What happens if I let go?
My Why audio version of this blog available here.
Today’s blog is special, because the subject wasn’t chosen by me. I’ll tell you why.
As most of you know, if you’re regular listeners, I’m not working in paid employment right now. I’m throwing myself into full time work on the podcast, my writing (developing and editing my first novel), and something else I’m developing and excited about - more on that later. Watch this space.
And to be able to do all these things, and because for some reason money is important in this world to stay alive, I set up a Buy Me a Coffee page (www.buymeacoffee.com/thesilentwhy). On this page you can support me and my work by either buying me one, or a few one-off fancy teas (cos I’m not really a coffee drinker) for £3 each, or you can sign up to support me monthly (which you can do from £3 a month up to £40 a month) - the Buy Me a Coffee people then take their share of my hard work - but this helps me cover the costs of running the podcast and allows me to write. That’s the theory and the plan anyway! Now, I’m telling you this for a reason, it’s not just an ad. When you sign up to support me monthly you get various ‘rewards’, and that’s what leads me back to the subject of this blog.
One of these rewards, is that you get to choose a topic for me to write a blog on. And the lovely, Peter Ellis, who is a monthly supporter of my work and former guest on the podcast, is the chooser of today’s subject.
When I asked Peter what he’d like me to write about, he said something he’d struggled with personally was not having children, going through the pain of realising that he wouldn’t have a wife or "proper family" as a gay man, and the loss of the family unit he’d originally assumed he would have one day. And although this grief was something he’d felt for a long time, he was also now feeling the loss of anyone to leave a legacy to. Now, Peter is happily married to Duncan and has a lot of love in his life, but there were still pains of a life that hadn’t turned out in the way he expected, and then to compound that he’d had a stroke just after he retired, taking away physical abilities too, and that’s what he chatted to us on the podcast about.
Obviously, Peter’s story is very different to mine in many ways, and even where we are in similar boats it’s for very different reasons, but there are also a lot of areas in which I empathise with Peter and know the struggle of what he’s been battling through. We share the sadness of having no children of our own, we both have a faith which gets more complex when life takes a lot of unexpected turns, we’ve felt the ‘not quite fitting in’ in church circles because we’re not part of a family structure that most churches (unintentionally perhaps) seem to build themselves around, we’ve both faced health issues that have pushed us beyond frustrated and into ‘Why am I here doing this? Am I strong enough to endure it?’ and we both ponder on, and in many ways mourn, the concept of leaving a legacy in our lives. However, before it all gets too depressing, on the other side, we’re both still fighting, we both desperately want to hang onto hope, and we are both determined to find ways to help others feel less alone in their loss.
When I initially started to think about this subject, and what I could share and draw out of it, it made me realise that Peter and I have faced losses ahead of us - the dreams and life we expected or thought we’d have - and behind us - the potential loss of a legacy to pass down.
Now, I’m also aware that we all have expectations about the future and very rarely does life work out as we hoped. We thought we’d have children but we couldn’t. Some think they’ll never have children but they do. Some really want children but then can’t cope. Some expect their children to live, and they don’t. And a million other scenarios. Large assumptions for humans in general is that we’ll grow up, fall in love, have children, have grandchildren and then die. And if we’re honest, a lot of us would like that to be our lives too, but the problem with those expectations is that they don’t allow for any margin of error or things to go wrong, it doesn’t account for health issues, death, loss, disappointment, crimes, fall out, mistakes, grief, or dairy-free chocolate. And as we know from the podcast cast ‘Shhh happens’.
Then there’s the legacy thing, none of us really know what we’ll leave behind, but I know exactly what Peter means, there are things we want to pass on, to share, that we don’t want to die with us. We’re not talking about money or property, but memories, sentimental objects, stories and our take on the world, which is unique to us. We want to share things with someone else to carry on after we’re gone, in the way parents and grandparents do automatically. Everyone takes something so unique from this world, it’s only natural to want to share it, so it can live beyond us.
