The Best Way to Ruin the Best Moments

Overgrown and Autumn Painted

Photo Credit: thorinside, Flickr (Creative Commons)

September is cradling us in its sanctuary, poised between the warm promise of summer and the barren landscape of winter.

A few eager leaves already lie trampled on the cooling earth. The angled light of autumn holds the world in long shadows and high definition, the edges of everything sharp and brilliant. The chirping of the surviving summer crickets is muffled by the dry-rustle of brittle leaves in the canopy above. Cool breeze competes with the warmth of sun on skin.

I sit on a park bench in the midst of all this perfection and I drink it down desperately.

Before me, one lonely leaf detaches and lopes in circles to the fragile grass below. There’s a barking dog in the distance and a mower still farther off. The stillness is so complete I can here the blood pulsing in my veins.

Yet. The sacred moment is impaled upon the pit in my stomach. Even now, in the midst of this wonder, an anxiety is building and threatening.

How can I be anxious inside this sanctuary of an autumn moment?

As the smell of summer bloom mingles with the odor of fall decay, I know the answer: I don’t want it to end. I’m thinking about the end instead of the now, and this is the birthplace of anxiety.

I think we ruin sacred moments of wonder and beauty by trying to hold on to them. In fact, any moment in which we fall in the love with this world can be a moment shortened and tarnished by the impulse to hold tight and preserve.

It is ironic, isn’t it? The moments we most cherish must be held delicately. Or we squeeze the joy right out of them…

Leisurely summer vacations full of beach umbrellas, happy-splashy kids, and paperbacks riddled with sandy grit. It’s just too good and as the vacation slowly tips toward its conclusion, we grasp and hold on, but all we accomplish is to anchor our minds in the ending of it.

Or, the fallen leaves are piled in the yard and the kids are piled in it, all giggly and lost in the moment. And you want to grab time by the neck and grind it to a halt. You want the years to stop rolling by so quickly and you want to pause these little lives right here and now. And it ruins the joy of the giddy moment.

Many of us do it every weekend. We turn Sundays into the-day-before-we-go-back-to-work. And the joyful day of rest is replaced by hours of dread. It’s the never-enough thirty minutes of peace before the kids arrive home from school. It’s the last hundred pages of Harry Potter, turning the pages ever more slowly. It’s the last ten minutes of a movie that became your favorite while you were watching it—the aching for more.

If we want to drink this life down, if we want to live fully, we will have to become masters of letting go.

Several weeks ago, I walked into my sons’ bedroom to turn off their reading lights. My eight-year-old son Aidan placed his book down next to him and rolled over to face me. His eyes shimmered and he raised the book in way of explanation: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.

Through a tight throat, he tried to explain his tears. He told me it was the story of a doll that repeatedly finds a loving home and each time, through random circumstance, is abandoned to wait for love all over again.

As I searched for the words to comfort him—a way to soothe him without devastating him—Aidan spoke for both of us.

“Daddy, I guess if I want to love people, I’m going to have to be okay with letting them go.”

If I want to love, I have to be okay with letting go.

If I want to live, I have to be okay with letting go.

If I want my heart to be ruptured by beauty and wonder, I have to be okay with letting go.

Because we can’t wait until our beautiful things have come to an end to do the hard work of letting go. If we wait, our dread of the end may work its way backward into our hearts, corrupting the beauty that is here now.

Instead, the hard work of surrender—of embracing the end of the embrace—must come first. Only then will we be truly free to fall head-over-heels in love with this moment or that person or a world overflowing with wonder.

Perhaps, as the world eases into its winter slumber, this season is reminding us to let go first so we can truly lose ourselves in the beauty.

And I think there might be grace in the reminder—this season of autumnal color also reminds us the most beautiful things can give way to the most barren things without despair. Because we’re in orbit, and fresh life is only months away and all things will be made new.

