So many people get stuck. That may seem a strange statement; but for many reasons, I have found many who get stuck in the past, get stuck by anger or by an exaggerated commitment to their own agenda. Once the process begins of identification of the self with a particular plan or point of view, an obsessive, protective, and irreconcilable aura surrounds that reality. Any contradictions to it or different points of view are not considered just as another opinion but as a threat to the very well being of the self to which that point of view is identified. Often we call things of this kind “territory”. Once we have decided (often automatically and not really completely consciously) that this thing is mine, then I will fight to preserve it even when to do so is counterproductive to my welfare.
I have seen this often as a Pastor. When you delegate something to someone to do, it becomes something extrinsic to them. They consider my request and, thanks to their generosity and the valid needs of the parish, they agree to do it. This could be as simple as a physical change in things or a form of leadership. Soon that person makes the work their own. In common parlance they take ‘ownership’ of it. When they meet with opposition or with others who want to help, they often (but thankfully not always) react with an aggrieved anger that makes it seem that the ‘interloper’ has questioned the goodness, commitment and very well-being of the original person. He or she identified themselves with their work so that any suggestion or improvement on what they are doing is considered as an attack on their person.
What is necessary in that given situation is this thing we call “letting go”. In the example just cited, it involves the inclusion of suggestions and helpfulness as something that does not threaten the person.
This process of identification and letting-go is seen most poignantly in how we identify with our family, our country and even (on a lighter note) with our sports franchises. Perhaps this latter example may be more fun to look at since we invest family and country with more seriousness and hence our thinking can more easily be compromised by emotional responses.
As many of you know I am a Yankee fan. Now the Yankee organization has never provided food for me or shelter or any other benefit. But because of my father’s identification with them (as an Italian American with his hero— Joe DiMaggio!) I followed suit wanting to be like my father. Now if the Yankees win a game, I am elated. When they lose I am sad and even depressed! Their enemies are my enemies. I can’t even think of the city of Boston without a pervasive feeling of nausea and disgust at their apparent ‘illness’ of being (dare I say the hated words!) Red Sox fans!
All of this makes no logical sense and may even seem crazy to someone who knows nothing about baseball. Such is the power of identification. When it extends to fatherland—one can kill with impunity the enemies of the fatherland!
We engage in this process of identification and territorial ownership in very many ways. Think of the parishioner who claims a particular pew and seat as theirs! Just try and sit there!
We even identify with our past hurts (the basis of our lack of forgiveness), with our children (our lack of objectivity regarding the true nature of ‘our little darlings!) and even with our religion (think of the pogroms and the wars of religion). As one can see this process can be very dangerous. We need something of the character of Mr. Spock (from ‘Star Trek’) to guard against its excesses. This is the benefit of ‘letting go and letting God!’
At the heart of this process of letting go is the valuing of detachment as a virtue. Mr. Spock can dispassionately size up a course of action because he does not identify with the process, the problem or the result. This is hard to do. However, when one begins with first principles and adheres to them, one has a fighting chance.
St. Ignatius of Loyola calls this ‘indifference’. By that, he means not being unfeeling, but always remembering the basic first principle: We are here to honor and serve God, and thereby save our souls. That is what matters. Whatever moves that goal closer is good and whatever retards it is bad. With that in mind, we can see many of our identifications as not being able to pass this test and so we can let them go in the interest of the higher goal of giving glory to God.
When I consider the angst that these identifications bring and how much better I feel when I can let go of them, it makes the letting go something welcome and comparatively easy to do. Holding on is hard, unnecessary and exhausting. Letting go is freeing, joyful and renewing. It is truly a wonder why so many people choose the tougher path of holding on to our false identifications.
There are, of course, some non-negotiables like my faith in Christ as a key marker of my self-image, but these are few and far between.