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The art of letting go

person in field at night letting go

Максим Степаненко / unsplash

Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 01/29/23

It’s as if at birth we take a deep breath and the rest of our days are a breath back out.

There are plenty of folks out there who, with a glint in their eye, proclaim that they don’t care what anybody else thinks. To me, these people are like fairy tale unicorns. How can they even exist, these magical creatures who are so empowered that negative reactions to their actions dissipate so easily?

I certainly know plenty of people who seem far more confident than I am. Negativity and second-guessing don’t slow them down for a second. They are masters at absorbing the worst life throws at them and simultaneously letting it go. Setbacks don’t seem to set them back at all.

I have trouble believing, though, that even these zen-like personality-types have zero difficulty with letting everything go quite so easily. There must linger some internal shred of doubt, even momentarily, even if it only arises much later during a quiet moment.

My thesis is that we all, to some degree or other, have trouble with the art of letting go. By this, I mean that we share the same tendency to clutch too tightly to the wrong things. We waste time and energy caring about that which is unworthy of our attention, or that which we can do nothing about. Instead of letting it go, we focus on it, circle round, forming firm opinions and doubling down endlessly, fretting and worrying.

It’s the human condition — we throw our strength away on trifles, overly fixating on the opinions of others, giving in to anxiety, having trouble focusing on what’s truly valuable. None of us wants to become wrapped up in these unimportant distractions, and yet we still do; we can’t help ourselves.

Getting stuck on the opinion of others

If we can’t let go, we get stuck. There are only so many things in this world that we can fruitfully care about. There’s limited bandwidth, so we need to choose carefully.

For instance, one of my issues is that I care too much about the opinions of others. It tears me up when someone doesn’t like me or speaks negatively of my efforts.

I’ve learned over the years, though, that anything good I’ve managed to accomplish still has detractors. Believe it or not, people will target a parish priest with their negativity. They will become upset with him over literally anything and everything. I even know people who are upset about the growth of their parish because the increased number of children at Mass are too loud. People have quit my parish over words I’ve said from the pulpit. They were true words. I stand behind them and would say them again. But still, it bothers me.

As a writer, I regularly receive snarky feedback to articles I’ve written. I’m learning to let go of the need to be adored by everyone and come to grips with the fact that this world is imperfect and so are we. I cause problems for other people and they cause problems for me. I will have detractors, and while it’s not ideal, I don’t have to dwell on it.

Or, to take another example, I used to become extremely uncomfortable when people would criticize Christianity. I felt I had to argue with them. I couldn’t allow them to have that opinion; I needed to show them how wrong it was.

Looking back, I wonder if my impulse to argue was actually to convince myself, when in fact I was deeply doubtful about my own faith. Now that I’m Catholic, I’ve become confident in my spiritual identity. At the same time, I’ve become comfortable and secure with people who criticize my faith. Because God has given me such a great gift of personal identity, I can let go of defensiveness and meet other people where they are.

The exhale of life

Life, I suppose you could say, is one long letting go. It’s as if, at birth, we take a deep breath and the rest of our days are a breath back out. This emptying of the self is frightening, but in the breath is peace.

There is so much to let go of.

I don’t have to have an opinion about absolutely everything. I can be quiet. Trust other people.

I don’t need to own and experience everything – the vacation you had may never be mine, the life you have isn’t mine, the stuff you have I’ll never own. That’s fine.

I can let go of insecurities, make them visible, and accept who I am.

Letting go doesn’t mean caring less. It means caring more — only now you’re caring about what really matters.

When absolutely everything is of concern, the expectation is that everything will be perfect. But there are many, many aspects of our lives that are out of our control. It’s healthy to acknowledge that and let it go, even if it means not all will be flawless.

Other people make different plans, make mistakes, think differently. Accepting this doesn’t mean you’ve given up; it means that you’ve recognized value outside yourself. I’m constantly surprised how amazing people are when I give them the chance.

We could all stand to care a little bit less so that we can care a little more. I’m actively trying to make more time in my life for friends, family, prayer, and exercise. This is what I want to care more about. It’s time to make space, time to take a deep breath and let it all out.

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