The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA
They’re falling all around us. It started slowly, as the cherry trees silently let go of their small, yellow leaves. Then came the sassafras, shyly releasing their leaves to add a light orange tint to the ground. Maples are never shy. They announce their presence with a blaze of bright orange, red, and yellow leaves, and then slowly relinquishing them. It’s as if they are shouting to the world, “Look at me, I’m letting go!”
The oaks? Don’t get me started on oaks. When they let go of their leaves they wait until it’s freezing outside, after turning an ugly brown. And once down, their leaves refuse to decompose. They need the help of rakes and leaf blowers. Still, they let go. They don’t hold onto leaves from the past. They let go so that once winter passes they can start anew.
I’ve often thought that those who are wisest often study nature. Jesus certainly tapped into nature wisdom with his parables, comparing the healthy life with scattered seed, the growth and harvesting of grapes, the growth of a fig tree, the harvesting of wheat, and more. You find similar wisdom in Native American spirituality, Daoism, and Buddhism.
So what can falling leaves teach us? They teach us the importance of letting go. I’ve mentioned this before in previous messages—that a significant barrier to mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual health is holding on to what we need to let go of. We all do it. We have experiences, sometimes horrific, from our past that we ruminate over continually. It can be as terrible as abuse, or as mundane as a demeaning and deflating comment we made to a co-worker years before.
Unfortunately, the longer we cling to detrimental experiences from the past, the more it keeps us from living in the present and growing in the future.
The healthiest people I know are the ones who are more like the cherries and sassafras. They let go of the past quietly and gently. They understand the need to silently forgive others and ourselves on an ongoing basis. They’re the ones who always move forward, even if they’ve been hurt terribly.
Others are more like maples. They know they need to let go, and so they bring others into the process. They find people to talk about it so they can release it. They engage friends, acquaintances, and sometimes enemies, in conversations and even rituals that allow them to let go. They make more of a show of it, but their ability to talk it out and let it go can be quite beautiful and healing.
Some are like oaks. They’ve clung to their pain much longer, and sometimes when they finally do let it go, it’s not always healthy to others. They are like those who seek out therapy. They need help in not only letting go but of making sure that when they do it doesn’t kill all that’s around them. Still, they let go and once they do are prepared to grow even stronger.
Letting go isn’t the same as repressing or denying. Those are unhealthy responses. When we do either we still cling to pain and the struggle. When we repress, we pretend we’re letting go, but really we push the pain down, allowing it to become a sepsis that infects our psyches. When we deny we pretend the pain isn’t there, which spreads rot by doing nothing to heal it. Letting go literally means letting go of what was so that we can be prepared to live for what can be.
At Samaritan we help people let go—let go of pain, trauma, what others have done to us, what we have done to others, events we had no control over, those that we shouldn’t have had control over, and so much more.
Are there simple ways to let go? It’s never simple nor easy, but there are ways, which include self-work, therapy, spiritual direction, and/or coaching.
The first thing to remember is that venting isn’t really letting go. A generation ago therapists thought that venting and letting things out cathartically were keys to relinquishing pain and trauma. Then researchers explored the effectiveness of cathartic therapies and found that those who vent regularly actually imprint the pain deeper into themselves. They might feel temporary relief, but the problems linger longer because the emotional venting makes the pain more visceral. The venter hasn’t actually let the pain go. Instead, the vent becomes like an addiction, causing the person to find more people to vent to. And when they do, they often suck the life out of the other who is stuck listening to an emotional rant. There’s a difference between venting and talking about the pain with a therapist committed to healing. The therapist, by allowing me to talk about my pain in a focused and reflective way, helps me explore alternative ways of recounting and remembering the pain, while helping me adopt new ways of thinking about it so I can move forward.
A second way of letting go is actively looking for ways to understand, and maybe even forgive, the purveyors of our pain. For example, there are things in my life that I still cringe over because I caused pain in another. I can try to repress or deny what I’ve done, but it’s all still there and I still cringe—sometimes obsessively. I’ve found that understanding myself at that age, what my thinking was, how immature and selfish I was, helps me to let go. And what really helps has been times when I’ve gotten in touch with someone from my past and asked for forgiveness. Most of the time, if I’m able to share how immature and self-focused I was, and how sorry I am now, the person does forgive me.
Finally, letting go can simply be a matter of being aware that this pain, experience, memory, or struggle is in the past, and that I need to move toward the future. In these cases, prayer can help. I can’t change what happened, but I can take it to God in prayer and ask God to help me release it so that I can keep it from making my present and future life toxic.
The key is that just as trees are now letting go of what’s dying on their branches, we need to think about how to let go of experiences that are dead and in the past. This creates the soil that eventually can lead to new life for us.