And this feels especially painful for a lot of people I’ve spoken to who are childless. Most of us who thought we’d have children but didn’t, already had ideas of how we wanted to parent, what we wanted to teach children, how we wanted to help them become adults. It’s not just parents that have ideas on how to parent. And when you don’t have children there is no outlet for that. There’s no one to tell about what your Grandma used to read to you at night, no one to show how to navigate the world by the wisdom you’ve acquired, no little voices wanting to gradually know more about you as a human as they grow up - no child that will look up at you and say ‘did you really do/love that when you were young?’ And no matter what others may say or think, there is no substitute for this being used elsewhere. Not even on other children in the family. Let’s be honest, at what age did most of us start to take any deep interest or form a connection in the lives of adults around us that weren’t our parents anyway? (and I don’t mean playing games with them or fun based things that kids love in a natural, but more self orientated way). I was probably heading into my mid-teenage years before I started to see and appreciate adults like that.
So as I was thinking about this loss that sits behind us, but also ahead of us, I mentioned it to husband Chris and he said - ‘It’s all about living in tension, I suppose.’ And then I had a image pop into mind.
It was a Judge (that’s their official name apparently), not the ones in courtrooms or on Strictly Come Dancing, but those in a Tug of War match.
Now, Tug of War is one of the most ancient games there is, apparently. It’s been played in some form or another all over the world, and was even an Olympic sport between 1900 and 1920, when London got the gold in 1908. So we’ve probably all seen it or taken part in it at some point. For those of you living in a cave who haven’t come across it, firstly, I’m impressed you found this podcast at all, secondly, I’ll just explain how it works. It’s usually a ‘best of three’ format, where two teams of eight people are pitted against each other at either end of a giant rope. According to the Tug of War Association, ropes should be a minimum circumference of 10 cms and a minimum length of 36 metres - not quite like the washing line from Grandpa’s garden that you probably used. The rope has a red mark in the middle that is held over a centre line marked on the ground. There are two white marks on the rope around 4 metres either side of the red mark, and the aim is to pull your opponent’s white mark on the rope over the centre line for the win.
There’s a man/woman that stands in the middle and they are called the Judge. Their job involves a few things, but the main thing I’m focusing on is the start. The Judge’s role is to make sure the red mark in the middle of the rope is exactly over the centre line marked on the ground before the game can start. He/she issues three/four commands; ‘Pick up the rope!’, ‘Take the strain!’, ‘Steady’ (if the rope needs to be moved slightly or held still), and ‘Pull!’ to start the tug.
The whole point of this game revolves around tension. If there is no tension in the rope it goes slack and it’s impossible for the game to begin. There has to be tension in the rope first.
In life we have to hold many things in tension and we hear it talked about a great deal in many areas. There’s even lots of definitions of the word:
It can mean; ‘the state of being stretched tight’ or ‘mental or emotional strain’ or ‘a feeling of nervousness before an important or difficult event’ or ‘a feeling of fear or anger between two groups of people who do not trust each other’ or ‘to apply force to something, which tends to stretch it’.
I actually spoke about holding things in tension in a lot more detail in my ‘The Season of September’ blog, which you can check out.
The Judge in a Tug of War match has the job of making sure there is tension in the rope and that it begins exactly in the centre of the two teams. And this is the image that struck me when Chris mentioned tension. This is what we are doing when we are navigating the loss and grief that we see ahead with not having children, but also the loss of legacy we leave behind us.
The Judge in the Tug of War match is only supposed to be holding this tension for seconds, or maybe minutes, but then he lets go and the two sides go to war. It would be impossible for him to hold that rope and tension in the centre of the two sides forever. It would physically and mentally wear him out (not to mention the two teams pulling to create the tension).
