Letting Go of What We Don’t Have

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Oh, letting go.  Every so often a minister has to preach on something that is absolutely not a personal strength.  And this is one of those times.  I’m not a letter-go, I’m an attacher and a holder-on.  I hold onto people I love and relationships.  I hold onto to souvenirs and mementos.  I hang onto things from my parents or grandparents, even when I have no place to put them.  I hold onto and reread beloved books – some I have read 10 times, maybe 20 times.  I have transplanted plants from one house’s garden to another, clung like a vine to bad boyfriends and outworn securities, cherished broken knickknacks and topless treasure boxes and coverless books, sometimes even books with pages that keep falling out.  When I grew up I put away some of my childish things, but plenty of them are in bags and boxes rather than gone, and some are front and center on shelves in my office, even ridiculous things like a plastic Bambi from an ancient Happy Meal.

But the title of this sermon is Letting Go of What We Don’t Have, and you may have noticed that in my list of what I’ve held on to in my life were indeed things I’d already lost yet still couldn’t let go of.  You may have noticed I mentioned transplanted plants – obviously the plant was a symbol for a whole home that was lost and hard to let go of.  I held onto the friendship of a good friend from college long after it was obvious that she wasn’t a friend I could depend on.  I held onto illusions of people I loved because it was painful to acknowledge their flaws and failures.

So it’s easy to identify with the 20th c. American poet Elizabeth Bishop in her poem One Art.  Beyond any issues of schedule and responsibility most of us are not wrecked by losing small things.  It happens.  We can deal.  We can even deal with losing large things, when we lose them because we have to make a choice, even a difficult choice. It’s not easy, but we manage.

The really hard letting go is the letting go that isn’t a choice.  We’ve simply lost something, someone, we loved, usually against our will, and now we have to let it, let them go.

Perhaps we would all like to be like the woman from Grand Central station in Jane Rzepka’s reflection.  Can’t you just see her?  Well-turned out, ready for anything.  And then – her glove, unreachable.  Hers is such a great gesture – and it is cavalier, isn’t it?  A moment, a realization, a shrug, a toss, a gift to some stranger who will find these lovely gloves – somehow they are always lovely in my imagining, look around, shrug themselves, and take them home for themselves or someone else.  Maybe they’ll tell the story: “I found these gloves, just lying on the seat, like someone put them there.”  Or wait, think about it, subway cars are never empty.  Someone was probably facing the door, maybe sitting near the seat with the single glove.  They saw the moment unfold, saw her fling the other glove into the car.  Maybe looked at her, took the gloves, raised them in a salute, and then the train slid away and the woman turned away and the day moved on.

Her shrug is key to this parable.  She doesn’t stand there frozen in dismay or indecision.  She reads the loss for what it is and in a single gesture, accepts it, deals with it, and moves on.  The shrug represents all that.  But also, a shrug is unrealistic for a lot of us in our letting-go situations, and even, I think, unnecessary.  She is, after all, only letting go of a glove and it’s a metaphor but not an on-par example of the kind of things we have to work to let go of.

Another difference is that in the story, it’s immediately obvious she’s going to have to let go of a glove – it’s her decision to let go of the other glove that holds the surprise.  In real life, it’s not always easy to know when we need to let go.  But there are often signals.  One signal that we may need to let go is that we actually find ourselves wondering if it’s time to let go.  Some part of us knows, because if we’re wondering at all … well then it’s time to at least start thinking about whether we need to let go of this thing, this hope, this person, this experience we’ve lost or maybe never had.  This isn’t to say we always need to let go – some of our best blessings come only through persistence.  But no one’s life ever goes just as we would wish and for most of us letting go takes a lot more than a shrug.  Letting go is often hard work, but the shrug still applies because it also conveys acceptance, dealing with it, moving on –  and those three elements are all always part of letting go.

What does the work of letting go look like?  It has as many forms as we can imagine.

It looks like thinking about things we’d rather duck.  It looks like imagining the future with the reality we need to accept, the letting go we need to do, and allowing ourselves anticipate what things will be like, what we will be like, when we have let go.

It looks like letting in wisdom that may be coming to us from others about what or who we need to let go.

It looks like dealing with the details: objects, mementos, situations that keep us hanging on to what we don’t really have.

It looks like letting those who love us know how hard this is for us, letting them help us when they can, letting them help us while we are doing what we need to do and after we’ve done it.

It may involve other tasks – writing a letter, or making a phone call or a visit.  It may require a trip to the dump or a visit from the Purple Heart organization that picks up old clothing and household items.  It might mean a garage sale or a gift to a neighbor.

It might mean not doing something: leaving an email or a letter unanswered, a phone call or a visit unreturned.  It might mean writing something on a piece of paper, screwing it up (a metaphor?) tightly and sending that piece of paper down a stream, or tying it to a tree with a piece of thread, or making a confession to a family member or friend.  Just one letting go may take a number of different forms, all of them important:  it may require a poem or a song, your own expression of the pain that Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art reminds us is always part of losing and letting go.

