I’ve been thinking about how contradictory life can feel, specifically about knowing when to hold on to something and when we should let go. It’s a precarious balancing act, toggling between these two modes– attachment and non-attachment– and knowing how much of each is appropriate, when, where, why, and most importantly, how.
This month I enrolled my youngest child in swim lessons again after taking a break last fall. He can swim, but I want him to do better than can swim. I want him to outswim me. My older children can swim too, but they don’t want to go to lessons anymore. I don’t think they’ve surpassed my swimming abilities, but as a parent I am constantly trying to find that balance between pushing my kids to do certain things, and deciding what to let go. This was one of the things I let go. Still, I worry that I’ve failed them by not pushing harder. I constantly second-guess all of the small and big decisions in this parenting journey, fretting about irreparably damaging their futures.
It is assumed that we have no idea what we are doing with our first child, but I can’t say I felt more enlightened with each successive child. They are all unique with their own interests and strengths and weaknesses, and what works on one doesn’t necessarily work on the others. That is not even taking into account how external factors and the environment constantly change, so from the onset I never had the chance to give each child the same experience. Yet I hold myself up to these impossible expectations and standards.
In all domains of life, I’ve been working on letting go more. I’ve been trying not to cling to those expectations and standards that inevitably drive me crazy.
I have to keep reminding myself that we’re really just bungling our way through this human existence, trying to do our best with what we know at any given moment.
But today’s musings weren’t actually prompted by swim class, but rather by *who* I ran into at swim class, the person no other than the subject of my “Dear Heterosexual Male” essay.
He just rushed right past me, not even acknowledging my existence. Twice. The nerve.
I remember listening to a lecture where we were challenged to think about the ways we inconvenience others. For example, we get mad at rude drivers on the road, but how many times have we cut off another car? It crossed my mind that maybe I should have pursued a friendly exchange instead of waiting for him to exhibit signs of recognition. Maybe I was the problem? I suspect I’m the problem at least the same number of times other people have stuck in my craw.
But having been on the receiving end of this individual’s unsavory behavior only a few months ago– back when he still knew my name and how to text me– I guess I was silly enough to expect an innocent wave, maybe a “Hi, how are you?” to try and smooth out the past transgressions.
At the very least not hurrying past me like I had grown contagious spots during quarantine.
I guess I’m extra sensitive about the subject since I still grapple with a feeling that the universe has exiled me to die alone after my husband’s death. Almost exactly five years since his passing, it is difficult to believe I’m wrong.
But this isn’t really about the gutless dad at swim school.
This is always about my expectations and navigating a universe full of innumerable moving parts that often don’t align.
I struggle with not feeling like I did something to deserve being what I perceive to be shunned or rejected. It’s difficult for me not to take things personally or read more into a situation.
The answer, I think, is non-attachment. Letting things go. Not getting too rooted in any one reality.
And this is where the contradictions and confusion come in, because other times sticking with something pays off. To me, this business of knowing when to let go and when to hang on is all one big gamble, and I’m not a gambling person.
Holding on to the things that bother us–ruminating in our unsatisfactoriness– leads to resentment. Resentment brings out our bad behavior, making us reactive and mean and unhappy. We want to dissect why and how something went wrong, but it’s all a guessing game. We can’t get into other people’s minds or file our grievances with the universe, expecting explanations and resolutions every time we feel wronged. Our ruminating drags out the unsatisfactoriness in life, making us more frustrated and resentful. We get stuck in an endless loop of suffering until we let it all go.
According to a Yale study, women apparently ruminate more than men. This explains a lot of the disconnect between men and women. Ruminators want answers. They want to know why something played out the way it did, rather than focusing on the feelings caused by the situation. There is thought that shame plays a role. I’ve been thinking about how I can change what I focus on. When I find myself dwelling on a situation, I need to not text my sister hypothesizing about someone else’s behavior, but rather think about how the situation made me feel– unwanted and undeserving– and then let it go. It happened, but it doesn’t deserve to rent free space in my head.
Ruminating– dwelling on the details of how something transpired– causes us to temporarily withdraw from reality. Our thoughts spin out of control weaving theories and we become absorbed in that narrative.
This is why non-attachment is so important.
I started to research the idea of no-self. We create these realities in our head– these versions of ourselves– intricate storylines about the way life is according to us. Yet that’s not the storyline in someone else’s head. One has to conclude that reality is subjective. We can’t even be sure what the real storyline is in our own heads, how can we begin to know for others?
