s a lot of I’ve learned to let go of and am still learning to let go of, I also know that holding onto things isn’t always regrettable. Sometimes, it’s incredibly significant. Holding on to certain goals and dreams can be the difference between dissatisfaction and fulfillment. Memory too is an incredibly powerful way of holding on to things that touches the core of our identity, influencing our own understanding of who we are and where we come from. Holding on through memory preserves experiences in a way that allows us, over time, to draw out the fullness of meaning latent within them.

This is the type of “holding on” we hear of in the Gospel of Luke, which twice speaks of Mary “keeping all these things in her heart”: once when the shepherds visited (Lk 2:19), and again after finding her 12-year-old Son in the Temple (Lk 2:51).

Our Lord, who traveled frequently and “had no place to lay his head” (Mt 8:20), and yet, as the end of his earthly life drew near, found a way to remain fully present with us through the Eucharist, likewise teaches us that there are times to let go and times to hold on.

Giving ourselves the time and space to acknowledge, think and pray about all that we are holding onto can help us recognize what to continue holding, what to let go, and when. In both cases, it reveals us more to ourselves and helps us move forward intentionally rather than reactively.

By the time my mind had wandered this far, my daughter had fallen asleep. She was still holding onto her sunglasses. I was holding onto her hand, something I will both have to let go of, and always hold onto in my heart.

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