When I talk with a writer, I like to ask (and I like to be asked), What darlings did you have to murder? In writer-speak, that means What great writing did you have to edit out of your book? For a writer, having to delete wonderful passages, characters, or information is painful: I shed many tears over the hundreds of pages I cut from Dancing on Our Fathers’ Feet. But this week, I’d like to resurrect two passages. Both feed into my recent themes of letting go and forgiveness.
If you are familiar with my writing, you know that the most defining moment of my life came when I discovered my former husband was having an affair. I write about it often enough that you might think that I haven’t gotten over it or that I define myself by it. But I write about it only because the experience taught me valuable lessons that I believe will help others. One of those lessons is learning to let go. When I was in the depths of my despair, I read an article that lifted me, so much so that I later wrote about it. This is the passage I edited out of my book:
When Kristin Armstrong sat alone in her kitchen, as I imagine her doing, writing an article about her divorce from husband Lance, she had no idea how her words would help me. I tore the article from O, The Oprah Magazine, and tacked it to my bulletin board above my desk. Eight years later, it’s still there, her retelling of a story about a woman hiking along a cliff:
She falls—but after tumbling and scraping down the hill, she manages to grab on to a branch. Dusk turns into night, and all the while she clings to this branch with everything she has. After hours of pressing her body into the rock face, cramping to keep meager toeholds, her strength begins to fail and her arms begin to shake. Fearing that she doesn’t have much longer, she begins to pray. God’s response is simple: “Let go.” Feeling low on faith and high on frustration, she ignores the command and cries and aches until the first rays of dawn. And then, astonishing though it may seem, she looks down and sees the ground . . . about 12 inches below her feet.
Eventually, when I finally learned to let go of everything, I fell into a life more beautiful than I ever could have imagined. Not because I found love again, which I did, but because I found myself.
Learning to let go and understanding that forgiveness is part of that process is our most important lesson. Once we understand its value, we must practice it every day, over and over and over again, because we humans do not let go easily—we cling to things, to ideas, to belief systems, to stories we tell and retell ourselves. We create cocoons of false reality, spinning stories to protect our egos, our sense of self, our connection to the world.
One example: I know a man who waves his Christian fundamentalism like a flag. His Bible tells him that because he is a man, “God” made him the head of his family; that because his wife is a woman—a descendant of Eve—she should be subservient to him; and that as her husband, he is responsible for her soul. As a boy, the man had been bullied—he was small and not athletic, so he was an easy target. He felt he had no control. Today, his devotion to Christian mythology gives him the control he never had as a child, but his bullying often creates conflict with the people he loves. Were he to explore the reality behind his control issues and his obsessive belief in a patriarchal mythology, he could break free of the shell that encases him and reduces true spiritual and personal growth.
That’s why we must look honestly at ourselves and at the stories we spin around our lives. But it’s not easy. When I finally confronted the truth about my relationship with my former husband, I realized that I had constructed a story about him—that he loved me as much as I loved him, that he valued our relationship, that I could trust him, that he would protect us. I realized I had fallen in love with someone who didn’t exist, that my mind had created the husband I needed, rather than recognized the man I had married. We all do this: We stitch together a world that makes us feel comfortable and safe, a world that does not exist. But we need to let go of illusions.
If I cling to my perception of you, I do not see you—I see only my assumptions about who I think you are, about how you feel and how you experience the world. If I realize that my feelings about you arise from the story I have created about you, then I will understand that this story is an illusion, that my perception of you is false, and that to see you more clearly, I must wipe away my assumptions. How many of us have friends and family who see us only as we once were, rather than who we have become? Recognizing that we all evolve and grow—and acknowledging those changes—is a powerful gift we can give to each other and ourselves: It helps us come unstuck.
Practice letting go . . . of the past; of present and future expectations; of the illusion of assumptions, of the stories we have wrought; of anger and resentment, guilt and shame; of negative thoughts and emotions; of attachments and desire; of all of it . . . until we have mastered it. That skill will ultimately help ease us into the final letting go.
The other darling I murdered came from the HBO documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World. My favorite Beatle. George devoted much of his life to spiritual growth. When Eric Clapton wrote “Layla” as his anthem of love for Harrison’s wife Patti Boyd, and Boyd later left Harrison to marry Clapton, Harrison forgave them both and continued his friendship with Clapton. That’s mastering the art of forgiveness and letting go. Years later, after Harrison died, his second wife, Olivia, described the moment George passed: “There was a profound experience that happened when he left his body. It was visible. Let’s just say, you wouldn’t need to light the room, if you were trying to film it. You know, he, uh, he just lit the room.” Observers say this “dying light” exudes the feeling of love. That’s what’s left after we’ve let everything else go. Love is all you need.
(Click on picture to hear "The Light That Has Lighted the World.")