Letting Go and Living
by Father Paul A. Keenan
Wherever I go, people are concerned about something
they refer to as “letting go.” Sometimes they are
contemplating the letting go of a marriage. At other
times, they are struggling to rid themselves of an
addiction or a bad habit. Often the “letting go” is
emotional -- a grudge, a painful set of memories or a
neurosis that needs to be weeded from the garden of the
spirit. Still others are experiencing the “empty nest”
-- children growing up and going away to make their mark
in the world. In an odd twist of fate, many older
parents are wishing they could let go, as their adult
children return to live at home again. Those who are at
a crossroads in their lives almost inevitably experience
some well-intentioned soul blithely telling them to “let
go and let God.”
There is a lot of talk about letting go, and a great
deal of confusion as to what it means. It sounds so easy
when you say it, but it quickly becomes complicated. “Letting
go” is so much a part of our jargon today that it is
important that we penetrate the mist and develop some
clarity about it. Above all, we need to discover where
“letting go” fits into the overall picture of living
well. When does it serve us and when does it not? That’s
what we need to know.
There is a measuring stick by which to determine
whether something is an advantage or a drawback. If
something helps you to fulfill your life’s purpose,
keep it. If it doesn’t, then let it go.
That’s simple enough, but there are a lot of
footnotes to add to it. For one thing, the rule assumes
that life indeed has a purpose. Some will disagree with
that assumption, holding that life and its events are
random and coincidental and that they tend to no
conceivable end. If we assume purposelessness, it’s
difficult to find a basis for making life decisions. How
can we decide whether to keep something or to let go of
it? What is the basis for making such decisions?
THE BASES FOR OUR BELIEFS
As a matter of fact, people do use various bases for
making decisions other than by grounding them in
purpose. The American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce,
in an 1877 essay entitled “The Fixation of Belief,”
listed three ways in which people set their beliefs. The
first is tenacity - I hold a belief because I hold it
and have always held it, and I am not about to change my
mind. This is particularly apt for the problem of
letting go. How often do we hear a new idea dismissed
because “we’ve always done it the way we’re doing
it now.” Tenacity has given us some hateful and
dangerous attitudes and decisions. “People in our
family never marry outside our nationality.” “Of
course I’m voting Democratic (or Republican). Our
family has always voted that way.”
The second way of fixating belief, according to
Peirce, is by authority. Here, something is true merely
because someone in authority says it’s true. Authority
alone cannot be a true basis for our decisions. Two
people in authority can hold opposite opinions, both of
which cannot be true at the same time and in the same
respect. Somebody, in the end, has to be correct. A
belief is good, not because someone in authority says
so, but because it holds up after a lengthy process of
reasoning and reflection. When a person in authority
espouses a position, he or she must do so in a manner
that elucidates the entire previous process of thought
that leads to that conclusion. For example, when the
Pope teaches, his declaration is preceded by lengthy
study and reflection and his endorsement of a particular
doctrine includes a long exposition of the reasoning
behind it. Contrary to popular opinion, papal authority
in matters of faith and morals rests upon a strong
intellectual foundation, and the purpose of the Pope’s
teaching is to enlighten the minds of others. Even
authority is at the service of truth.
Peirce’s third delineation of grounds people use
for fixating their beliefs is taste. Today we would
likely switch the metaphor and say, “I decide whether
or not to do something according to what feels
good.” I keep something in my life or let go of it
depending upon what feels good to me at the time. The
problem is, feelings and tastes come and go, and so do
fads and fashions. Both on an individual and on a
societal level, taste and feeling are much too fleeting
a basis for grounding what we decide to do.
In place of the aforementioned three ways of
believing and deciding, Peirce suggests what he calls
“the method of scientific investigation.” For our
present purposes we need not go into the various
complexities of Peirce’s thinking. Suffice it to say
that he is looking for something objective, beyond the
arbitrary bounds of tenacity, authority and taste, upon
which to ground belief and action.
We can utilize Peirce’s analysis in our own
consideration of letting go. Each of his alternatives
resembles something all of us have used as a basis for
decision at one time or other. Tenacity: “I don’t
care how much these policies hurt our workers. This is
just the way we do things, and if they don’t like it
they can quit.” Authority: “I’d like to take six
months off and explore a dream of mine, but my parents
would just die if I ever did that.” Taste: “Look, I
happen to like doing drugs. If you think it’s
wrong, that’s your problem, not mine!”
