I always thought that the verse in Ecclesiastes 3:6 “A time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away.” was grounded in reality, but frankly it did not give me much guidance for how to “let go”, especially when the stakes were high, such as in the loss of a job.
Now as an older adult, the theme of “letting go” sometimes seems like the elevator music of our lives. We say good-bye to our friends, to our homes and to our health. When people ask what we do, the “used-to-bes” are not only distressing, but boring to boot. There are wonderful public writers who tell us how physicians have trouble letting go of those of us who are failing. There are experts who tell us how best to handle letting go of our lovable pets when age takes them from us.
But there is a more subtle yet distressing change for all of us older folks that seems to unravel over time; our sense of who we are – our identity. I don’t argue that this is the most important change in our evolving lives, but neither do I want to argue that we should just, “get over it”.
It isn’t really just the loss of our daily work when we retire that is at the root of this letting go. We older adults have been through many losses by the time we retire. We have waved good-by to our kids as they have gone through our front door for the last time as their permanent port in the storm. We have watched moving vans take our “memoried lives” away from the street where we lived. We have heard the voices of people we loved for the last time as they left this place with us on earth.
A woman, Geeg, who just completed a course my colleague, Howard Thorsheim, and I taught, “Gratitude and Belief: Noticing the Whole Picture” asked us recently, “Could a course on Gratitude be a ‘jumping off place’ for a course on “Letting Go”? -- a course that asks, “How does one sort through and decide what to let go and what to keep?”
As I started to think about Geeg’s question, it overwhelmed me; how does one start a course discussing the pain of people letting go of their disappearing church that has been their lifeline to both heaven and earth. How does one talk with an older person about getting over the loss of freedom and contribution when he or she can no longer drive and thus can no longer easily help friends or volunteer to assist at the church meals for the poor? How does one help a person grapple with their own disappearing selves when nobody ever talks about some competency or quality of theirs?
Then two things came together. First was the recognition that the pain we feel from our “good-by saying” has specific changes associated with them. For instance, the understanding that for men as they retire, one thing that happens is that people tend to no longer “express esteem or respect for a competency or personal quality of theirs” came from Howard’s and my research with 3,000 people in church congregations. Second, Geeg wasn’t in fact asking us to start with the pain, she was asking if we could start with the gratitude. So, for instance, rather than lament the lack of comments about our ability to produce flawless accounting sheets, or the loss of twice being called the best-ever fourth grade teacher, why not start with celebrating those times when “we were somebody” whether that somebody was a mother running a household, or a plumber saving the day for people whose houses were flooding.
Or rather than lament the feelings of absence one gets from a half-filled church, let’s turn our changing church into new possibilities for seeing God. Let’s find and celebrate the “good” that still flourishes at church on a daily basis. Let’s share stories about the positive influence our church has on so many people, including those who have been children in our Sunday Schools and have become solid citizens and even leaders in the community.
But… importantly, such celebrations are not suggested as being like the ornate glass vase we receive when we retired that symbolized the culmination of one’s useful life. We suggest that the celebration of lives be a time of looking together at possibilities for noticing new ways of being (who we are).
The key, of course, is “taking small steps together”, so that stories shared among all of us are not only an inspiration but like candy jars full of hope as well. If, over time, we can learn to listen to each other with open ears, we will hear the whole story of the joys as well as the pain that were always a part of our life; then and now. In doing so we may begin to see that the joys of life still abound. If we truly believe that we will “find the good” right here, all around us, right now, then we will indeed “see the good” and that truth will set us free. (John 8:32!)
PS An important collaborator on this vision of turning our fears of change into an ally is Geeg, an insightful student from our Gratitude class. In response to this “Letting Go” piece, she writes:
“As I write these words I am thinking to myself....if I truly am going to practice my Christianity then I have to GO WITH [my thoughts about letting go]. Easy to do sitting at the computer writing.....hard to do when life throws a curve ball. Oh boy....…letting go of good stuff is so hard. It feels like there will never be good stuff again. Feeling gratitude becomes HARD WORK at a time when one is weak, tired, unfocused/ redirected and not up to HARD WORK. So, like we talked about in class, maybe the work won't be so hard if the practice has been honed earlier; A jumping off place. Maybe the work wouldn't be so hard if it was practiced and supported earlier with someone else on a regular basis (kind of like working out); Heck, maybe if at the bottom of every prescription there were the words "Take 2x daily with meals and 3 gratitudes"! Maybe the challenge is to kind of do a “Gratitude Find Waldo” in every maze and detour of life events. Easy for me sitting at a computer tapping away at the keys.....hard to do out there in the rest of the hours of the day. Guess our faith allows for that though.......practice not perfection. Don't Should On Myself. Let Go---Let God.
The words from DeWitt Jones’ video, “Celebrate What’s Right With The World” that we showed in class, come to mind, " One never knows where it's all going to go....we just have to do it and trust".Geeg