Holding on. Letting go.

On the left, my dad I when I was eight years old. On the right, my dad and I at my recent graduation from the University of Utah MSW program, a mere twenty-five years later.
On the left, my dad I when I was eight years old. On the right, my dad and I at my recent graduation from the University of Utah MSW program, a mere twenty-five years later.

For as long as I can remember, my dad and I have had a game that we play while driving. It normally begins when the weather starts to change, when it gets cooler. It’s been a long time since I have played it, but every now and then I’ll catch myself thinking about it and the lessons it’s taught me and continues to teach.

My parent’s live in a small community in Northern Utah that you get to by driving through a canyon. It’s always a few degrees cooler in that small little town than it is on “the other side of the mountain.” One of my favorite things as a child was to roll down my window as we started up the canyon for home and gradually feel the air get colder and colder. I loved to hold my hand out and feel the breeze as my young mind became captivated by questioning how the air change was possible.

What caused it? Was it that the canyon was such a small space? Was it that we were going higher? It didn’t feel like we went higher. Was it magic?

Yup. Magic seemed like the right answer.

One night in late October it happened to be just me and my dad as we drove home through the canyon; I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old. I remember rolling down my window and sticking my arm out way before we got to the canyon entrance, just so that I could be prepared, just so I could maybe find the exact spot where the air changed.

I don’t remember finding the exact spot but I do remember that when I pulled my hand back in because it was getting too cold, my dad rolled down his window. I remember him looking at me and smiling and saying that he had a game we could play, he said, “I bet I can keep my hand out longer than you can.”

Um. No question … obviously challenge accepted.

Even from that young age, a competitive flare raced in my veins. I loved to compete and I loved to win. I can even remember making up games as a child where I was competing against no one but myself – I couldn’t just make my bed, I had to make it faster than the day before. I was that obnoxious kid that would run to the door when my siblings and I got home from school and touch it shouting, “I win!” while after me my brothers would call out, “We weren’t even racing!”

Yes we were. To me, life was always a race.

So, of course, I wanted to beat my dad in this new, fun game. I remember he counted to three and out our arms went. Smiling and laughing I started counting and probably made it only twenty seconds before I was pulling my arm in, rubbing the cold away, and watching my dad, still with his arm outstretched. He won.

As I got older, we played this game off and on, just when one of us happened to remember. I could never make it too far. My arm would get too cold. The worst was when we chose to play in December or January. Seconds in and my arm would begin to burn from the cold. It ached and hurt as it got numb and I would think, I can’t do this, my arm is going to fall off, it’s too cold, and I would then give up. My dad would say, “You just have to stop thinking about the pain, just hold on. Stop focusing on it.”

I remember the time I finally beat my dad. I was twelve or thirteen and it was mid December. I remember challenging him and him stating that maybe it was too cold. My answer was to roll down the window and stick my arm out. He did the same, I’m pretty sure I get my competitive spirit from him. We were just exiting the canyon; we had four or five minutes until we were home. I had never lasted longer than two minutes, never all the way home.

This time was different, however, this time I believe I was shaped by all the previous times he had told me to stop focusing on the pain, to just hold on. I don’t remember what I thought about to distract myself, what I do remember, however, was that every thirty seconds I would be reminded of the pain and tell myself, just hold on.

Just as we hit our exit for home, dad pulled his arm in laughing and telling me it was too cold. He told me to bring my arm in, that I had won. I was so excited; I had finally won. But I didn’t bring my arm in. I wanted to make it all the way home, and after forty more seconds, I did just that. In true Rocky fashion, the underdog had finally won! I remember being elated as we pulled in the driveway, bringing my arm in and feeling just how cold it was. It didn’t matter. I had won.

Recently, as I was driving somewhere by myself, I remembered that game. I smiled and thought fondly on it and found myself rolling down my window just to stick out my arm, to feel the breeze. It didn’t matter that it was mid summer and I was nowhere near the canyon. As I did this I heard in my mind the words my dad used to say, “You just have to stop thinking about the pain, just hold on. Stop focusing on it.” I was struck by how applicable that is to life and how I have tried to used that principle off and on as I have grown.

Although, just as quickly as I had the thought about holding on, I wondered about the principle of letting go. I questioned myself: well then, when am I to hold on? When am I to let go? How do I decide? I don’t profess to have figured it all out and much of it depends on the individual, but I have some thoughts about my own situation.