The problem with these bases for decision is that
each of them rests on an assumption that is false.
Tenacity assumes that merely doing something for a long
time makes it good. Authority assumes that something is
good or bad because someone says so. Taste assumes that
there are no external standards upon which to base a
decision, that it’s all subjective.
The fallacy underlying all three false assumptions is
that any basis for decision must be validated from
outside of the action itself. Tenacity, authority and
taste subtly maintain that there is nothing intrinsic to
the content of the action that validates it. The claim,
in other words, is that there is no intrinsic standard
of validation available to apply to a decision about
what to do.
THE FUNDAMENTAL QUESTION
Such an intrinsic standard, however, is the one that
we must seek if we are to account fully for the decision
we make about whether to keep something or to let go of
it. Simply put, the important question to ask in
evaluating a possible letting-go is this: does my
keeping this thing, person or situation enhance or
detract from my nature as a human being and the nature
of humanity itself? Will letting it go make me a better
human being and improve the humanity of the world? The
reason that this is the fundamental question is that the
only basis for our having or letting go of anything is
that doing so will improve our ability to be human
ourselves and to increase the conditions of humanity in
others. That is our responsibility here on earth.
Let us see whether we can spell out a bit of what
this means. What is uniquely human is the ability to
discern, to understand and to choose within the realm
of, a level of reality that is beyond the limited scope
of the material world we see, touch, taste, hear and
smell around us, a realm that is meta-physical (beyond
the physical) in the truest sense of the word. Whatever
enhances our higher nature is to be kept. Whatever
diminishes it is to be let go. Our actions and decisions
are to be based, not on any external basis such as
tenacity, authority or taste, but on the internal
coherence between our action and our human nature.
What, then, are we discerning, understanding and
Let us begin very generally here and move to whatever
specifics we can find. In choosing to attain something
or to let go of it, we are, in the most general sense,
choosing good. Now something can be good in one of two
ways. A thing can be good or desirable only insofar as
it exists either in the objective world or in our minds.
Good in this sense is directly linked to existing. Yet
in another sense, something that exists may not be good
for us. Though it may be good in itself, it may in some
way be detrimental to our well-being. This is an
important distinction. When we tell ourselves, “There’s
nothing really wrong with what I’m doing,” we may be
in danger of blurring that distinction.
How do we know whether something contributes to our
well-being? Does it contribute if it increases our
pleasure and reduces our pain? That is often thought to
be the case, but it’s not necessarily true. We may get
tremendous pleasure from, say, robbing a bank; but it’s
evil because it is stealing, which means taking from
someone else what belongs to them. There may be
tremendous pain involved in a parent’s sitting for
days at the bedside of a sick child, but that’s a good
thing to do.
Perhaps the answer to the problem of what is good
lies in utility. Something is good, then, if it is
useful as a means to an end. But here there are two
questions. Is the end good? Are the means that you are
employing to attain the end, good? Suppose for example
that a person decides that he or she wants to get to the
top of their company. That may or may not be good,
depending on their motivation; but for the moment, let’s
say that it’s a good thing. But what if that person
decides to get there by slandering everyone who is
presently in line for the top post? That is a very
useful means to the end, but it’s evil. Usefulness
alone is not a valid criterion for good.
The question of keeping or letting go depends not
upon pleasure, pain or utility, but upon whether the
person, thing or situation enhances or destroys the
higher well-being of all concerned. Is it enhancing the
soul or destroying it? Is it creating for all concerned
a greater milieu in which knowledge and love can
flourish, or not?
These decisions are not material for snap judgment.
It is not always clear what is really true and good and
what is only apparently so. A marriage that once seemed
to be over may, a year down the road and with a great
deal of work, flourish into a loving union. A job that
six months ago seemed stifling may, with some
adjustments here and there, become the doorway to new
creativity. Yet there are situations in which it is
appropriate to let go. How do we know whether to let go
Here are some questions that might prove helpful in
deciding whether or not to let go:
1. What do I honestly think and feel about my present
2. What options are available to me, including
keeping the status quo?
