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Why Am I Stuck?
But this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.... (Phil 3:13b)
I was determined to get it right this time. As I carried the tiny artificial Christmas tree into the motel room, I realized my work was cut out for me. The space looked drab, lifeless, utilitarian. Maybe David's and Harrison's favorite ornaments, packed away in the boxes I lugged inside, would provide a familiar touch, a heart connection to the poignant past. I had hauled them all the way from Texas to Tennessee in a fervent effort to bring some nostalgic merriment to our Christmas dinner and gift exchange. Come to think of it, it wasn't even Christmas Day yet—that was a full five days ahead. But this was the only time slot that could be wedged into the competing schedules of a divorced family.
It was a far cry from the Currier and Ives celebrations enshrined in my memory. During those early years, our Tennessee home had been the center of yuletide gatherings—neighborhood caroling parties, large family reunions, holiday songfests around the player piano, and always the Christmas Eve family communion service at the church. I was determined to re-create the atmosphere, if not the reality, of those happy holiday occasions, even within the boundaries of shared custody agreements. Eight years before, I had reluctantly given up the marriage. But I refused to give up the memories.
David and Harrison, then twenty-two and seventeen, had become accustomed to the Christmas chaos during the four years since I had moved to Dallas. It had become a frustrating problem in logistics for all of us, but especially for the boys, pulled hither and yon by the needy love of friends and relatives from two families. Though I tried to be especially sensitive to their discomfort, the truth was that I was also one of the needy ones—maybe the most needy. This year it was their father's turn to be with the boys on December 25th, but I told myself that it didn't really matter. I would simply summon extra effort and creativity and invent a festive environment. I could produce it like a play, choreographing every scene. So I purchased the best chicken dinners Colonel Sanders had to offer, placed them on holly-printed paper plates, and lit the candles. Our time together would be a bona fide Merry Christmas, no matter the makeshift location.
Well, this Christmas concoction in the motel suite was anything but merry. Despite everyone's best efforts, the gathering felt contrived, stilted, phony. We hid behind plastic smiles that said, "We're going to pretend this is fun!!" It was as if we were burying—one more time—that recurrent sadness and disappointment and yearning for yuletides past. But deep down the evening felt, at least to me, like just one more thing to get through, another item to check off the holiday list.
Year after year, I had been inventing new activities and trying desperately to follow the advice in the blended family books: "Create new holiday habits!" But my bag of magic tricks was just about empty. I was emotionally exhausted from the effort of producing the perfect substitute Christmas for my children. My stubborn holding-on to unrealistic expectations had me stuck. Something had to change. I had to let go of my illusion that by sheer force of will and creativity, I could make everything okay for my sons, not to mention myself. Little did I realize that my desperation was leading me into unfamiliar territory—the land of letting go. I didn't know what I was in for.
Of course, I thought I already knew what letting go was all about. Hadn't I moved from my Tennessee home and confronted the challenges of urban Texas? Hadn't I shed my persona as small town southern belle and leapt into the big-city milieu of Dallas? I may have been conscious of the external behaviors of letting go, but the unconscious layers underneath—the internal work—was foreign territory to me.
And I was truly stuck, mired in the mud of negativity, looking for a lifeline. So I turned where I had always turned when I was at the end of my rope of independence, when my storehouse of human resourcefulness was bankrupt. I turned to the faith in God that was a part of my very bones and being.
It had been that way for as long as I could remember—all the way back to tortured teen years when I would sneak into the empty church sanctuary in Savannah, Tennessee, and sink to my knees in anguish over a current crisis. I seemed always to be trying to connect the dots between the words in the sermons and the tumult in my life. I wanted the Christian story to make a difference in the way I lived—or else what was the point? The words of Jesus had to have relevance to the day's events; otherwise they seemed like pretty platitudes that were nice to believe but didn't change anything.
How was it possible to be kind to those who excluded me? If I prayed for what I wanted, would God really hear me? Prayer that began as a matter of asking for friends or romance or a college scholarship began evolving into a conversation with a steadfast Friend to whom I poured out my adolescent angst. A part of me knew that there was more to prayer than a laundry list of requests directed to a celestial bell hop, but the mystery of it all confounded me. Even through the doubts about dogma, something hopeful kept persisting. There was an underlying sense of the reality of God in my life that hung on like a dog with a bone—a Love that would not let me go.