There will be times in our lives that we will need to hold on and times when we will need to let go. As I first started pondering this principle I was stuck, I was frustrated. I thought back to difficult times in my life and how it seemed to me that whether I held on or let go, I was still in pain. So what good is either option?

As I’ve thought more about this I can see that I’ve been holding on only in the sense that I’m just gritting my teeth and waiting for the pain or the hard moments to stop; I haven’t been really “holding on” to anything. If I think back to the story I shared about my dad, I can see that on the night I won I did so by holding on to something, not just waiting out the time. What did I hold on to you ask?

I held on to my belief in my dad, I held on to his word. I held on to the confidence I had in my own determination, as well as experiences of past accomplishments. I held on to the ideals my parents had taught me about persistence, work, keeping your word, doing my best, and that nothing good or bad will last in this life.

Obviously those are all things I didn’t see then, I was just a kid who had won a silly game against her dad. However, I see them now. I see them now and it leads me to look at other experiences where I haven’t held on very well, where I thought I was holding on but in reality I was just getting through.

I don’t want to judge the times I just made it through because sometimes that is all that you can do, and that’s ok. Getting through and holding on get you to the same place: survival; however, I am now starting to see that if I can better understand the principle of holding on then I will make it to survival a little less beat up.

To me, holding on is a principle of action; it is an acknowledgment that I am separate from the trials or pain that I am passing through; and with that acknowledgment I can gain strength. Strength is gained because healthy holding on is reaching back into who we are at our core and grasping those qualities that define us outside of the struggles that press in upon us: the virtues we believe in, our ideals, our intrinsic worth as a human being, the strength of past experiences, the love we have for others, the love we have been given by others, and countless other enabling qualities.

But what if I don’t believe that at my core I am redeemable, that I am any of the good qualities I just mentioned?

That was me, and if I’m honest, sometimes that still is me. It makes holding on in a healthy way very difficult; it creates panic when one tries to hold on and finds there is nothing there to grasp. The psychological damage that came as a result of my trauma and abuse as a child was such that it annihilated my belief that my core was good.

But I am learning that I was wrong and if you feel you are nothing, you are wrong! As I’ve stated before worth comes just as a result of being a person, everyone matters. We can begin to believe that by practicing the second principle I brought up at the beginning: letting go.

Letting go can often be difficult, it’s a surrendering of what we thought we knew and believed, it’s going against the patterns our minds have created around the ideals or experiences of our lives and choosing to accept new ones. I don’t know about you but for me changing well-worn mind paths is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do.

So, what then are we to let go of? What does letting go look like?

For many years I understood letting go to be a singular monumental occasion, a life-altering event of epic proportions. Now, remember, I am nothing if not dramatic. I pictured someone standing in a desert at night, stars blazing in the sky, the person dropping to their knees and looking up at the sky with outstretched arms while saying, “I am letting go.” This leads to them being overcome with a cleansing effect like they’ve never before felt, they feel free, they stand up and walk into the rest of their life with confidence and a crescendo of violins as they fist pump the air.

Too much? Maybe slightly.

No wonder I never felt like I was getting the whole letting things go business right?! My assumption of what I needed to experience in order to feel like I’ve let go of things happened to be slightly exaggerated. Now, I’m not saying one could not experience letting go in a singular event, I’m sure that happens; what I am saying is that for me I know it is more of a process.

Letting go of the pain of my life experiences, the expectations I have for others and I believe them to have for me, the assumptions I make, the circumstances I cannot change, and all the other things that seem to drag me down, happen as a result of small weekly, daily, and hourly acknowledgments.

I look back on my life and can see that I have come a long way, that I have let go of many things that have held me captive to pain and negativity. However, I can also take inventory of where I am in the present moment and know that I still have a ways to go, and that’s okay. That’s a part of life.

Whether we get through or we hold on, whether we let go in a singular magical event or our letting go is more of a process, it doesn’t really matter; what matters is that we keep going, we keep trying, we do not give up!

We stick our arm out into the freezing night air, we allow the wind to rage around us and we take life as it comes, in thirty-second increments if necessary and with a knowledge that we are not doing this alone; someone is in the seat next to you and if you’re lucky, it’s someone as great as my dad.

4 thoughts on “Holding on. Letting go.

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