3. What are the possible positive and negative
outcomes of each of the options, including keeping the
4. Remembering that evil cannot be done so that good
can come from it, does any of the options (including
keeping the status quo) involve doing something evil in
the sense described above? Eliminate any such options
from your list.
5. Of the remaining options, are there any that I
feel totally disinclined to do or that would likely be
distractions from how I want to spend my time on earth?
(Note: it’s fine to use pleasure, pain and utility as
considerations in decision making, so long as they are
not the ultimate consideration.)
6. Of the remaining options, which would seem to
enhance humanness (the milieu in which knowledge and
love can flourish) for yourself and all others
concerned? Can you identify any that would do this more
than the others?
7. If it’s feasible, walk away from all of this for
a few days. When you come back, ask yourself, “What do
I think I’ll do?”
Spiritually minded people will want to invoke divine
guidance throughout this process. It’s also a good
idea to bring one or two other people into the process
for feedback and ideas. And if the consequences of your
decision will seriously impact upon the lives of others,
consider seeking their reactions as well.
HIERARCHY OF GOODS
In our discussion of letting go, it’s important to
note that in life there is a hierarchy of commitments.
Though one must always strive to make only those
commitments he or she can keep, and though every
commitment has a sacred quality to it (a person’s word
is their bond), some commitments are by nature more
sacred than others. I bring this up because of a
tendency in our society to view marriage as readily
dispensable. It often seems that, in the eyes of
society, people change spouses as readily as they change
jobs. I’m not critiquing particular situations, but in
general it’s clear that more consideration needs to be
given to marriage as a sacred and permanent commitment
between a husband and a wife. This is true both in
preparation for marriage and in the difficult moments
within the marriage. For the general purposes of our
discussion of “letting go,” we can say that when
making a decision about letting go, one very important
question to ask is, “Is there a sacredness about my
commitment which obliges me to incline in favor of
honoring it and nurturing it if at all possible?”
TIME AND LIFE
Throughout this discussion, I have emphasized that
what we call “letting go” is a matter of making
choices. Often we hear this phrased in terms of time:
how do we know when it is time to let go? But the
time formulation is deceptive because it does not cut to
the heart of the matter, and can even lead us astray.
“Time” and “good” are not interchangeable terms.
It is good to let something go when it is time to let it
go, but not because of time, but because of good. Time
is not a reason for letting go, but good and greater
I mention this because of the painful situations
friends and relatives face concerning people on
life-support. You often hear anguished and well-meaning
families say, “It’s time to let Mom go.” But the
true determining factor should not be time; rather, it
should be life. If it were about time, you could argue
for life termination, for example, early on. “It’s
time. She’s lived her life. She’s had a good life.
She shouldn’t suffer,” and so on. All of these
things may be true, but they bypass the truly core
issue: the sacredness of life. Life decides when it is
time to go; time does not. We must honor life’s
decisions, not time’s reasons. Time is too arbitrary a
basis for decision. Time is at the service of life, not
the other way around. Now this does not necessarily mean
utilizing every medical means known to keep someone
alive, though one may. But it does mean providing the
conditions of life (such as food and water) so that life
can decide naturally when the time to go has come. When
it comes to letting go, life and not time must have the
CHOOSING THE GOOD LIFE
This leads naturally to some thoughts about the
relative values that might be involved in letting go.
One example that comes up a lot today is the choice
between marriage and career. If my career is (or our
careers are) putting real strain on the marriage, what
do we do? You hear plenty of stories today about people
who gave up very successful careers in order to have
more family time and time to do what they love. Though
on some days, doing this can seem very attractive, it’s
not always practical or even good. Each individual
situation is so different that there is no
one-size-fits-all. But there are considerations that can
help keep us from drowning in a sea of relativism. These
considerations can also help us prevent the breakup of
the marriage due to career demands.
First, it’s important to note that the apparent
duality that either the marriage or the career must go
is not necessarily true. The issue here is more complex
than that. Coming to a conclusion about what to do
requires a higher question, which could be framed in a
number of ways. For our purposes the simplest way to
frame it is to ask, “What constitutes a good life?”
