I’ve always had a bit of trouble with letting go. Raised by my father to be a “fix-it” type person, I have suffered from a belief that everything can be made right with a little adjustment and ingenuity…including relationships.
But this isn’t always so.
Sometimes you just have to abandon ship and let the old girl sink.
How do you know when it’s time to bail on a marriage, a friendship, perhaps even a parent? Probably when the relationship keeps you awake at least four nights out of the week and your contact with the person gives you a case of the jitters equivalent to five cups of coffee drunk in quick succession or gives you a sudden desire to send your car off a cliff…with yourself in it.
Evolved creatures though we are, we tend to resist change, even if continuing in the same rut feels about as good as ripping a band-aid off a hairy leg 100 times in a row. I should know. I have resisted giving up on people with immense relish over the years.
I think it started with my mother. A highly respected educator, even by me (though I admit I window gazed in her AP English class just to annoy her), she was never particularly skilled at letting me be me. The result has been a decades-long battle of the wills between us that I finally had to just throw into the ditch. Meaning I accepted the fact that my mother would never approve of me no matter what I did. I let go….
The unfortunate thing is it took more than half my life to do it. Wisdom cannot be rushed.
Over the years, I’ve sped up this “process of elimination,” but it’s still been pretty slow. It took me at least five years to finally throw in the towel on an unfulfilling marriage.
The trouble with me (and with a lot of people, I suspect) is that I’m not very good at giving up on people. While in grad school, I taught college English and Humanities and reveled in the adrenaline rush of getting a student who started the semester with solid D’s to writing polished B+ essays. However, when I had to flunk an entire English Comp class of unprepared 18-year-old boys, it frustrated me beyond measure. Why didn’t they give a shit?
The reality is, not everyone gives a shit. And sometimes you just have to accept that and move on.
I’ve played mentor to a few aspiring writers over the years. Sometimes the relationships have been mutually rewarding. Sometimes they have not. It’s the “have not” ones that have kept me up at night. When I have invested months, and sometimes years, of my life in teaching a young person not only how to write in a way that will sell but how to find markets for her work, only to have her turn tail and give up, especially when she has potential and talent, it messes with my head.
It’s like being a parent in some ways. You have to tell yourself, “I’m investing in this person because I believe in her. If she chooses to give up and walk away, it’s her choice.” Too often I have gotten caught up in “fix-it” mode, believing I could make someone believe in herself through my own confidence and will. But it doesn’t always work that way.
Some months ago, I began the process of letting go of an aspiring writer and friend who had given up, convinced after years of being put down by others that she was always being judged even when she wasn’t. It was among the more frustrating experiences of my life, watching someone with loads of potential back herself into a corner and decide, perhaps unconsciously, she was not worthy of great things. Even worse, she blamed me for her retreat.
Being the hardheaded fixer that I am, I persisted in trying to reach out, only to be greeted with hostility.
Eventually, however, I had to do what I did with my disapproving, negative mother, and my toxic spouse…I let go. I said to myself, “Enough is enough. You cannot force someone to live to her full potential. Allow free will, and walk away.”
When I watch friends struggle with this all too common problem with their children, I empathize. I know what it is to want the best for someone you love and to watch that person dig himself or herself into a deep hole. And frequently, as the digger digs, he looks up at you, the self-proclaimed “fixer,” and wishes you’d fall in so he could bury you.
If you haven’t jumped ship by this point, it truly is time to bail and expend your energy where it is wanted or at least accepted.
There is an old Zen proverb, which you’ve probably heard: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” On a couple of occasions, I have thought the student was ready and that I was the teacher.
Sometimes we miscalculate. Sometimes the student is never ready.
When that happens, it really is okay to cut your losses and move on.
I know my mother will never be ready to accept me as I am. I know my ex-husband will never believe in himself as I tried to believe in him. I also know I have had students who don’t want to learn.
In the grand scheme of things, it seems a little whacked to waste energy on negative people. But perhaps it is the stubborn human will to convert the faithless, no matter how hopeless the cases, that drives us.
As for me, I am making a new commitment to watch carefully for the people who would happily suck me into their black holes of anger and resentment and to focus instead on aligning myself with those who are willing to learn…and willing to teach in return. I choose not to waste energy beating half dead horses or worrying too much about their final gasps of air. As Elizabeth Gilbert , author of the popular treatise on finding joy, Eat, Pray, Love, has noted, “As smoking is to the lungs, so is resentment to the soul; even one puff is bad for you.”