Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
July 2011 - Volume 11, No. 7
Subscribe to this blog

Letting Go

.... one of the secrets of a full life

A year or so ago I came across the phrase: The essence of being human is the ability to disengage (to let go). My first response was predictable, "Shouldn’t it rather be the ability to engage, and what about those things we are committed to holding onto?" I thought of those I know who are struggling to hold onto a relationship, even though the difficulties are tremendous. I thought of marriage vows. I thought of those who parent difficult children. I thought of those unhappy in their work. I also considered the human joy of being fully engaged in work and relationship.

But….but….but….  At the same time I knew deep down that I was resisting something that  needed to be considered.  

Then, as often happens in my life, a particular client situation brought the issue full circle back to me. Her boyfriend had abandoned her just after she underwent a recent surgery. At the moment of great physical and emotional need, he had bailed on her.  

Much to her surprise, after a few months of deep grief, coinciding with sick leave and physical recovery, she met a new friend with great promise, returned to work with a much better work assignment, and enjoyed some remarkable improvements in her family relationships. She asked me how it could be that things keep working out so well. Like most people, when fortune intervenes, she would 'wait for the other shoe to drop.'  

I said, "Because you have learned to let go of so much in your life, being open to a richer life is now more readily available." I listed many of the letting go's I knew of, including a great amount of physical weight. Then I realized my question of a year ago had worked itself through my own psyche to the point where I now could begin to understand the human secret of letting go.  

Then within a single week, other clients were 'letting go' in ways that specifically opened them up to a richer future. Some lesson has definitely come knocking at my own door.   

The animal world by nature knows attachment with a grace and balance. We don’t have that implicit knowledge, which is why many indigenous peoples use Nature as their primary school book. As humans, the path to an inherent grace and balance is through intentional letting go.

“Letting go” is itself an incomplete phrase. It’s deep structure seeks the semantic completion of letting go from, or letting go to. My first response is that we let go from that which impedes life, and we let go to that which affirms life.    

In marriage, for example, one letting go from is assumed in the “forsaking all others” phrase in the vows. The intentional focusing of each becomes free to focus on feeding the specific partner, the relationship and its fruits (i.e. children, etc.). The letting to to opens the promise of a sacred or transcendent function, or simply a well-functioning domestic relationship. When these elements die within a relationship, our culture allows the option to disengage from that which no longer feeds us, which no longer brings us (and others) life. Such decisions themselves involve much suffering - which is why I trust them. Suffering is somehow inherent in the task of letting go. 

There is often the question of “selfishness” in these matters (sometimes translated in the adult world as “self-caring”). There can be a letting go for the sake of the self. Many are dying in relationships or jobs or other circumstances - where the freedom to disengage becomes a gift of life. As we mature, our letting go can become also a letting go of the self for the sake of larger life (or if you’re a Carl Jung fan, for the greater Self). There are many who put their lives on the line every day for the sake of others, or the rest of us. There is the warrior who prepares for battle with the declaration “this is a good day to die.” There is the person finally willing to forgive, to let go the attachment to an injury or violation. It’s not an easy accomplishment, but it opens up life again.

Consider also, that a mature letting go may mean the decision to stay in an unfulfilling place - perhaps the intentional letting go of personal fulfillment.

For many, letting go may involve the feeling of failure. And that can be true. Failure can also evoke shame. However, the experience of failure (or the courage to fail) is also a secret of the full life. In my imagination of a final judgment, if we have no failures to confess, we have ‘failed’ at being fully human.

Letting go may involve hurting others. This again is a necessary burden of our humanity, the avoidance of which can sometimes waste us away at the soul level.

The capstone of life is our death - that letting go at the end. Life is inherently fatal. And human history is filled with accounts of sacrificial dying. In some family systems, I see the death of one member (sometimes even by suicide) as a ‘letting go’ for the sake of life for of the rest of the family. At a deep level, the purpose of death itself is part of a larger hunger for life. The sacrificial gift of death for the sake of life is as old as humanity itself, and has often been the central redemptive act within great literature and religion. Nature knows this implicitly. We learn it by the lessons of letting go.     

Now back to my clients. So often they ask my help to stop patterns of loss and ‘failure’ in their lives. For example, “Can I break this pattern of bad relationships in my life?” “How can I get rid of this anxiety, or these panic attacks?” “How can I shake this depression?” “How can I get back my sex life?”

There’s something about the human secret of letting go, being free to disengage, that lies at the heart of each search for a fuller life. There’s a secret there. Learn to let go and you’ve opened more fully the possibility of Life lived to the fullest. 

Pay attention

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -


In a philosophical moment, I came up with the following five-step argument or progression as to why letting go is so particularly human:  

1)  Meaning: Because we are human, we attach meaning to things.  This is why we know fear, loss, abandonment, betrayal - beyond the experience of the rest of the natural world. 

2)  Suffering: That’s why as humans, when we detach, we often experience suffering. 

3)  Freedom:  Our human destiny to live in freedom now opens wider before us.

4)  Love:  This freedom allows us to know the particularly human experience of mature love (love free of ego attachment).

5)  Life:  Hence the particularly human phenomenon of letting go to live - the secret to living a full life.  

This sequence is not tightly formed, it needs more work, and the definitions of terms can beg many questions.  But it provided me an initial guide for thinking through the central maters of which I have written above.  WKM

Comments (2)

  • Thank you Bill for your thoughts and insights on this topic. As you know I have been dealing with a loss of a relationship for awhile. Although it has been painful at times, I am grateful for the new friendships and possibilities and the time to reconnect with old friends, none of which would have been possible if not for “letting go.” Wishing you well my friend...

    — Leigh Ann, 7/1/2011
  • There is so much in my life that I need to let go of. And just when I think I have have let go of an issue, back up it pops again. Ah, well. Your message is directed at me and I embrace it. I’ll keep working on letting go. Thank you for your perspective. It always helps.

    — Glenda, 7/8/2011

Add a Comment

will be kept private

Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

FREE Monthly Newsletter

Whether you are a client or not, you can always benefit from some free monthly words of wisdom:
Your e-mail address: