Image by Kirk Whitney. All rights reserved. Image by Kirk Whitney. All rights reserved.

Four years ago I bought a guitar.  Our mortgage was finally paid off and I was a few months away from retirement. While I was still working, but free of house payments, I was able to splurge on a couple of items that I would put to good use in retirement. One was a Les Paul guitar. I was looking forward to a future that included a quiet and empty nest, no house payments and plenty of time to learn guitar, write, travel and cook.

Funny.  Things did not turn out that way. Not even close. In those four years, we’ve gone from an empty nest to a full house. It’s not even the same house. (Which means we once again have a mortgage). We now live with our daughter and her three children in a house that is big enough for all of us. Much of my time is spent transporting children, helping with homework and mediating arguments among the children (or starting them!).   The guitar? I still have it and I do pick it up from time to time. Mostly, it sits in the corner of the living room collecting dust.

When you make commitments, it is impossible to anticipate where they will lead you. We committed to help our daughter with her children so that she could pursue an educational opportunity. When she was sidelined by serious illness last year, that commitment deepened as we supervised her children around the clock for days or weeks during her many hospitalizations. 

Years ago, I committed to serving as trustee for my aunt. I knew this meant that I would have to manage her estate one day. I did not anticipate that she would slip into dementia. I did not anticipate that today, I would be responsible to manage her finances, pay her bills, file her taxes etc. I did not anticipate that these responsibilities would go on for years.   

It would be easy to frame this as a story of frustration and of disappointment. If I am honest, I admit there has been some of that. Life, after all, has not turned out the way I planned. I am living, not a life of leisure, but one full of timelines and deadlines. But honesty would also force me to admit that my current life is more fun and more interesting than what I had actually planned. I had to make the transition from having the life that I want to wanting the life that I have. That requires letting go. That letting go enables me to hang on.

For the most part, I have described letting go of superficial things. I can’t pretend to have made any great sacrifices, I have only let go of a few selfish expectations. I suspect that the letting go has only just begun. 

As I was outlining this piece, my daughter shared an article from The New Yorker that was also about letting go. (Letting Go: What should medicine do when it can’t save your life, Atul Gawande, The New Yorker, August 2, 2010) The article chronicles the difficulty that patients, families and medical professionals have in confronting chronic or terminal illness.

It makes the point that the inability to let go of the expectations we have for health and longevity often prevent us from moving to the management of suffering and symptoms after treatment for a disease has run its course.  Many fail to receive adequate end of life care due to that inability to let go.  Reading it was a reminder to me that all of life, the planned and unplanned, the good and the bad needs to be embraced.

So. Where is Catholicism in all this?  The Gospels are full of references to letting go of our expectations of the world to focus instead on the kingdom of God. Luke, chapter 9 for example is full of exchanges in which Jesus cautions us to let go of our earthly priorities and hang on to his teachings instead. In verses 23-25 he says, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?

Later, in verse 60, he chides the man who says he will follow Jesus once his father has died with the difficult response, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Jesus understands the difficulty in what he asks of us. He too was given a life. He too developed an attachment to the human life he had been given. Letting go of that attachment is at the core of his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.

The ultimate statement of letting go is found in Luke 22:41-42 “After withdrawing about a stone’s throw from them and kneeling, he prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.”

In this moment, Jesus makes the final affirmation of his commitment to mankind. By letting go of his earthly life, he hung on to his commitment to our salvation. By the same token, when we let go of our own interests and expectations, it helps us hang on to our commitment to be saved.

Copyright 2015, Kirk Whitney

Image by Kirk Whitney. All rights reserved.