On a beautiful Sunday afternoon recently, my daughter Netsanet issued this simple command:
“Let go, Dad.”
No, she didn’t scream it at me. It was more of a quiet resolve as if to say “I’ve got this now.” For weeks, Netsa had been asking me to take off the training wheels on her new pink bicycle her mother had bought for her. So it came as no surprise that at the first sign of spring, as my boys were quick to zip around the neighborhood on their bikes, Netsa was right along behind them, peddling as fast as she could, and managing somehow to keep up, despite the awkward bobbling constraints of her training wheels.
My special pleading goes like this: Netsa is only five. She is my “little girl.” The way I figured it, she has plenty of time to learn how to ride a bike. Most of my boys didn’t even have a desire to learn to ride until they were six or seven. In fact, it was just a few months ago when my youngest son Nate (then 8) rode through our yard for the first time without any assistance or encouragement. No – I reasoned that Netsa’s bicycle training was going to take a while. Daddy knows best you know.
By now, after teaching my three boys to ride, I have the training down to a system. Not to brag or anything, but I know what I’m doing when it comes to training a child how to ride a bike (at least my children). Well, at least I thought I did…until that Sunday afternoon.
You see, training a child takes time. You have to know how each one learns best. And if you learn how to ride a bike at my house, you have to know the landscape of my yard. There’s a trick to it – and it requires some instruction (by me). I also developed over time a patented “ghost grip” that requires some stealthy use of the hands to hold surreptitiously to the back of a child’s bicycle seat while running slightly behind them as they peddle along. They have to get their balance, and that takes time. And then there is the whole braking issue – not intuitive. Once you get your bike going with some semblance of balance, you then have to learn how to use your brakes. No – don’t drag your toes on the ground – that’ll never do if you need to stop quickly. And did I mention the lesson where we discuss how to make a sharp turn without capsizing your ride? There’s a trick to that too.
All of this to say that my plans for Netsa’s bicycle training were to begin this summer at the earliest. We had plenty of time…enough for me to ponder how I would chart my lesson plans in chalk on our driveway when I determined that the time was right for Netsa to learn. But in all fairness, that Sunday afternoon was gorgeous, and I had a few minutes to spare. And so I reasoned that there would be no harm in getting an early start on Netsa’s lessons for the summer, as my wife Angelia nodded approvingly from her chair in the sun.
As I removed Netsa’s training wheels and lowered her seat a bit, Netsa eagerly stood right next to me, ready to learn the fine art of bike riding. Yes, I thought to myself, this is a fine day to start Lesson Number One of the Dr. Gibson School of Bike Riding for this sweet girl.
We took just a few minutes to learn about getting on the bike – and of course, how to push off with peddles properly positioned to maximize your take off, using your dominate foot. To get started, I held firmly onto the seat and handlebars, while we went together very slowly through my yard and down the gentle hill beside my house.
“Want to do it again, Netsa?” I asked.
“Yes! Let’s try it in the driveway!” she replied.
I laughed. “Well darling, the yard is much safer for you” I said. “You don’t want to fall on the concrete, do you?” Silly girl.
“But Dad, that is where my brothers ride. Come on, let’s do it.”
I thought to myself – Netsa may need to learn the lesson of a skinned knee to understand the danger ahead. Yes, I’ve seen this all before.
And so, after walking her bright pink bike back to the front of our house, I positioned Netsa where she could take off easily and steer straight up our short driveway. I was quite certain there would be an abrupt end to Lesson One, once she realized how scary it would be to fall off her bike and hit the hard concrete without the support of her training wheels.
At first, I had my firm “ghost” grip on her seat to make sure she wouldn’t fall. But then, as we took off, Netsa could feel me holding her back. She wanted to go faster – to be free and experience the wind and control under her own hand. That’s when she dropped the bomb on me.
She whispered quickly, “Let go, Dad.”
And that is when it happened…
I let go and Netsa rode a complete loop around the driveway by herself as Angelia and I watched in wonder. While Netsa’s face lit up with glee as she giggled at her accomplishments, Angelia and I burst out in great applause. She did it! All by herself! The very first time! Let this girl ride and be free to explore and learn on her own. Yes, there will be bruises and scrapes and wrecks – maybe a little blood – but there will also be imagination and adventure and sheer joy. You go girl!
Later in the day, those two words hit me hard.
Terse but heavy words. I can’t stop thinking about them. What other areas of my life might I be holding on too tightly? Is it time for me to “let go” of something else? Moreover, how do you even know when it is time to let go? Do you need certainty before you take a risk? No, that doesn’t make sense. Netsa simply asked me to do it – “Let go.”
I’ve never been one for empty Christian platitudes, especially the classic “let go and let God.” I always thought it was odd (perhaps dangerous) to presume that we have the power to “let God” do anything. Surely God does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3). And the letting go part – well, that’s just something that takes much discernment and faith to do. I like things under my control, neatly bound, and systematic – risk adverse. You know, a portfolio balanced, diversified, with minimal risk, right? No surprises for me please.
