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Article No. 57

Clutching and letting go

If you offer a little baby your small finger, it will, often, wrap its tiny hand around it and hold on for grim death. It is as if it says to itself ‘At last! I have found something solid I can hang onto. I am not going to let go of this.’ Sooner or later you will get your finger back, but it is usually given up with great reluctance! Perhaps that is one of the first lessons of life that we learn – hang on to whatever you can. But it is no use trying to hang on to anything or anyone forever – you continuously have to move on.

This instinct to clutch what we have hold of is basic to the human race, and it shows itself at every stage of life.

A few years after babyhood, many young children go through a stage where they have a piece of cloth, or a teddy bear or other toy, which they take everywhere with them. They sleep with it, go to every meal with it, and clutch it close to them wherever they go. They cannot be parted from it for any reason and woe betide the family that sets out on a journey only to discover that the treasured item is not with them. Eventually children learn – though sometimes it takes time - that they can live and breathe and exist without this one precious object, which they have been treasuring more than anything else. Clutching is a very tangible thing for a child of this age.

Those of us who have grown children know very well the phase they go through in their teens when most of them become almost unbearable. Super sensitive and egocentric, they are a pain to live with for a short while. It is as if their burgeoning ego has become central to their happiness and any person who crosses their desires incurs great wrath. Any slight, real or imagined, causes them intense discomfort for a time – they cannot let themselves go. Then they grow out of it. They learn to let go, relax and be natural. It’s as if they clutch their ego to themselves as though it were the most important thing in their life – which it probably is in those teenage years,

When you are invited to your next wedding, watch the newly married husband. At some stage at the Reception you will probably see him put his arms round his brand new wife and, as he hugs her, he will look at her with adoring eyes. He sees only how wonderful she is and thinks to himself how fortunate he is to have her as his wife. Nothing, he thinks, will ever part them or come between them. He will never let her go. She is his forever. No need to even think of letting go – he sees no reason why they should not be like that forever. Alas, life will teach him in due course that clutching is counter-productive; you can only hold someone close when you have learned to let go of them.

I watched a young mother the other day as she held her young child. Pride and joy shone out from her eyes – here was the fruit of her womb, the product of their love, her child, her precious child. She knew the joys of motherhood and of ‘possession’ – which is not possession at all really, but a reciprocated love. The more a parent tries to clutch the growing teenager, the further away they are likely to go.

This instinct to clutch what we have is expressed in all sorts of ways as we go through life.

Have you ever really looked at a successful businessman? Have you noticed his assurance and his sense of achievement? Early on in his life he clarified what he wanted and started to work towards it. Over the years he has strained and fought to succeed, and now it is obvious to all that he is successful. He has made it! He holds onto his success and enjoys it. Sometimes he needs to clutch it close to him because he suddenly discovers that he no longer has a goal, no sense of striving for something anymore, no mountain to climb. Sometimes he will feel aimless and lost. Having achieved his ambitions, he has discovered, perhaps, that he is no longer needed – and he has no purpose in mind any more. His ambition was clutched to his heart for years – now it suddenly seems that achieving his ambition has meant losing what has motivated his life all through those years.

I watched a newly retired man the other day – he was revelling in the freedom that retirement gives and he was clearly going to enjoy himself by doing all the things that his workload had prevented him from tackling previously. But I also noticed how he hung onto his past success, his being needed, his achievements, as a kind of badge – clutching his past importance as if he needed it like a coat to guard against the chill winds ahead. At the drop of a hat he would launch into a long discourse on past achievements. He has not yet learned to let go of the past, with its successes and it achievements. He has yet to take a wider view of what life is for.

Sometimes a lady who is well into her middle years, perhaps entering the next stage of her life, will seek desperately to maintain her looks. To somehow prevent the wrinkles and the lines from showing. She clutches at her past beauty as if it were an essential weapon with which to face the coming years. As if she feels she must strive to remain beautiful in the same way that she has been beautiful through the early years. Yet, really, she has an inner beauty far more real than any skin-deep beauty. Maybe she will learn to let go and to trust in that inner beauty – the inner reality of her life.

Have you ever watched an old man cling to life? Refusing to contemplate death or to even consider the possibility of sickness. He must keep active, keep involved in this and that, stay in the centre of things – unable yet to release his past while he faces the future. He strives after the departed vigour of youth – but the body relentlessly deteriorates and, eventually, will serve him notice that its time is almost up. Reluctantly he will have to let go, eventually, unless he learns beforehand to let go graciously, accept his age and settle for the benefits that come with age.

Always, we seem to want to clutch at what we have, who we have, where we are, how we are. Constantly we seem to have to learn afresh that it is in letting go that we are then able to reach out to new things, people, situations and, ultimately, to the life beyond death.

The reason we clutch what we have or what we are is obvious – we are afraid to trust the unknown. We don’t want to lose what we have – the known, the familiar. The unknown casts all sorts of shadows ahead of it and we are afraid. It is a fear that is always with us, from cradle to grave. A fear of oblivion, of uselessness, of rejection. Of being ‘past it’. Of being ‘useless’.

Those fears come to us in a hundred different forms each day of our lives. Yet we don’t recognize them for what they are. Ephemeral shadows, making us try to clutch what we have. To hold on and not let go. To preserve that which has been, which we know. And so to avoid venturing out into new areas with its new challenges.

But if we don’t let go, we will never know what the future could have held for us. If we never go beyond our front gate we shall never see Niagara Falls. If we hang back, we confine ourselves to a repetitive replay of the past. The same tune over and over again. The same agenda, with the same or other people, in the same or another place. Only as we gather our courage and break free can we start to experience the excitement of new experiences – a thrill that is basic to our nature. We are made for exploration and for new challenges. Yet so often we cling to what is, rather than reach out for what might be.

Sometimes we fool ourselves in order to avoid the challenge of the new. We fence ourselves around with numerous reasons – all perfectly good in themselves – so that we don’t even have to contemplate the idea of a new initiative. We settle for what we have and we say phrases like ‘Well, at my age…’ or ‘what we have is very pleasant, so why …’ as if past success can remove the need to respond to the call to new fields of endeavour.

As a young man I was greatly taken with Rudyard Kipling’s great poem entitled ‘The Explorer’. Do you remember how it goes?

‘There’s no sense in going further – it’s the edge of cultivation. So they said and I believed it – broke my land and sowed my crop…

Then ‘Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges – Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!

Yes, but not for me, not today. We put it off until ‘later’. We think we have settled the matter, but of course we have not. The old urge will reappear sooner or later, because that is how we are made. The way we are made will not let us settle down with less than a striving to achieve our full human potential. We are not made to hide, but to walk out with head held high, eyes fixed on far away targets.

Have you settled down recently? Are you clutching the past, perhaps without even realising that that is what you are doing?

Lord, whatever I am clutching, as if to justify my life and make me acceptable to you and to others, please help me to let go. To let go of it and to abandon myself entirely to your love and mercy and guidance, knowing that, by your grace, I may complete my passage through time and place, and so by faith help to build your eternal kingdom, trusting in Christ alone.

Tony Cross

April 2004

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