Perhaps this dying season is meant to ease the letting go, with the reminder that every death is followed by a resurrection. And every loss is pregnant with the seed of redemption.

Comments? What are the moments you do not want to let go of? How do you surrender them so you can fully enter into them? Please feel free to share in the comments below.

DEAR READER, There won’t be a Tuesday Tip this week. I’ve used my writing time to attend the Story conference in Chicago over the past couple of days. Will be posting some reflections about it soon. In the meantime, take the five minutes you would have spent reading the Tuesday Tip. Walk outside into the autumn bursting. And breathe. Cherish it, this one breath. You did nothing to earn it and you can do nothing to earn the next. It’s grace, pure and simple. Revel in it. Sincerely, Kelly

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Anne

    How do you learn to let things go? This post described my feelings exactly…with the looming winter. I used to love fall when I was younger. It was my very FAVORITE season. And now I almost hate it. Because I just dread the long cold winter…of being inside, and no light, and being cold and tired all the time. I would love to find joy in it again like I once had…but I’m not sure how to “embrace the end”? I see myself having a hard time enjoying many things because I don’t want them to end…many of the things you mentioned above actually. Thanks for the post…it really struck home to me…

    • Carrie

      When I start to ruin the moment by hanging on, I picture myself with my hands out, palms facing up to receive the gift of this moment. For when I hold tight, not only do I ruin the moment, but my hands are not in a position to receive the next moment. I look upon the gift with wonder, not knowing how long I will be able to keep it, not knowing where it will go nor if it will come back. But no one can take away that blessed moment. It is mine to cherish, though not to live in the past. When I am in the posture to give and receive, the gifts just keep coming. There are blessings in the winter too, blessings in the barrenness and rest. We need only the eyes to see them and the open hearts and hands to receive them.

      • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

        Thank you for this, Carrie. Anne…what she said.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Anne, you’re not allowed to ask tough questions like that. 🙂 Thanks for being honest about your struggle. I’m not sure there is one answer to that question. In his book, “Turn My Mourning into Dancing,” Henri Nouwen suggests that learning to let go is one of the main goals of life. I’d highly recommend the book if you are pondering these questions. Blessings as you wrestle with it. We’ll keep wrestling with it here on the blog!

  • Harriet

    Your son is so wise. He has been a teacher to us through your blogs. May God bless him!

  • Michelle

    I have sabotaged many a blessed moment by looking at my watch or a calendar, and announcing, “We need to get ready for _____ pretty soon.” Instead of enjoying the day, or even a report of the day from my daughters, I move too quickly to “tonight we have to go to A, B etc. and this weekend we have…” etc. Where is the balance between joyful anticipation, reasonable planning, and carpe diem?

    I have been looking forward with regret to the end of the bountiful harvest season, the end of fresh peaches and watermelon and sweet corn and red ripe tomatoes. I realized this morning, despite the melancholy, or perhaps because of it, I had stopped going to the fruit stand a couple of miles down the road. It’s almost over anyway, right? Thanks to your post, I just loaded up on a fresh supply of fresh produce. Parting is sweet sorrow, and I will do my best to savor every sweet bite until harvest is done.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Yes, Michelle! I love it. I bet that produce tastes sweeter than ever. And that’s what it’s all about, right? When we have accepted the ending of something, its sweetness multiplies and its bitterness recedes.

  • melynda

    WOW….smack between the eyes! My son is 19, year of college, growth, change. My Mom job is done, right? But not quite, and struggling with how to turn off what I’ve been doing half of my life!
    “If I want to love, I have to be okay with letting go.” A message just for me in this restless night….thank you for sharing! Makes me think of “it is better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all.”
    So Bless and Release my sweet child…..