Some of you say, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” I know that! It is just that sometimes “letting go” is too hard and painful. And sometimes determining when to “let go” is just plain confusing.
In reflecting over the past few days, I want to share with you how the problem of “letting go” might be related to our understanding of grief. [Ok, as an undertaker, admittedly I may draw too many connections to grief. But perhaps this connection is valid.] Follow with me a bit.
In studying about grief and loss over the past few years, I have learned that “grief experts” (if there is such a thing) have changed their minds on how best to navigate the grief journey. For many years, the Grief Work Hypothesis (as old as Freud himself), suggested that when you face grief, you must work your way through it. You must work to put grief behind you – reinvest your emotional energy in something more productive. This eventually developed into the idea that we must go through the “normal stages” of grief in order to get “closure.”
Today you may be surprised to know that much has changed in grief theory since the early days of this “Grief Work” instruction. Today, our understanding of grief is much more nuanced. We are now told that there are no fixed “stages” one must pass through. “Closure” is rarely if ever fully realized; instead, it is more accurate to say that we eventually learn over time to integrate our losses into our lives. “Buck up” messages like “you need to be strong and put this behind you” have finally given way to the better idea that we need to experience our grief in all of its fullness – and however you want to do it is ok, because you are the only real expert of your own grief.
Our contemporary conceptualizations of grief have lead interestingly to the idea of “continuing bonds.” I really love this idea. Yes, instead of “cutting ties” and trying to simply “move on” we are now encouraged to continue the bonds we had with the object of our grief. But even still – this is not a one-size-fits-all solution either. Grief is not typically a sickness or pathology where we can easily prescribe some quick treatment to get our resolution – whether it be pills, counseling, or whatever. Grief is much more personal and transitory – it is existential. You know when you have grief. When you experience what it is like to be torn apart from something you love, it is indeed painful…and deeply personal. I have learned that there is not much someone can do for you other than being with you and walking beside you as you go.
Clinicians and practitioners today suggest that despite the pain of grief, sometimes it is helpful to continue the bonds with what we have lost. Contrary to the Grief Work Hypothesis, perhaps we should visit the cemetery more often – keep photos around of our lost loved ones – remember birthdays – or even take a few moments now and again for a “grief burst” of tears. Yes, even “grief bursts” can be healthy for us.
Good so far, right?
Well, what I struggle with is that while continuing bonds is often a good idea for emotional well-being, at the same time, not every bond we have is worth keeping. Surely sometimes it is better to cut ties – to move forward – to reallocate the vested energy into something else. Sometimes we are just plain stuck and need to move forward. So how do we discern those times? How do we know when it is right to cut our ties – to indeed “let go?”
I’m sorry I don’t have the answer for that. As you now know given the bicycle episode with my daughter, I am hesitant to let go – even of the easy stuff. I’m guessing this means that I need work at discerning when to continue a bond or to cut a tie in other contexts as well. Admittedly, I have much to learn still. Yet, surely it takes a measure of faith, wisdom, and maturity (and a little luck too) in order to navigate a healthy course at certain times in life – when to hold on and when to let go.
We all know that if you love, you will grieve. And there will be times you need to continue the bonds with whatever, or whomever you have lost – yes, to endure the pain for however long is necessary (maybe forever). Other times, you will need to let go. No, not to get “closure” as if you can simply forget memories – but perhaps you can, even should, divest wasted or negative energy and reinvest into something healthier for yourself and those who walk with you in life.
Now to the bottom line of this long ramble…
No matter how many times I watch it, I always laugh at the minstrel in the Monty Python movie who sings the song “Brave Sir Robin Ran Away.” In the film, as the minstrel and his merry men ride through the kingdom together, the minstrel mockingly sings about the “bravery” of Sir Robin:
“When danger rears its ugly head, he bravely turned his tail and fled.”
The truth is that my little girl is much braver than Sir Robin. She is not too afraid to have her “kneecaps split” as the song goes. Danger is calculated in some measure perhaps, but it is mostly an intuitive move. “Let go, Dad.” Netsa was plainly telling me: Let me ride. It is time to leave the safe yard for the unknown adventures that await me in the neighborhood.
And Netsa is, of course, correct. Sometimes it is time to leave the safety of the empire – whatever that empire may be. Sometimes we should leave our fears (and losses) behind. Sometimes we need to break free from the tyranny of criticism or authoritarianism or whatever conspires to suppress our progress, remove our hope, and create fear in us.
Sometimes we need to leave the safety of the empire.
I think Walter Brueggemann* is right: sometimes by letting go, we create space for playfulness and trembling, imagination and pondering. Letting go gives movement to our ongoing struggle with transformation and development.
Do you need to let go of something and move on to another adventure? If so, let me pray for us:
God, please help us to know when to “let go” and may we humbly ask you to provide us grace in large measure to sustain us as we take our next steps – as we risk new roads ahead.
* See Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination (2001) and Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks (2014).