It strikes me that this is what many of us are trying to do, probably including me and Peter, in whatever situations we find ourselves in the middle of at the moment. Instead of feeling that tension for a short while and then letting go to see where things land, we are trying to hold it together in the middle for years or even decades, scared to let the rope go and watch either our dreams for the future crumple into a heap, or our legacy totally collapse behind us.
I want to firstly point out that there are some things in life that are beautiful in tension, and you will be holding those things too at times, but it’s not the exhausting struggle to hold them like the ones I’m talking about, those feel more like a privilege to experience instead. It’s more of a dance than a tug of war. An example we’ve heard a lot on this podcast is joy and grief, or hope and loss. In Episode 26, Elizabeth Leon spoke of the death of her newborn Trisomy 18 son and the tension of seeing beauty and grief together:
“...we were connected with a birth and bereavement doula… she taught us how to sit with our grief, how to hold the grief so gently that it could still be beautiful.” Elizabeth Leon, Loss 19/101: Loss of a newborn baby
So, there are good ways to feel tension, but if the tension you’re experiencing feels like you are desperately trying to keep the red mark on the rope in the centre, terrified of either side collapsing, and if your calloused hands are exhausted from trying to hold everything together and you’re mentally and physically shattered, then that’s what I’m talking about. And you’ve probably already had the life-defining thought - ‘What happens if I let go?’
Well, I can tell you - if you let go the tug of war starts. The two things you’re holding in tension will fight to survive and one, or both will fall, because that’s the thing about a Tug of War - it’s not possible for it to end in a tie. There is no happy everyone’s-still-standing ending.
So the real question isn’t ‘What happens if I let go?’, but actually ‘What if it all falls down?’
And when these sorts of situations collapse they become real, they become final, and you have to face the situation for what it is.
Thoughts that wrestle around like “I might not have my own children”, “What if I’m childless?”, “What if I don’t have children in my life in any way at all?”, “What if that means I’m worth less than other people?”, etc etc, become the bare, painful statement of - “I won’t ever have my own children”.
After my hysterectomy I knew I could fumble through, ignore and not really think about what just happened or I could sit down and hear the words - 'You will never be pregnant or carry your own child'- and face it for what it was.
And they will be different for everyone. You might hear…
My life isn’t what I thought it would be.
I’m not coping.
I’m not the parent I set out to be.
I’m not good at relationships.
It was my fault.
I won’t ever be able to do that again.
It’s too late.
I can’t fulfil the promise I made.
I’ve done something wrong.
I’m not strong enough.
I can’t do it.
I’m not who I thought I was.
These are tough, hard words to look at and hear, but the alternative is to live trying to move around it, ignore it, fudge it, and just hoping it’s not true while trying to hold it all together, constantly yelling ‘Steady!’.
I guarantee you there will come a point when you have to stop, you’ll be forced to let go and deal with the fall out, and that’s not something you want to be doing on your deathbed, or even worse, not get the opportunity to do at all.
So, you know me (well, maybe you don’t but, let’s pretend you do) I’m not just going to leave you there with that horrible decision, that wouldn’t be much of a ‘thank you’ for Peter, would it?
So let’s see what happens if you let go. If you let go of the rope, watch the tug of war, see both sides fall and take a good look at the reality of your situation, there on the ground, and honestly sit with the truth of it, there will be a few things that happen…
You will see it for what it is. No longer is the ‘hope of children’ or ‘a different life’ pulling against you, full of hopes, expectations, maybe’s and what-if’s - it’s now a defined pile of lost dreams and dashed expectations and muddy maybes. Tension has energy and effort attached to it, take those away and you have no energy, and without energy things die. So what you have before you now is a big fat pile of disappointing reality (bear with me, it does get better!). At this point I’d recommend you name it for what it is. For me that pile would read - 'I will never have my own biological children'. It’s no longer - maybe I’ll find other children to fill the gap, maybe there’ll be other things that fill that hole, I should be grateful for a husband and a safe house, I am more than just…, nope, none of all that pulling and pushing for attention, just the straight fact of truth. I mean you might prefer to name it Fat Stinking Pile of Crap Land, or merely something like Nigel, but that’s not quite as helpful for the next thing that happens.