Mortimer Adler in his book The Time of Our Lives
argues persuasively that we are morally obliged to live
a good life. For our present purposes, I think it’s
sufficient to say that people who are feeling pressured
want, deep down, to live a good life, but often believe
that they cannot change their circumstances. I find
helpful the way in which Adler spells out the various
qualities that enter into a good life.
1. Sleeping, eating, cleaning, etc.
2. Working to earn one’s livelihood.
3. Leisure, or working for some purpose other than
4. Play or amusement.
5. Idling (not the same as sheer bone idleness).
These are good handy categories for our purposes, and
for a precise definition of each, I recommend reading
Adler’s book. For these purposes, I include this list
to show that in deciding what to do when marriage and
career are in conflict, it is a good idea to take stock
of what constitutes a good life. A couple or a family
with such a list can sit down and say, “What is the
best way we can think of to structure our lives so that
we live a good life?”
Here are some thoughts about each of the above
1. The “maintenance” activities should be honored
but not to excess.
2. It is spiritually deadly to spend the bulk of one’s
time earning a living. Nobody really benefits from that
in the long run, and despite the “common wisdom”
about this, there usually are alternatives.
3. Leisure is not the same as lolling about in front
of the television or playing endless video games. It is
working for one’s self-improvement and for that of
others. It is not, strictly speaking, the same as play.
(Spiritual study and activity come under leisure.)
4. Play is important, but not to excess.
5. Idling - occasionally doing nothing, can be good
for the soul.
6. Rest is essential, though not to excess.
Adler suggests that insofar as possible one’s life
be built around leisure -- creative self- and
other-improvement, and that insofar as possible, one
make one’s leisure one’s true work, even supporting
oneself through it if possible.
With this kind of reflection, a couple or family can
realize that it’s not a question of the marriage or
the career, but a question of how to live a good life.
It makes it possible for them to seek ways to honor
their marriage commitment and to continue to build a
life together. They’ll keep some things, add some
things and let go of some things depending on how they
envision their good life together.
I am deeply convinced that most couples contemplating
the breakup of their marriage would, deep down, choose
to save their marriage if they knew how. The “good
life” question gives them a solid way to reflect on
how to make their marriage a loving and lively union
What is of the utmost importance, however, is that
our couple actually face the question of the good life
and not become so mired in their present situation that
eventually it runs away with them. I mentioned earlier
Adler’s conviction that we are morally obliged,
because of our nature as human beings, to seek a good
life. This does not necessarily mean a life of maximum
pleasure, but certainly it is a life of self-fulfillment
and service to others. We are responsible for the time
and talents God has given us, and we are called to enjoy
them and to use them well.
Letting go, whether it is forced upon us by
circumstance or chosen, is a natural part of life. As my
father often reminded me, “If we didn’t part, we
couldn’t meet again.” When letting go is difficult,
we can take comfort in the fact that nature abhors a
vacuum. And if we decide not to let go of something, the
process of deciding will have given us new insight into
our life. Painful though they may sometimes be, our
lettings-go pave the way for new opportunities and fresh
ideas. Letting go may lead us to believe that our world
has ended. The truth is -- our life has just begun.
© Copyright 2004 Father Paul A. Keenan. All Rights Reserved.
Father Paul A. Keenan: Popular speaker, author and
radio co-host of WABC Radio’s "Religion on the
Line," Father Paul Keenan likes to talk and write
about the issues that matter to people. Widely
experienced as a national and local television and
radio news commentator, he is the author of Good
News for Bad Days, Stages of the Soul and Heartstorming.
As Director of Radio Ministry of the Archdiocese
of New York, he supervises, produces and writes for
various radio and television programs. In addition, he
serves as a parish priest in New York City.
Father Paul Keenan, came to his
now-ten-year-old career in New York broadcasting after
having been a college teacher and administrator and a
parish priest for many years. He hails from Kansas City,
where he graduated from Rockhurst University and
completed an M.A. in Moral and Pastoral Theology at
Saint Louis University. He was ordained to the
priesthood in 1977, and went on to complete an M.A. in
Philosophy at Fordham University.
Father Paul is also known for
his work on the Web. He hosts his own website (www.fatherpaul.com)
and contributes regular articles to various other sites.
He is a regular columnist for the monthly newspaper,
"Catholic New York." His other talents and
interests include reading, cooking and being humble
servant to his three cats, Teddy, Lionel and Midnight.