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Father Paul Keenan

Letting Go and Living Well
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.”

Good News for Bad Days: Living a Soulful Life by Father Paul Keenan

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?


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.

Heart Storming by Father Paul Keenan


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 choosing?

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 or not?


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 situation?

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 status quo?

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.


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?”

Stages of the Soul by Father Paul Keenan


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 good are.

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 last word.


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 earning livelihood.

4. Play or amusement.

5. Idling (not the same as sheer bone idleness).

6. Resting.

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 elements.

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 again.

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 Keenan
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.





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