As the years passed, life continued to challenge my religious assumptions. And the naive notion that "If you do good, good will come to you" was sorely tested in the crucible of my divorce. I had wanted nothing quite so much as success as a wife and mother, and my husband's unhappiness in our marriage had devastated my self-esteem. I had tried my best and been found wanting. Or at least that's how it felt to me at the time.
Some parts of the Christian message were like balm to my soul during those terrible months, and some most definitely were not. Friends and family, whose loving care literally glued me back together, were the embodiment of God's divine comfort. They prayed for me, ranted with me, cooked and cleaned my house, helped with the care of my boys—a stunned nine-year-old and an angry fourteen-year-old.
But one question—posed by a well-meaning friend—rearranged the pieces of what I thought I believed. With a voice full of sincere concern, she asked me, "Wonder what God is trying to teach you through this?" I wasn't prepared for the rage that erupted inside me. I was forced to confront my own questions about God's role in the tragedies of our lives. I refused to believe that the God who had been my comforter and friend all those years would engineer painful life events to teach me a lesson. That was not a God I wanted to worship.
It would take years to make my peace with the mysterious relationship between divine providence and free will. I literally had to "live into the answer" and to experience first hand that, indeed, "All things work together for good for those who love God...." (Rom 8:28). Not all things are good, but rather all things can work toward good. As I began to redefine my faith—again—another truth emerged. I realized that there would be no end to this "redefining," that we are all works in progress in the hands of a loving and patient God, a God who works through the ups and downs of life, not apart from them.
So, here I was again, five days before Christmas, standing on the threshold of yet another life lesson as my boys and I opened the pretty packages with "oohs" and "aahs" and "thank-you's." My well-maintained façade of perfect survivor was beginning to crumble. As soon as this evening was over, I told myself, I would have to figure it out and fix it.
Later, I tried to attack the problem in my usual methodical way, by setting reachable goals and developing a plan of action. But it seemed that God had deeper work in mind—the stripping away of more layers of my own reliable defense mechanisms. The challenge wasn't just about control of Christmas. Nor was it merely about a mother's desire to protect her children from pain. Just what was I holding on to and why? Did I see myself as a victim? Had that become my identity? What payoff was I getting? If I let go of this fierce protectiveness of the boys, did that mean that I was not the mother who could make it okay, soothe every anxiety, bandage every wound? And—the real clinker—was I ready to face my own unconscious contributions to the breakup of my marriage?
As I was climbing off my high horse of perfectionism, God was loosening the soil of other buried illusions and attitudes. Each question led to a deeper layer, ultimately leading away from the surface events to the very center of myself, forcing me to deal with issues of acceptance, surrender, and authentic trust. I didn't realize that honestly facing those questions would take the rest of my life.
So that night in the Old English Inn off Interstate 40, we gobbled up the fried chicken and politely thanked each other for the gifts. We hugged and called out our "Merry Christmases," but I could already feel the beginning of an inner shift in my soul. Something new was emerging. A freer self was lurking behind all the shoulds and oughts and musts. I began to loosen my grip on the past so that new life could be born—whether in a manger or in a motel.
1. Is there a situation in your life where you feel stuck?
2. What are the signs and symptoms of this kind of inertia?
3. What kind of courage is required to pursue self-reflection?
4. Anais Nin once penned these words: "And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom...." What do you think she meant?
5. When does the risk to remain stuck become more painful than the risk of letting go?
Why Do I Need to Let Go?
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)
I was alarmed at the tone of Aunt Martha's voice on the phone. My cheerful, self-sufficient, eighty-something aunt was the matriarch of the family, a model of independence since being widowed twenty years before. Her usual upbeat demeanor was gone. It was as if her very life had been drained from her.
As I pressed her with more probing questions, she admitted that she had just attended her fourth funeral that week, a memorial service for a Sunday School class member several years her junior. "Guess I'd better find myself some younger friends," she remarked sadly, making a futile attempt at humor.
As I hung up the phone, I realized that her losses were piling up daily. She had been caretaker for her husband until his death, and she nursed my mother, then her mother, then the rest of her siblings. Now her once-full roster of friends had shrunk to just a few, and it seemed their numbers were diminishing daily.
She wasn't simply losing the people in her life; she was losing a way of life. She could no longer drive. She could no longer see well enough to read. She had been forced to give up much of her independence. The loss of her younger self had occasioned a host of issues of letting go, from her eyesight to her waistline to her friendships. How had she learned to cope with the acceleration of losses common to old age? While some folks like Martha seemed somehow to assimilate loss, I knew others who railed against it, becoming continual complainers with shriveling souls.