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  • jlanewell

    I read the title of this latest post and perhaps my own short comings came to light as I expected this to be about how we try so hard to make so many moments picture perfect that can take the joy right out of the event. You know how you dream of the family fun day going to the pumpkin patch. Instead it turns into someone falling down, or over tired since they did not get a nap and start crying. Or even if two of your three kids start arguing over which pumpkin you should take home. But then sometimes it can be the events we think we should be doing with our kids but we have yet to catch our breath from the long week of work. So it turns into a way to check the event on the calendar off the list instead of enjoying the different activities that come with the change of seasons.

    Then I decide to read and see what the blog was all about. I found it to be a topic a little too close to home for me. With 2 children graduating this year, one from college and one from high school and our youngest to then be entering high school, I know about trying to hold on too tight. The initial desire is to grab a hold of moments or to start to see them as the last time we will all ever do events. I even recall a recent conversation with my husband at the beginning of school this year as I thought of the many changes headed in our direction. I asked him if he thought our kids would like us enough to want to come back to visit some time. He made a joke about not seeing that as a problem just yet.
    I can still recall the day we took my son to college. We took 2 cars packed full of stuff. Of course it was raining that day and the elevators were even worse than the car. I had to have my son unpacked and set up before I could leave him there. As only a mom can do I had a list and I was not leaving until the list was done. I was blessed with a child that knows his mom well and is more like his father and goes with the flow. However, eventually the bed is made, the clothes unpacked and even electronics were all set. The time had come to head out and leave him to the next chapter of his life. I can still remember how much my heart hurt to leave him. But then there was this joy on his face and he seemed so happy, so full of life and right at home. In that moment, I knew he was where he needed to be and I would not want to stop him from what was next for him. I gave him a big hug and only got tears in my eyes and smiled at him and said we would see him soon. As we left campus the tears came and they did not seem to be stopping. My husband pulled off at a gas station not more than 5 miles from campus. As I stopped to see what was wrong, he opened up my door and pulled me in his arms. He asked me, the question, “Would you rather he be sad and asking us not to leave him at school? We should be grateful he is excited about this.” Once again the voice of reason comes into play.
    Life seems to be filled with those bittersweet moments. How can something that brings joy to someone you love, tear another part of your heart out? I struggle with this sometime more than I like to admit. Eventually I come to the conclusion, usually with a lot of help from my husband, that by letting go you gain so much more than you would if you held on too tight.
    It is not unlike a butterfly; it is only in the cocoon for a period of time but evolves into a butterfly and will spread its wings and fly away. So our children, friends, and family members who are with us; some for a life time while others for only a season of time; are in our lives for a reason and a purpose. How sad it would be for the caterpillar to never get a chance to be a beautiful butterfly. How sad it would be if we limited our experiences. I can’t help but wonder when we hold on too tight if we are no longer truly enjoying life. I find for me I hold on too tight when I don’t have balance in my life. When I was a workaholic and I did not have the time to do all the things I wanted to do, I felt like I had to hold on to every moment. As I have started changing my life and working towards a more balanced approach I find I don’t feel that scary feeling so much anymore. I have been trying to not mark events as our last time together just the 5 of us on vacation, last birthday one of my children will living at home. If I can let myself be in the moment and not think so much about the past or worry too much about the future, I can enjoy the present. Last but not least, I think if we can find a way to embrace the journey and not be so focused on the destinations we would be able to find more magical moments.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Jennifer, I’m not sure if you’re a writer. But this theme in your life of workaholism giving way to a fuller life is very compelling. If you ever decide to start a blog for recovering workaholics, you have one subscriber!

      • jlanewell

        You are very kind. Yes I like to write and I do write stories. It is my personal dream to write a book someday as well as work in a flower shop …of coursethat is after all the kids are done with college.

