Letting Go

The title of this article isn’t scientific, but it captures a process that involves us all. So, what am I talking about? From the earliest time of life, the task of people is to embrace, adapt, and eventually move on. Children go to school and learn but move to the next grade. Then, they graduate. They go to a new school, and then they go to college. Each change requires a new adaptation and letting go of the past. This is not as easy as it sounds.

Certain phases of life and experiences are decisive, and there’s a temptation to hold on to them. Some holding on is adaptive. People join booster clubs and alumni organizations and attend games supporting their colleges. Other people could handle the situation better. They live in their college town, hang out with students, and don’t advance into careers and other life stages. Why is this so?

The known is safe and secure and tends to prevent us from moving forward. Why should we move into anxiety when we can stay in a place of safety and competency? Moving on is hard and takes boldness, assertiveness, and self-confidence. 

Letting go often means grieving a loss. When I moved to California to attend graduate school, I felt optimistic about the future, but I also felt depressed. Leaving behind my friends, ski house, and family in the East was hard. Moving on and designing a new life on the West Coast took a while.

Retirement presents a challenge for many people. One spends years mastering a profession, a trade, or a job, and then suddenly, it’s over. We can all think of examples of people who had trouble letting go. I remember seeing Willie Mays, the great baseball player, playing his last year and embarrassing himself in a game I watched. His playing days had ended, but he had not come to that conclusion. Too many people stay past their prime and don’t leave a profession or job when they should. Many institutions have mandatory retirement ages to prevent employees from working past a time when they are efficient and competent. 

Is it anxiety-provoking to let go of work and retire? Of course, it is. For many, it’s leaving a community they have known and moving to an unsettled territory that is new. It is leaving behind relationships, meaningful tasks, and a regular salary. So, how does one manage the task? The answer is in our histories. We use our ability to be flexible and adapt like we did earlier in life. We try things, we take risks, and we shift when we need to. Is it easy? Of course not, but that’s the task for adaptation at any phase of life. Was it easy for an eighth grader to go to high school? Was it easy to graduate from college and walk into work? Life is challenging!