It brought to my mind another recent conversation—one I overheard between my son and daughter-in-law, both medical internists. They were discussing their aging patients, and one said to the other: "It seems as people age, they divide into two camps—those who decide to keep growing and adapting to change and those who stagnate." Like any good mother-in-law, I butted right into their conversation and asked, "What does that look like? What did you notice about these people? How can you tell the difference?"
And they didn't mince any words. "The first group," they explained, "is characterized by openness to change, curiosity, willingness to ask the tough questions. They allow old patterns to be challenged and their future expands into deeper wisdom and growth. In the second group, the opposite occurs. The future contracts into a rigid and passive existence where old patterns harden, where prejudices and judgments and opinions are set in concrete. They don't know how to let go."
David added, "Oh, you know, Mom. People who say things like 'My mind is made up; don't confuse me with the facts' or 'In my day' as if they have turf to protect or a stubborn need to be right—people who are set in their ways?
Even modern science is attempting to speak to this common dilemma by studying those who grow old in a positive and meaningful way. The traditional medical lens has focused on "fixing it when it's broken." But now, researchers are beginning to look at the aging process through a different lens. What keeps us well? What makes us happy? What keeps us from becoming both bored and boring? What helps us adjust not only to aging but also to life? We're becoming familiar with terms like preventive medicine, holistic health, and the interaction between mind, body, and spirit. With each investigation and discovery, we're reaching a better understanding of the psalmist's words: "... I am fearfully and wonderfully made" (Ps 139:14).
Several years ago, the TV news magazine 20/20 featured a segment on the study of one hundred active centenarians from cultures around the globe. To inspire the rest of us to grow older with zest, the study pinpointed common traits shared by these healthy, productive elders.
It turns out that there was no magic potion. But there were four attributes that all these centenarians shared:
1. a fundamental optimism about people and life in general
2. engagement in some passion (anything from gardening to church work to weaving to teaching)
3. regular physical activity
4. the ability to adapt to loss, to let go
Learning to let go may take a lifetime, but contemporary science says it's worth it. As the habits of this select group of high-functioning adults show, one of the serendipities seems to be the ability to live better and longer. The elderly folks in the study had developed ways to release the old in preparation for receiving the new, entering into a basic rhythm of change that is built into creation.
If God created the world in this fashion, doesn't it make sense to get in sync with that intrinsic pattern? People who do tend to live more robust, productive lives that spill over into the lives of others, creating a kind of happy contagion. If loss and gain are built into the very fabric of creation, then perhaps getting into harmony with that reality is an automatic life-enhancer, a win-win situation. This same dynamic is found in the concept of the "helper's high" where both those who give help and those who receive it are beneficiaries of grace. Dealing creatively with loss somehow puts us in harmony with the grand design of creation.
Look around you. The pattern of loss and gain is everywhere! Winter is followed by spring; night is followed by day; death is followed by resurrection. God created everything from galaxies to trees to human beings with inherent cycles of loss and gain. But unlike trees, we humans have the wonderful and terrible gift of free will. We can choose to cooperate with this natural divine process or we can fight against it. We can spend our whole lives refusing to loosen our grasp. No matter how fervently we pray, God will not arbitrarily take away that which we refuse to release.
We usually think of loss and gain in terms of the tangible: persons when they die or leave, places when we must relocate, or things when we attempt to simplify our lives. But the layers of letting go are much more pervasive than that. We're engulfed in a myriad of intangibles that need releasing. What about our attachment to being right, our illusion that the world should be fair, our unspoken requirement that everyone agree with us? Unless we learn the art of these necessary goodbyes and hellos, we risk remaining stuck in patterns that retard our growth and make us miserable.
Excerpted from How Can I Let Go If I Don't Know I'm Holding On? by LINDA DOUTY. Copyright © 2005 Linda Douty. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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explorefaith.org books: An Introduction
Preface: Connecting the Dots
Part I. Letting Go—Why?
1. Why Am I Stuck?
2. Why Do I Need to Let Go?
3. Why Am I Afraid to Let Go?
4. Letting Go: What It Is and What It Isn't
Part II. Letting Go—of What?
5. Letting Go of People
6. Letting Go of Personas
7. Letting Go of Perspectives
8. Letting Go of Patterns
9. Letting Go of Plans
Part III. Letting Go—How?
Part IV. Am I on the Right Track?
15. Litmus Tests of Letting Go
16. And One More Thing
Part V. Group Guidelines