On Letting Go

‘Better to have loved and lost / than to have never loved at all’ wrote Tennyson in his work In Memoriam, discerning the negative qualities of something do not necessarily discount or negate its positive ones. And so it is with a lover now gone. The pain one feels now should not justify deleting the experience from existence in a ‘sunshine of the spotless mind’.

Yet, while we may agree intellectually with Tennyson’s sentiment, when we are sitting across from an empty chair or walking alone along a pier seeing couples holding hands, it becomes immensely difficult, ridiculous even, to agree emotionally. We can agree with our head it seems, but not with our heart.

Once again, intellectually, we may acknowledge loss cannot be separated from love. We know that even without a break up and the blessing to spend our entire lives together, one day one of us will still be looking over the casket of the other. Yet the intellect provides no solace to the soul. We know that eventually one was destined to leave, but that does not make it hurt any less. The realm of the intellect is neat and formal, but the realm of the heart abides by no such standards of cleanliness, it is a messy and often chaotic place. What may be clear to the intellect is not immediately clear to the heart.

The antagonism between holding on and letting go leaves us feeling caught between an emotional Scylla and Charybdis. On the one hand, if we hold on, this person can remain as a precious memory in our heart. Love will continue, even if the agony of their loss will haunt each precious memory and poison it. On the other hand, we could let them go, but then we would come face to face with ourselves as the petty, ignorant, broken individuals we are; if we were better after all, would they not have stayed? Between the rocky shoals of holding on and the whirlpool of letting go; navigating the precarious passage seems impossible.

When we hold on, we fail to move into the present. We tell ourselves that while our lover is now gone, that they have been mistaken and will soon realise their error and return. With the music of love absent, we fill the empty space with the misguided symphony of hope; the opiate of a broken heart. ‘When we eventually acknowledge the asymmetry of feeling’ writes Maria Popova in her masterwork Figuring, ‘we first labour to persuade ourselves that the intensity of our own love is reward enough’[1]. Soon, when the illusion of return dissolves, we grasp onto another illusion (no less illusory but feeling so as we reflect on our previous attitude) that while our love is no longer reciprocated, the strength of our own love is so strong that it will sustain us. We tell ourselves that we will continue to adore them from a distance, finding solace and fulfilment in our unrequited love. But this illusion too fades and we realise this love is empty and we must now deal with the loss that was too raw to deal with originally.

Letting go carries its own metaphysical burden. Thinking about a life without your partner seems like the highest betrayal. We think that if we let go, it is proof that the love itself was never genuine in the first place. We want to believe that the one whom we loved was truly special and unique, and therefore, if we let go of them and transform them into a memory, they become like every other person we have met, flattened in the one-dimensional space of recollection. If we accept we can let go, then this person becomes just like any other person we could have met, and our love becomes diminished in our own eyes, a product of chance rather than destiny.

Perhaps we are destined to love, but not destined for the one whom we love. If this is true, to love fully, to love deeply, and to continue loving, we must be willing to accept loss as an essential feature in any relationship. This does not mean that we should count on, expect or hope for the moment our beloved leaves us, but rather, it means we should recognise the fleeting and ephemeral nature of love. ‘A consideration of death’ wrote Alan Watts, ‘can lead to a greater appreciation of life’. Considering that every love must inevitably come to an end may prompt us to act differently. We may realise because our time together is conditional, not guaranteed; momentary, not everlasting, that we should savour each moment we have together, which may lead to a richer, more fulfilling relationship. Accepting that once things have run their course that this should not be a cause for despair, but a cause for celebration for time spent well together, of a life lived fully. In turn, we will be prepared for the inevitable loss and rather than running away from it, be slightly better equipped to deal with it.


[1] Popova, M.P., 2020. Figuring. Great Britain: Canongate Books. 348

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