But those are all the tasks of letting go under any circumstances, aren’t they?  There is a quality particular only to letting go of what we don’t have, and that is that the work is uniquely ours.  If someone we care about dies, then the work of loss and letting go belongs to us and everyone else who cared about that person.  But if we don’t do the work of loss then, while the loss is shared, eventually the work is our alone to finish.  If we are hanging onto something others don’t even know about, then the work is ours alone – perhaps even a secret we keep as part of our hanging on.  If we have an alternative reality long-cherished, then it is surely on us to let go of that reality when the time comes, and that will be work that no one can help us with.

And the truth is that the work of letting go is never truly done.  Things happen and we are reminded of what we let go, and we need to do it, again, to reaffirm our decisions, our choices, the path we’ve taken and the realities we’ve dealt with.

And when we do our work of letting go, and when we repeat that work, there are always grounds for gratitude. In fact gratitude is critical;  I don’t believe the work of letting go is possible without it.  Because usually when we’re stuck about what we don’t even have, it’s because whatever that object, that person, that circumstance, that yearning is, it has become so big to us that it gets in the way of our ability to appreciate the other things.

Even when we are struggling with really big things, we always have really big gifts to help us.  People who care about us or opportunities to do meaningful work or a safe home or a strong faith community or beauty around us or beauty within us.  Hope for new good things in our lives.  And more gifts in each of your lives that I can’t begin to know.  Those good things are important to value, they deserve our appreciation, the things and people we can lean into in the hard times, including the hard time of letting go.

In the end I love Jane Rzepka’s story about the woman in the train station because of what it represents – the acceptance of letting go, the ability to do it so cleanly and even with flair.  Letting go doesn’t actually require flair, but it does require doing.  And while it’s so often work, painful work, “(write it!)” it’s also work that frees us and keeps us grounded in reality and those are two precious gifts for living life.  To be free and to be real – these are so important.  We all have something to let go of, to free ourselves for all the good around us and before us.    Knowing that we have goodness around us and before us, freedom and the end of this dreary slog of holding on to something we don’t have, all that can give us hope and strength to do it.

The art of losing, the flung glove – we may do it with flair or without, it will almost certainly be work, but let not one of us doubt that we can do it, and we can let ourselves bear knowing when the time has come.  Amen.


Letting Go

To “let go” does not mean to stop caring, it means I can’t do it for someone else.

To “let go” is not to cut myself off, it is the realization that I can’t control another.

To “let go” is not to enable, but to allow learning from natural consequences.

To “let go” is to admit powerlessness, which means the outcome is not in my hand.

To “let go” is not to change or blame another, it is to make the most of myself.

To “let go” is not to care for, but to care about.

To “let go” is not to be in the middle of arranging all the outcomes but to allow others to affect their own destinies.

To “let go” is not to deny but to accept.

To “let go” is not to nag, scold, or argue, but instead to search out my own shortcomings and to correct them.

To “let go” is not to adjust everything to my own desires but to take each day as it comes, and to cherish myself in it.

To “let go” is not to critize and regulate anybody but to try to become what I dream I can be.

To “let go” is not to regret the past, but to grow and to live for today.




One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.


Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.


Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.


I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or

next-to-last, of three loved houses went.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.


I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.


–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied.  It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.


The Glove in the Subway by Jane Rzepka

A one-paragraph newspaper article describes a subway platform during the morning rush hour at Grand Central Terminal. A train pulls in; a well-dressed woman gets off. Before the doors close, the woman realizes that she is holding only one of her leather gloves. She looks back into the train and spots the matching one on the seat. It is obviously too late to dash back in to retrieve it, so with a cavalier shrug, she flings her arm out and, the doors about to close, tosses her one glove onto the seat alongside its mate. The doors shut, and the train pulls away.

What a great image. One could use it, I suppose, as a metaphor for facing the inevitable, or arguing for an orderly universe, or even, with a little stretch, for sharing the good things in life. But, as we move into the summer season, the metaphor that comes to mind is the one of “letting go.”

To throw a favorite leather glove into the oblivion of a moving train must involve small pangs of uncertainty, pangs of some degree of loss, pangs of upset. After a lifetime of struggling not to lose our mittens, then our gloves, cavalier abandonment does not come easy.

In New England at least, our pattern is to cling, as we cling to our gloves, to routine, hard work, and obligation, all fall, all winter, and right through to the Fourth of July. But in the summertime, there is a letting go. We close up our schools and our churches, put our overcoats in mothballs, and dust off the swan boats, the lobster pots and last year’s new gas grill. We need that. We need to cast that glove of responsibility back into the train. We need a vigorous and decisive toss about now to free ourselves of the confining gloves of life, even if we love them.

And the train’s about to leave.