Chris Niebauer said, “The trick is to become less identified with your thoughts, to not take them so seriously, to see them as ‘happenings’ rather than ‘the way things are.’”
Avoiding getting caught in any one narrative. There is no singular narrative; the ones plaguing you today will not be here tomorrow. It’s all impermanent. Reality. Perceptions. Feelings. Something happened, but that isn’t the end of the story. The story goes on. It evolves.
I was annoyed by the swim school encounter. But when I stepped back, it really didn’t mean anything. It was merely a symptom of an old narrative I spun for myself five years ago– the one of hopelessness. The other individual’s motives and actions are their own and not for me to decipher. Sometimes when I feel myself becoming angry or jealous, I ask myself “Would I trade places?” “Would I want that?” If the answer is no, then I know my feelings are just getting the better of me, and they will pass. Identifying that my feelings are making me irrational is more than half the battle.
I found this quote by Nikita Gill: “Please stop destroying what is left of your heart by constantly thinking about the things that have broken you.”
And this gem from Jean-Paul Sartre, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”
It’s hard not to want to go back over the details and figure out why, to not yearn for happier endings and easier journeys.
Why you didn’t get the job.
Why the relationship didn’t work.
Why life handed you these cards.
Why did this or that happen to me?
Maybe in these moments, we step back and acknowledge that nothing lasts forever, not our discontent, and even our desires. Life is constantly shifting and transforming in ways beyond our wildest dreams.
We want predictability and assurances, but the reality is life, by nature, is a lot of unpredictability and randomness. We’re simply not going to get an explanation for everything that happens, every disappointment, debacle, mistake, tragedy, and so forth. It’s just not going to happen.
We have to let go.
There’s that famous quote by Osho: “Let it all go. See what stays.”
Recently, I went to a wedding for a friend who I have been friends with since we were 15/16 years old. I do not go anywhere during this pandemic, but since we’ve been friends since the dorkiest days of our lives– through the ups and downs of jobs and relationships and geographical distance– missing this milestone didn’t seem like an option. I’ve been to plenty of weddings, and I really don’t care one way or another about people getting married. I don’t particularly enjoy weddings. But as we get older, it feels increasingly difficult to keep people in our lives for the long run. Even our family thins out. So, to be able to watch a friend of several decades celebrate a happy moment — to be a witness to that– was really an honor. It made me think about all of the challenges we experience before getting to these oases of joy in our journeys. Watching other people’s journeys is a reminder to myself that circumstances don’t last forever, and that unfolds in front of us. My oasis of joy is just around the corner.
One show I like to watch is Guy’s Grocery Challenge, especially the part where they race to shop for ingredients. It reminds me of those old grocery challenge shows that were on TV when I was a child. Basically the contestants are professional chefs, and they have a certain amount of time to shop for ingredients and then cook a meal that fits within a theme revealed to them right at that moment. They have to think on the fly. If they spend too much time dithering over the constraints of the challenge, or taking too much time searching for what they need in the aisles of the store, then chefs end up having less time in the kitchen and are not able to prepare a competitive meal.
This is life though, right? We want to dither and second-guess when we should dive in feet first and apply what we know. We need to embrace that life is trial and error and be satisfied with doing the best we can. When we live fully and authentically, then we can avoid feeling regret over narratives that never existed, because we were too busy enjoying the one we were actually in.
This is what I think of when I contemplate letting go. It is the opposite of ruminating. It is the rejection of being pigeon-holed into any one way of being. And because you reject it from the beginning, you don’t waste your time being attached to any one version of life. You are free.
If ruminating has us repeating what caused us suffering over and over again, then maybe the antidote is repeating what causes us joy.
What brings us happiness. What we are thankful for. What is going right in our lives. Gratitude is widely touted as being good for our mental health. It forces us to use positive repetition in our brains, improving our mood and happiness. Gratitude literally activates neural circuits, increasing dopamine and serotonin in our brains, which has a similar effect as many antidepressants.
As a person naturally prone to rumination and a bit of anxiety, I’ve been trying to do more of this. The more I learn about no-self, the more I take control of my narrative by not subscribing to any one concept of who I should be. I’m trying to be grateful for what is, and hopeful about what can be. I’m trying to take ownership over what I have to work with– my right now.
“Gratitude makes sense of your past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” -Melody Beattie
Thank you, Swim Dad, and everyone and everything I’ve encountered so far on this journey. Thank you for teaching me patience and knowing what I want and don’t want. Thank you for helping me find my most authentic life.