A year of letting go

2021 was, for me, a year of steady reminders that, eventually, we have to let go of the things we love. I quit my tenure-track academic position in January, and had to let go of my academic career, the foundation of my identity for at least the last decade and a half of my life (and if I’m being honest, probably longer than that). We all collectively had to let go of the brief and delicious summer months where it looked like our Covid vaccines would allow us to get back to living like we had in the before times. I had to let go of the season of racing cyclocross that I had diligently trained all year for, after I managed to crash myself out of the very first race of the season while warming up. I was off the bike for a month with an MCL sprain.

Harder still, we suddenly had to let go of my cat Freya, who’s been a constant companion through the last 10 years, seeing me through my PhD, a breakup, a move to NJ, another move to another part of NJ, the tumultuous first few years of the tenure track, the tumultuous end of my tenure track, and, finally, yet another move. I still am regularly convinced that I hear her yowling murderously out the window, nearly six months after her kidneys suddenly gave out.

And, of course, there was my mom’s cancer.

The journey from diagnosis (early 2020, colon cancer) through initial treatment (successful surgery, good prognosis) to recurrence and metastasis is probably a familiar one, at least in the broad strokes. But living through it, especially in the awful first year and a half of Covid where I wasn’t able to visit, meant letting go of the optimistic stories that we were telling ourselves. And that brings me to the point of writing about this at all: what is left when you’ve let go of hope, certainty about the future, and a belief that you have some real control over the things that matter most to you?

At first, I was mad. It felt like a terrible, cosmic injustice that my mom was diagnosed with a life threatening illness the same year she (reluctantly) retired from her career as a public high school teacher. I know this is a cliche but she truly was one of the mostly selflessly hardworking people I’ve ever known, and this illness was depriving her of the first chance she’d ever really had to do the things she wanted to do. I was mad for my family, who had to make impossible choices about how and when to travel, to balance the risks of exposing an immunocompromised person to Covid with the very real possibility that we wouldn’t get another chance to see her before she died. And—as shameful as it feels to admit it—I was mad about how much my own life was being disrupted. Traveling between NJ and central Maine is not easy, while at the same time juggling the start of a new career, my amateurish training program, supporting my own partner through a difficult school year, etc. etc.

At a certain point, I even had to let go of being mad, and of the desire to be in control that in hindsight was really at the root of that anger. I was a full cup, sitting under a running faucet, and anger gave way to numbness and resignation. This is where my passing familiarity with Buddhist ideas about attachment and impermanence provided a great deal of comfort. In Buddhist thinking, the root cause of suffering is not external but is instead our mental habits of believing our ideas about the world to be real and true. The loss of a beloved pet is painful surely, but if we’re honest with ourselves we know that our pets will die. The root of the associated suffering is that we’re attached to our idea of them. The really pernicious thing about impermanence is that even pleasurable, joyful things are the source of suffering, because that pleasure and joy are also impermanent but we want so badly to believe that they could be permanent.

Knowing the truth of this at this intellectual level does not make suffering go away, of course. But it did help me find a conceptual framework for thinking about my own reactions. And the associated goals of Buddhist practice—being fully present without trying to change or control things; non-judgemental acceptance of the way things are without giving in to nihilism; balancing compassion and equanimity towards others—provided a set of concrete things to focus on and strive for as I navigated my mom’s slow decline and, eventually, her death in November.

It was in any objective sense truly a miserable year, but I’m nevertheless grateful for the experiences. The insight of this idea of impermanent that is so comforting to me is that the bad feelings associated with loss and grief are in some sense the reflection of the value of the lost thing. In this way of looking at things, loss is not a Bad Thing to be avoided at all costs, but rather an intrinsic part of living a joyful, connected life. So as I try to move on from the things I’ve lost in 2021, I’m trying to take these losses as an (unwelcome) invitation to reflect on the value of those things.

And, just as importantly, letting go is a necessary part of continuing to grow and change. I continue to be thrilled by the work we’re doing at Beacon and the absolutely wonderful people I get to work with every day (we’re hiring!), and that was only really possible after I let go of the idea I was somehow destined to be an academic. It was never really realistic to think I was going to have a normal race season given my mom’s illness, and an early season injury was an opportunity to re-evaluate my priorities and the reasons why I ride and to just, like, chill for a while this fall and enjoy some more technical mountain biking than I usually would go for. And letting go of my mom meant that we have grown closer together as a family, out of necessity of sharing the burden of caregiving in her final months, but also by ongoing, deliberate choice to honor mom’s memory by looking after each other.

If any of this resonates with you, I’d like to suggest two small books that a much more dedicated student of Buddhist thinking and practice suggested to me. First is Being with Dying by Joan Halifax, a surprisingly practical and personal guide to nearly every aspect of, well, being with dying, by a Buddhist chaplain with long experience in hospice care. Second is When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön, which is slightly less focused on death and dying per se but perhaps more useful because of that. Finally, I’ve found Emptiness: A Practical Guide for Meditators by Guy Armstrong to be a very accessible introduction to these ideas coupled with, well, practical advice for engaging with them as part of a meditative practice.

Finally finally, my entire family benefited immensely from the advice and information in this series of pamphlets on hospice and end-of-life care by Barbara Karnes.