    • Debbie

      Having the experience of dropping off 6 different children at college, I feel your pain. Even though there are times that I sit down in my chair late at night and cry my heart out, these times come less and less often. Because I have seen my son graduate from medical school, another son teaching college in China, my daughters give birth to beautiful grand children, another son face insurmountable challenges and come out on top, I know that my life grows more full and rich every day. Nothing beats watching your children succeed. Yet there are times when I cry because I want to hold my babies again. I want to hear their little voices laughing and playing. This article touched my soul because I needed to hear it and learn how to live it. I am with you….. lets find a way to embrace the journey, because we can only live in the present moment. Let’s find a way to let go of the past and the worry of the future, and enjoy today.

      • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

        You’re welcome, Debbie, and thank you for sharing your experience. Here’s to embracing today!

  • Dixie

    This is by far one of your best posts…maybe I needed confirmation of Jesus constantly teaching me to let go of those I can’t fix or change because I love them so much..yet, I know in the letting go on my part is the only way He can take over and do such a better job than I ever could have………..

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Right on, Dixie.

  • Santosh Verm

    The most touching, insightful, beautiful, ‘Present Moment’ lyrical piece that I have read in recent times.
    Incredibly true.
    May I share it on my blog or quote parts of it on my blog with credits/links to you?
    Thank you!
    Santosh
    http://www.aneyeforindia.com/blog

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Santosh, Thank you for your kind words and for asking permission! Please feel free to use it in part or whole, as long as no content is changed, and thanks for including a link back here. By the way, I can’t recall if I ever got back to you, but I wanted to let you know I love your work. It stirs something in me.

  • Debbie

    Once again you have reached inside my soul and taught me the “one thing” I needed to know. Thank you.

  • Amy

    Thank you for this. I am in the beginning stages (i.e., the fight!) of learning to give gratitude back to the God who has given so much to me. There is such inertia in me to living thankful; ugh. I had a great start early on, filling the pages of my gratitude journal with many sweet things (and some painful ones), then as the rush of newness faded it was replaced with the reemergence of my real habits. The joy then faded, too. Several months passed, and now I am carefully trying again, this time with the discipline of writing at least three things I’m grateful for each day, before bed. I imagine this gets easier.

    I recently read this phrase that helps me: “…come home to the present…”.

    Because the present is my home. Hanging on to what is gone, prematurely leaning in to what might be (expectation), and refusing to drink in what is before me for other priorities leave me feeling empty. I am missing many of my little ones’ precious moments as I continue to escape the present.

    I love the suggestion by an earlier commenter to interrupt the holding-on by picturing myself with hands open, palms up so I can receive the next moment.

    Your writing is rich and practical. Thank you for sharing what you’ve learned with us.

    • jlanewell

      It has been my experience in life that it takes many starts to go down a new path. Instead of beating yourself up for where you fall short. Remember there are many ways to get to the desired destination. In time you will find the path that best works for you.

      I guess my only question I would ask is what does living a grateful life look like for you. If you can write that down and then start out with a list of things you think you need to do to get your life aligned with that definition. Dont try to do the list all at once. Instead, do one new thing a week and give yourself one day a week that you dont have to be grateful.

      Give yourself one day to write down just how you feel even if it is not grateful at all. Allow yourself to feel what ever that is and to document it so you dont lose sight of your feelings. then the next day go back to writing down what you are grateful for. I find if we give ourselves time to make changes it has a better chance to stick.

      • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

        This is a great exercise, Jennifer!

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Amy, thank you for sharing this. And I hope others read your good advice about recording in writing the gifts of the day.

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  • Jennifer Gan

    How awesome is Aidan?

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      He is something, isn’t he, Jennifer? I’m especially in awe of him because he is so NOT me.

  • Ruth Twentey

    Thank you again for your thought-provoking, comforting blog. I have found that a major lesson in the pain of letting go of things or people we love… is finding solace in each other’s present/presence. It’s a cue to us to turn to (rather than away from) each other, and that being there for each other – whoever we are, and whoever is needing comfort – is the main reason we’re all here. Thanks for the reminder. This blog space is like a lifeline of hope many days.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you for these thoughts, Ruth. I hope today’s post is another one that gives you up for connection rather than division.

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