You will grieve it. You can’t face these piles of things,that you wanted to keep alive, but are now dead, and not grieve the loss. And it’s not fun. It’s not pleasant. You can run from it for as long as you like, but it’ll follow you around and eventually Nigel will find you and you’ll end up crying in supermarket toilet over the price of cheese. It is not fun. It is not pleasant. But, it is brave. It is courageous. And it is good to grieve.
Then, a random amount of time later (we’re all different), you will realise that Nigel doesn’t look so scary. Fat Stinking Pile of Crap Land, is more like just Crap Land, and the statement you came up with feels more true than terrifying. Then, gradually, you will realise that it’s actually a vital part of your story and who you are.
You can go a few ways, this is where good ol’ choice comes in - and, side note, I realise this is not always something you can decide necessarily when there are other factors at play, like mental health, but that aside - You can either know it’s part of your story and wallow in it, or you can look through the remains in the rubble and make something new from it. Find those diamonds in the dirt.
We’ve probably all come across Kintsugi by now, it being so popular in many areas of philosophy, the Japanese art of mending broken pottery with something like gold to make something even more attractive out of it. It treats the broken parts as something we bring beauty from rather than hide away or disguise. And we can choose to reframe our broken dreams, our losses, our pains and our tears into something we are at peace with, can live with and feel proud to have as part of our story.
Letting go of the rope actually allows you to become who you are supposed to be.
Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.
Letting go of the rope frees you to relax.
Letting go of the rope allows you to see situations for what they are and begin the grieving process.
Letting go of the rope allows you to redirect that energy into good things to move forward with, rather than wrestling with what is working against you.
Short-term thinking always tries to avoid the genuine need to suffer the opposites long enough for a third way to emerge.
Letting go of the rope is long-term thinking. And long-term thinking is super hard, but by jove does it pay off.
I’ll be very honest with you - thinking long-term is not fun either. Long-term thinking almost always makes life harder today, in order to have a better tomorrow.
The best example I have of us choosing long-term thinking goes back to a year after we got married. We decided to get a dog for me to practise all my dog training and dog psychology on, and we chose a breed known for its stubborn nature and difficulty to train. For those who aren’t familiar with dog breeds, some need a lot more consistent training and effort than others. You want a reliable, faithful, trusting breed, get a Labrador Retriever, you want something that will always be hard work every day, get a Husky. And there’s a reason you see Labrador’s leading the blind and never Husky’s or Weimaraners!
So short-term thinking with a breed like our dog, Buzz, would have involved the following; let him pull on the lead, let him pee on everything he passes, take him for a walk just once a day, allow him to freak out if we leave him alone, let him have anything to eat at any time, allow him to chew anything he wants to and remove everything else out of his reach, or give him loads of attention and let him on the furniture, there’s more but I won’t bore you with that. Overall, that’s the short-term way of approaching any kind of dog training. It often leaves you with a dog that’s not that easy to live with and causes you more stress than pleasure. There are no quick fixes to behaviour in any animal or human, it takes persistent work, but as we so often see in society, people want a quick fix for these things, they want it both ways; easy short-term thinking, long-term benefits (and this was partly what led to me getting out of dog training).
My approach was that I wanted a dog that trusted me, listened to me, that I had a bond with and that I could feel proud of - so we went down the long-term route. This involved: lead training every single time the lead went on him, walking him 2-3 times a day every day, not allowing him to pee on anything while walking on the lead, give him only dog food at set meal times, teaching him what was ours and what was his so the house could stay as it was unchewed, only give him attention when he was relaxed and chilled to enforce that behaviour, give him boundaries in the house - i.e. not on the furniture, not upstairs, and then train him so separation anxiety was not an option (FYI they don’t freak out because you left, they freak out because you’ve let them be in charge and they’re failing at that if they don’t know where you are - dogs are pack animals, someone is always alpha).
