On Letting Go

Richard Rohr has noted that all world religions include encouragement and guidance on learning to let go (Simplicity: The Art of Living, Crossroad, New York 1992). From the AA dictum “Let go and let God” to the Buddhist notion of detachment, we are directed to face the fact that our efforts to control situations often get in the way and certainly impact us spiritually.

The essence of this challenge is summarized for me in the Serenity Prayer “God grant me the serenity/To accept the things I cannot change/The courage to change the things I can and/The wisdom to know the difference.” This wonderful bit of guidance calls us not to inaction but to discernment. Yes, sometimes we need to sit and wait. But at other times, action is required. As a good friend once said “You can pray all day for potatoes but you still have to go out and hoe the garden.” But when to act and when to let go? Therein is the great spiritual challenge.

None of us like being confronted with the fact that we like to be in control. Keep in mind, though, that control in and of itself is not bad. It’s when we try to control where in fact we are powerless that the problems start. Perhaps I bully people or perhaps I try to manipulate through guilt. In either case, I am not letting go. I am holding on.

Rohr notes that we are driven by 3 compulsions: the compulsion to succeed, the compulsion to be right, and the compulsion to be powerful. To some extent, we are probably driven by all three but with particular emphasis on one compulsion. In my case, I think I get into trouble with all three!

Letting go involves trust. But trust in Whom or What? Again I run into my relationship with and concept of God. If I let go, what is it exactly that God does? I remember sitting in a support group once and a man came in and announced that he disliked his boss and so had just quite his job and “turned it over to God.” I hope that worked out for him but the God of my understanding doesn’t run an employment agency. So for me personally I struggle with what exactly I expect God to do if I turn something over to Him/Her.

And yet that letting go brings peace when I am able to do it. My efforts to control often do make matters worse but when I manage to let go and trust, I find some true serenity. And, more often than not, things work out (although not always the way I thought they should.)

What the Serenity Prayer reminds me of, then, is something that has been spoken by wise people from Epictetus to Viktor Frankl: there may not be much I am in control of but I ALWAYS have control over how I respond. Within that response may be the key to inner peace.

Reflection: 1.In what ways do you struggle with letting go? 2. Which of the compulsions mentioned by Rohr are struggles for you?

Further reading: Richard Rohr’s book noted above 

The chapter “We Agnostics” in the book Alcoholics Anonymous

About richp45198

I am a clinical psychologist and have an abiding interest in matters spiritual.
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5 Responses to On Letting Go

  1. Beautifully stated Richard. Everything I have let go of has claw marks all over it. Yet I am learning to live more from the deeper Self within me than from my ego. Yes, we need an ego to survive in the world, but in this culture, the ego has become god/goddess instead of the soul. Learning to live more from the soul has brought me more balance in that I do all the “footwork” as they refer to it in 12 Step programs, and then I surrender the rest to something greater than my ego. This is a long-term spiritual practice, and practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice just makes practice, but with time and practice, I get more used to doing what’s in front of me, then letting go.

  2. Margie says:

    Great article and very meaningful especially for me during these two weeks. Letting go is easy to say but to truly let go is the challenge. Thanks! Margie

  3. Eileen P. Williams says:

    Letting go and trusting God–woohoo–my favorite subjects! I can really relate to these two close friends of mine as I struggle with them on a daily basis–especially for the last ten years. Richard Rohr also says we can’t understand anything, control anything or fix anything and when we finally get to that place of realization or surrender then we can really feel the presence of God and have a relationship with Him. I think we get to a state of acceptance, maybe it’s grace. In any case, it’s easier said than done, especially if you have a loved one with an addiction. I love the Jesuits because they take on an attitude of indifference–not to say that they don’t care, but they don’t get attached to outcomes–they believe God sees the big picture and they don’t have to try to control it or influence it. They can get to a state of detachment. I still rant and rave, though and try to plow my way through especially when it comes to my younger son although more and more these past few years, I have had to let go. I have come to the realization that everyone is on their own journey and I am NOT the conductor. I learned a beautiful prayer from Ted Loder’s “Guerilla’s of Grace, Prayers for the Battle” book this past summer which helps me deal with issues of control and tragedy. There is one line in a prayer that has just stuck with me and I pray it every minute of every day–especially when I get the most painful phone calls. The prayer is this “Lord, help me to accept outcomes without despair”. Simple, beautiful, comforting and absolutely effective. I think the Jesuits would like it. I know God hears me when I pray it.

  4. Susan Bass says:

    One statement sums up the concept for me and that is, “Not my will but Thy Will”. Not saying I can do it, but I can conceptualize it.

  5. Brian says:

    Interesting thoughts from Rohr. Thanks for sharing.

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