I like autumn as a metaphor for old age. I know it is not a perfect metaphor; golden leaves on the trees renew themselves in the spring, but we cannot renew ourselves in the same way. Hopkins points out that the “Goldengrove unleaving” is a reminder of the “blight man was born for.” And it is. And yet. I recent read a memoir by Pico Iyer entitled Autumn Light and would highly recommend it – or any of his books. There was this about fall in Japan:
And every year the autumn poses the same question, which I, every year, am barely able to answer. There’s no time to waste, the yuzu-colored light reminds me; and yet it would be a crime – a sin – to turn away from the beauty of the season. The bright days make me unable to resist the impulse to go outside; the days of sudden, unrelenting rain commit me to solitary confinement. I am not always ready to accept that it’s in surrendering my hopes and careful designs that real freedom comes. (my emphasis)
And it is really surrendering that I want to talk about – letting go. It should be so easy, and it is nevertheless the hardest thing. And not just for me. Every meditation or contemplative group that I have participated in comes back to this again and again. We know it will make our life easier; we know it is inevitable in the long run. But we cannot do it. And I would note here that letting go is not the same as disregarding; detachment is not apathy.
I have always known intellectually that letting go would help. When my son complained of stress at work, the only advice I would give him that I knew was right, was to not take it seriously, to let it go. To do the job well, but with detachment as to results and the regard of other people. This was advice I was never able to follow myself, but I knew it would have allowed me to work longer and healthier. And better. It’s even true of relationships – we all know of relationships that fell apart because one of the partners tried too hard, held on too tight, as William Blake knew:
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
Maybe it’s a little like dieting. It should be the easiest thing in the world not to eat. So it is with worrying, fretting, blaming, catastrophizing. Who wants to frighten ourselves to death? Apparently, most of us.
In old age many of the worries of our youth should have dissipated. Our children are grown, ambition has run its course, (most) passions are dulled. But that seems to make little difference. We worry about our grandchildren, our aches and pains, our declining loved ones. There is always something. But we also have our own very real experience proving that 99% of the things we worried about never came to pass – and even when catastrophe materialized, it was seldom as bad as we expected. Shouldn’t we have learned? The truth, I think, is that we have learned, but old habits die hard.
One thing we know will happen. We will die. Worrying about that not only won’t help, but it will diminish the days we have left. I started with the metaphor of autumn for old age. Autumn is a wonderful season, my favorite. But it would be spoiled if we just saw it as a harbinger of winter. Let it be say Lennon and McCartney. Fear no evil says the 23rd Psalm. You can only lose what you cling to says the Buddha. Consider the lilies says Jesus.
If you have figured out the trick to this – to letting go and letting be – let me know. Let all of us know. Please.
My story, “Every Winged Bird,” does not give us an answer, but it does give a picture of someone who has given up everything which does not give her joy. It was part of a series I wrote inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Ovid knows about change, and in another poem he said “happy is the man who has broken the chains which hurt the mind, and has given up worrying once and for all.” He doesn’t tell us how, though.