The difficult part of life is that there are at least equal amounts of losses and gains. We start out this life being inundated with gains. Every year of our childhood is filled with new opportunities, adventures, and dreams. We are growing both intellectually and physically, gaining authority and influence over our world. We are flooded with a life of endless opportunity and boundless gains (if we are lucky). But this world is temporal. Judith Viorst in her book, Necessary Losses, wrote about life being all about loss. Just as the title describes, there are things we must give up; there are things we must lose. Growing from childhood to adulthood we move from fantasy to reality. I am not likely to be a superhero, the president, or a mad scientist. Most of the dreams I had as a child needed to be let go. Viorst puts it this way:
Growing up means letting go of the dearest megalomaniacal dreams of our childhood. Growing up means knowing they can’t be fulfilled. Growing up means gaining the wisdom and skills to get what we want within the limitations imposed by reality—a reality which consists of diminished powers, restricted freedoms and, with the people we love, imperfect connections. A reality built in part, upon the acceptance of our necessary losses.
We must become a people of loss, but that is not the end. It is the capacity to let go that grants us the ability to embrace joy. Without the capacity to let go we will find ourselves clinging to what we cannot have. As a result we cannot embrace what is available around us. The classic example is the individual who obsesses over the one person who didn’t show up to his or her birthday party rather than enjoying those who did. Those who have difficulty letting go are clinging to dead things. I am reminded of the movie Psycho and the many variations on that theme throughout movies and television. The psychotic killer props up the corpse of the mother and continues a relationship long after she has died. In fact, in the killer’s life, she remains central. It’s graphic and disturbing, but we all may find ourselves propping up dead things. Holding on to dreams and relationships that are long gone is much the same. They fill up our world in such a way that we cannot enjoy new dreams and new relationships. Sometimes this manifests itself in a repetitive attempt to recreate an experience from the past- trying to feel like the hero again, continually trying to find a bully to stand up to, or consistently dating the same type of man looking for a different outcome.
The good news is that we don’t need to fear loss. We can let go of dreams, roles, aspects of our identity, and even relationships. There is pain in loss, but there is gain in letting go of what we cannot have in order to gain what we can. In the novel, Let the Great World Spin, there is a line: Good days lay around odd corners. The optimism that lay in loss is that there are new gains around the corner, often very unexpected ones. Joy is all about living in the now, appreciating what is here right now, rather than fretting over what is not. Letting go allows us to be in the present, not tied to the sinking ship of the past.
Over the years I have made great use of psychologist Stephen Mitchell’s analogy of the sandcastle. Life is like building sandcastles. We set out to build our castle, enjoying the labor, enjoying the design, but knowing that at some point it will be washed away. Some build, believing it will last forever and when the waves come, they are devastated. They sit there looking at the pile of sand and refuse to build again- they cannot let go. But those that understand the cycle of loss and gain, build with enthusiasm and let go when it is washed away. They remember the joy of building that castle and they know they can build again. Joy is just that. There is no need to try and rebuild the old castle and no need to sit in its ruins. We build till the waves come and then we build anew.