The Sadness and Promise of Letting Go

Last week I mentioned how one author, Elena Lasida, thinks that the old order of things is dying and a new world of greater interdependence, relationship, and openness is yet to be born. She calls for letting go of what is passing and making place for what is yet to emerge.

At the same time, it seems to me that whenever something is falling away, there is at least a tinge of sadness and even perhaps of grief involved–whether what falls away is an image or symbol, an idea or way of thinking, a relationship, a connection with a group or organization. During this time of pandemic, may things have fallen away, and whether and how they will return is uncertain.

I was very moved to read some years ago author Wayne Muller’s reflection on sadness. He mentions that during a silent retreat he uncovered a deep sadness within himself. At first he considered a possible source. “Where was this sadness coming from? Was it from my childhood? Was it the hurt I had absorbed from all those who had suffered? Was it something larger–was I feeling the pain of the whole world? Perhaps it was all of these, what Buddhists call ‘the tender heart of awakening.’

After a time, however, it seemed important only to acknowledge this deep ache, and to remain in the silence. Then, he says, “I began to sense something beneath even the sorrow. I could feel a place inside, below all my names, my stories, my injuries, my sadness–a place that lived in my breath. I did not know what to call it but it had a voice, a way of speaking to me about what was true, what was right. And along with this voice came a presence, an indescribable sense of well-being that reminded me that whatever pain or sorrow I would be given, there was something inside strong enough to bear the weight of it. It would rise to meet whatever I was given. It would teach me what to do.”

He adds that this inner voice was always there, always a guide to what was right and true, even when unnoticed or unheeded. “Sometimes I barely see it, can’t quite touch it. Then I experience a starry night, a forest after a rain, a loving embrace, a strain of sweet and perfect melody–and that is all it takes to remind me who I am: a spirit, alive, and whole. It helps me remember my nature, hear my name.”

His thoughts echo the often expressed reflection that we are more and deeper than our sadness, losses, pain, mistakes, or wrongs. A simple experience of the natural world, of music, or of a gesture of kindness, can bring us home.

Akin to sadness, and often accompanied by sadness is grief. It occurred to me that grief is not just the experience of loss, but the experience of incompleteness. But it is an incompleteness that is tangibly felt. Every situation and every relationship has within it an element of incompleteness. No matter how fulfilling an experience is, there remains beneath the surface an unstilled longing. This need not be seen as negative, but simply a recognition that new growth, new life is always possible. I recall an occasion where a day was spent in a natural setting around Montmorency Falls near Quebec City. On returning, we listened to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, which seemed to name perfectly that afternoon’s adventure. At the same time as being fully immersed in and present to the music, there was also a sense of its movement, its passing, which meant it would come to an end.

On another more sorrowful occasion, I recall saying goodbye to Mike, my younger brother, at the hospital. I had to tear myself away because of a vivid sense that this was the last time that I would see him. It turned out to be true, and on learning one week later of his death, I had the powerful feeling that there had been an interruption of a conversation that could not be resumed. That has since struck me as a metaphor for grief and perhaps for life: an interrupted conversation. Perhaps it is the feeling of an incompleteness that is rendered permanent, that cannot be taken up again.

I have been struck by how the common practice of a meal following a funeral is in fact an integral part of the ritual. I think that a good ritual is an enactment in brief or in miniature of something that may take years to embody. One dimension is saying goodbye, taking leave of the person who has died. The second dimension, expressed in the shared meal, is the entry into a new life, no longer as the partner or friend of that person. It is the slow, sometimes painful process, of letting go of what has been, and an opening to something different, something new, which at first may seem very daunting, but may turn out to have some very positive dimensions as well.

It seems that life itself is a series of endings and beginnings, even from the time of birth, which ends life in the womb and offers an entry into life in a vast new world. An essential dimension of this process appears to be a letting go of what has been with its seeming securities, and an openness to new ways of feeling, imagining, thinking, acting, and living. Often there is a struggle involved between clinging to what has been and opening to what is emerging, between security and growth.
In this process, often aided by intelligently caring others, it may be a case of letting go of what has been presented from without, and learning to trust what is emerging from within. One personal experience in my twenties was that all I had been taught was not necessarily true or untrue, but had become unreal, and that gut level convictions had to arise from within.

May you learn ever more to trust the process of life unfolding within you and find caring others who support and assist in this process.