Was this easy to do? No. It was flipping difficult, but we did this every day of his life, because the rewards were what made him one of the most beautiful and stress-relieving things I’ve ever had in my life. Did I always want to stick to it? No. Sometimes I wanted to let him taste other things, or I wanted to get him on the sofa with me, but I knew that although that might serve me and what I wanted in the moment, it only served to confuse and disrupt him.
So instead, giving up what I wanted on those moments when it was hard...
I had a dog that could run, full pelt, carefree off the lead, enjoy himself and come back when he was called, in my opinion one of the greatest things I used to watch him do.
I had a dog that never begged for food and could be around a buffet table at his head height or children and not touch the food (except that one time when he pinched a wheel of cheese and I found him looking at me with his head down holding it, his eyes asking me - 'is there any chance I could eat this?).
I had a dog that when I said ‘Drop it!’ dropped whatever was in his mouth - including a wheel of cheese.
I had a dog that happily waltzed into the vets and let him do whatever he wanted to him, because he trusted me.
I had a dog that could be left with anyone or in kennels and enjoy himself because he wasn’t freaking out about me being out of sight.
I had a dog that had dentals without an anaesthetic because if I asked him to sit still he would.
I had a dog that gave blood to help others because it would sit still if I asked.
I had a dog that didn’t go to the toilet when on the lead because he knew not to, but also went to the toilet on command if I asked him to (thank you Guide Dogs - I pinched that from your training manual).
I had a dog that didn’t chew things in the house, freak out at fireworks, get on the furniture, jump up at people, bite other dogs, and without a gate didn’t go up the stairs in one house and in another house could go anywhere except in our bedroom.
I had a dog that was happy, relaxed and trusting, that I would lie next to and enjoy in the evenings in a way I still miss.
I had a dog that we used to help train other dogs out of their aggression or nerves and that converted even the people most frightened of dogs to like him.
I had a relationship with him that was owner-dog and not owner-let’s-pretend-he’s-a-little-human and it was wonderful.
But only because every single day we chose to keep enforcing his training and routine. There’s a reason Guide Dogs, Therapy Dogs, Working Dogs and dogs with the homeless look like some of the most relaxed and happy animals - they love structure, routine and boundaries. And all of that hard work gave me more pleasure and delight than any of the stressed out owners who lived short-term with their dogs and treated them like humans, that I used to see with behaviour issues at the vets I worked in.
I’m sure there are parents that will say the same about raising children. The daily battles with sleep, food, school, talking back, drama, tantrums, weird conversations, feeling like a constant nag - are all exhausting, but you’re doing it to help them develop into adults that will be able to cope with the world and be enjoyable company for you. That’s long-term thinking. Give a child everything it wants - short-term easier thinking.
Long-term thinking does pay off. But it also, like the quote says, allows another way to emerge. You might think that all the daily hard work, or letting go of the rope and facing your losses, looks like the worst possible thing to do right now, but if you think long-term, other options arise. What if you let go and something incredibly beautiful comes from doing that? You won’t see that if you just stay in the short-term, because in the short-term letting go looks like a lot of facing reality and pain (plus, old Nigel there). But if you think long-term another option emerges, not just that you have to face that pain, but that you might be able to eventually move past it or mould it into something else.
I know some of you are tired, and you want to let go, but you’re scared. And I get that. You don’t want to accept the things that you’ll have to face. No one wants to admit they’re not who they wanted to be, or they’ll have to face something they don’t want to be a part of their life, but it’s becoming apparent to me that if you do face your disappointment, loss, grief, fear, frustration, you might just find that eventually life gets easier than if you continue to hold on and wrestle it.
Some of us think holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it is letting go. Hermann Hesse, German Swiss Poet