The Choice of Hanging On or Giving To

Wednesday, November 12, 2014 - 6:08 am

The Choice of Hanging On or Giving To

“To live in this world / you must be able/to do three things,” writes Mary Oliver in this well-known and much-loved poem. The three things she names are not easy, of course. But everything in my 75 years of experience tells me they are true — with a twist that’s at the heart of this little story.

Over the past decade, I’ve been reflecting on questions about aging and vocation — questions worth asking at any age, I think. I love my work. But with age come diminishments that keep me from doing as much of it as quickly as I’ve done in the past. The key question I’ve been holding seems simple enough on the surface: “What do I want to let go of and what do I want to hang onto?”

But I found that that question did not work for me, did not open onto a path I wanted to walk. So I took my quandary to a small group of trusted friends who sat with me for two hours. Their role was not to advise or “fix” me, but to ask honest, open questions and simply listen to me respond, giving me a chance to hear my own inner wisdom more clearly. (There’s more about this process that Quakers call a clearness committee.)

I emerged from that little gathering with something more important than an answer. I emerged with a better question. I’m no longer asking, “What do I want to let go of and what do I want to hang onto?” Instead I’m asking, “What do I want to let go of and what do I want to give myself to?”

(Paul McGeiver / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).)

I now see that “hanging on” is a fearful, needy, and clinging way to be in the world. But looking for what I want to give myself to transforms everything. It’s taking me to a place where I find energy, abundance, trust, and new life.

Yes, it was a “Well, duh!” moment for sure! But the more I live into it, the more I treasure it.

In Blackwater Woods
by Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Share Post


is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. His book On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old will be published in June.

Share Your Reflection