Reflections from the Rear View Mirror

On Letting Go of the Past

Letting go

"Some people think it's holding on that makes one strong. Sometimes it's letting go."

Sylvia Robinson

Life Letters

I grew up in northern Maine where summers are short and oh so sweet, and winters are long and often relentless. Many of my most treasured childhood memories contain images of care free afternoons on the shore of Madawaska lake, with my face tilted upwards towards the northern sky, my feet dangling in the cool, clear water, lulled by the motion of the waves lapping up against the dock, and the sunlight on my skin. In looking back, it occurs to me that while I cherished the gentle months of June, July, and August, I was all too often unable to enjoy them to the fullest. Too often preoccupied by my dread of winter's return, I failed to completely embrace the beauty and freedom that belonged to me on those golden days long gone. And as I remember, I wonder now how often the gifts that are before us slip out of our focus as we unthinkingly turn away, worrying about what is beyond our control, or gazing anxiously out our rearview windows, holding onto a past that is now out of our reach and can no longer be altered.

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I once knew a woman whose childhood was haunted by prophesies of gloom and doom, consequently, she spent much of her life feeling afraid. She was constantly peering around corners, searching for emergency exits, and waiting for "the light to unexpectedly change." While she was able to acknowledge that she had enjoyed a successful career, a loving family, a hefty savings account, countless contingency plans, and a clean bill of health, she also observed that she had lived in almost continuous dread and fear. It was not until the years that stretched behind her far exceeded the ones that still remained that it occurred to her that perhaps her primary task on earth was to learn as much as she possibly could from her time here, and that her major life lesson was to learn to trust in life itself. She would need to trust that each of her experiences (even the painful ones) offered her important lessons, and further, that often the ultimate value and quality of an experience is in direct proportion to what we do with it. In order for her to live fully and learn from her present, she concluded that she would need to let go of the pain from her past.

Rachel Naomi Remen, one of my favorite authors and healers, admitted that as a child of Russian Immigrants, her's was not a family that parted with things easily, and that she had grown up believing that if she were to let go of anything of value, the result would be a permanent hole in her life. Consequently, she quipped, "anything that I ever let go of had claw marks on it." I knew all too well what Remen meant. For much of my life I held on fiercely to everything, afraid of finding myself vulnerable somehow or suddenly empty handed, I deprived myself of numerous gifts and opportunities. Believe me, it's not at all easy to take hold of what's before you with clenched fists.

In "Life's Challenges as Initiation," Remen recounts her surprising reaction to losing something of great value to her one day, and how for the first time in her life she responded to the loss by feeling a sense of curiosity and adventure observing, "I had never trusted life before...I had avoided loss at all cost, like my family. This is a very important step of initiation: To come into a new relationship with the unknown, the unknown seen differently, as mystery, as possibility, as something we move towards not away from, something that gives us an increased sense of aliveness and even wonder."

I suspect that for most of us, we must first encounter and then recover from a painful and involuntary loss before we can begin to understand that letting go needn't simply be about giving up. On the contrary, it's as much about embracing as it is about releasing. In letting go 'of' what no longer serves us, we free ourselves to go 'to', to move closer towards that which sustains and nurtures our well-being and growth. In letting go of what no longer works, we make room for what does.

I can't recall a time in my life when letting go of something I've truly cared about hasn't been a painful process, and it's been necessary to remind myself more than once that what I've released isn't entirely lost to me forever. You see, one thing I've learned throughout my journey in the land of loss and recovery is that very little is ever truly lost. I've slowly come to appreciate that instead of leaving me empty handed, what has come before me will undoubtedly provide me (if I allow it to) with tools to facilitate my becoming all that I hope to one day become. And while I'm by no means an expert at dealing with loss and letting go, I have learned to take comfort in the fact that each of our experiences serves to teach us, even those that wound us can be transformed into food for our souls, and fuel for our journey if only we're willing to harvest them.

next:Life Letters: The Soul of a Scientist

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, October 20). Reflections from the Rear View Mirror, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Last Updated: July 17, 2014

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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