I’ve been thinking for several years now about getting a tattoo. Now in my 40’s, I still worry about what my dad will say. But my delayed ink is more the result of being unable to commit to something that will be with me until the day I die. Funny, actually, since I have real trouble ever truly letting go of anything. Why would a permanent mark on my body instill such hesitation?
I think the answer to that question lies more in the fact that I just get bored too damn easily. I’m afraid that I’ll choose something, look at it every day, and in time grow to hate it because it never changes or evolves. I’m afraid it will bore me. Last month, however, I purchased and wore a temporary tattoo that I think will finally inspire the piece I get inscribed on my skin. The design is a somewhat ornate depiction of two simple words: “Let Go.”
After a decade of more of just thinking about the idea of a tattoo, why would two simple words speak to me so clearly and convincingly? Perhaps it has something to do with a quote by Shannon Adler that I recently read and loved: “Your heart’s strength is measured by how hard it holds on. Your self-worth and faith is measured by finally letting go.”
Lord knows my heart is strong. I have held on to ideas, to things, to people – in many instances – much longer than they held me back. And with that deep urge to hold on, I have maybe sacrificed pieces of myself that I will never reclaim. It’s ok. They have made me who I am. And I believe my capacity to love is stronger and greater than it has ever been.
But it’s time to reclaim my faith and to remember my self-worth. When I pause to think about the things I’ve held on to for so long, I am prompted to question what motivated me to do so. I think in situations like that, we often romanticize the reason for holding on as love, as some once-in-a-lifetime connection, or as some duty we have to an idea or person. But fear is probably the more accurate cause for holding onto something that no longer serves us well. What if we let go and aren’t any happier? What if things change and I make a mistake? What if … what if … what if?
Instead of the viewing the “what if” as a negative and scary thing, I am motivated to take a good look at the “what if” as a completely positive possibility. This means, as the author of my quote suggested, taking those leaps of faith, diminishing my need to control every single thing, and being ok with not always being ok. Every chance we take is the beginning of something new; a chance to learn more about ourselves and the world around us. The greatest beginnings – as they say – are often found in the endings of something else.
What things have you been wanting to let go of? What chances might you take if you could relinquish the need to control what would happen? How much more satisfying might your life be if you could just “let go”?
When asked what I would do if I hit the lottery, my answer has always been the same: I would be a perpetual student. I would enroll in school and thoroughly study every area that interests me; not because I want a list of degrees nor out of a desire to make money with those degrees, but because I find knowledge empowering and intoxicating.
Lately, however, I’ve been learning that knowledge can be dangerous. It can cause personal conflict and complicate situations that, on the surface, are simple or easy or fun. As I’ve thought about it, I’ve come to realize that knowing the whole truth can be a real bummer. And so, I wrote this statement on my Facebook page about two weeks ago and have been thinking about it ever since:
Don’t look for what you don’t want to find.
I suppose my statement is similar to the notion that ignorance is bliss, a concept I’ve always had a hard time embracing. Ignorance, to me, has always been the mechanism for producing fools. But on a personal level, I’m beginning to believe that there’s something to be said for the face value. It’s simple. If you like what you see, great! If you don’t, move on. There’s no misunderstanding, no complexity, no need to prove worth or value. A situation or relationship is always just as it appears.
Here’s the problem with all of that: I can’t do it.
So, what to do? I went back and reread my statement. Suddenly, an answer came…right in the actual words. The statement doesn’t say “don’t look.” It says not to look for what we don’t want to find. So, instead of looking for negative things, maybe the answer is to look for the good things in other people; those qualities that draw us closer and help to build a relationship based on true admiration. Remember that on the surface, a block of coal is just a dirty, dark lump of rock. But if we break open the coal looking to find something worthwhile, a diamond might be revealed. Instead of focusing on the way people fall short, maybe the happiness in a relationship comes from honoring the talents and assets of a person and celebrating those. There’s nothing foolish about that.
Today I find myself staring at a print that’s been framed and hanging in my office for many years. It is a reproduction of American artist Howard Pyle’s The Mermaid. The work depicts two figures – a mermaid and a man – in a deep embrace at the edge of the sea. The two are folded so tightly into each other that it is almost hard to determine where one body begins and the other ends.
I first discovered Pyle’s painting years ago – so long ago, in fact, that it is hard for me to recall how or when exactly. I do know that I liked it enough to order a large print from the art museum. That print is now framed and has followed me from work space to work space over the years. Sometimes it stood neatly in the back of a closet (as I reconsidered my decorating options), but for the better part of 20 years, that painting has been present – neatly hung on otherwise plain walls – in the spaces where I’ve spent most of my time. Over the years, I found many reasons to love this work of art. I have actually surprised myself with the number of observations I’ve been able to make about the painting.
Today as I sit looking at the print, I am imagining a story behind the painting. The figures in the painting are obviously in love with each other (or so I think because of their embrace). But a relationship between a mermaid and a land-lover is obviously challenged by a variety of things (yes, for just a moment,you have to give into the idea that mermaids exist). They live in completely opposite worlds. One could argue, in fact, that the man on land lives a more rigid life, bound to the elements of his universe and forced to navigate a rocky terrain. The mermaid on the other hand, lives in the sea where she has learned to swim with the current. To me, she is the more flexible rider of waves. She has learned to hold her breath and dive deep beneath the surface in hopes of finding treasure not always obvious at the surface. She, to me, is the more carefree and adventurous of the two. He is grounded (literally) and unable to explore the depths she knows.
And yet they are here together in Pyle’s painting, each having come half-way to the other. He is knee-deep in the ocean. She is waist-high in the air. And they are sharing an embrace in which their longing for each other is palpable.
Is it because they can’t be together that they want each other so much? Or do they simply want each other despite the challenges they face? I guess Pyle leaves that up to the viewer to decide. But when I look at the painting, here’s the story I see:
One day a man went out for a walk. Attracted to the cool ocean breeze and the twinkle of sunlight on waves, he chose a path along the shore. As he walked, he caught glimpse of something unique and interesting in the surf. When the man moved closer to the water’s edge, he realized that the thing he observed was a woman diving up and down in the waves. She sparkled, unlike anything he ever knew before. Again, he moved closer, putting just toes in the water. When the woman saw him, she retreated deeper into the ocean. Alarmed, the man called out to her, reassuring her that he meant no harm. The woman swam closer. The man moved to a rock at the water’s edge and sat. Curious, the woman swam closer. Soon, he began talking and she listened. She had never heard a voice so soothing, words so sweet. But then, reminded of her tie to the ocean, the woman turned and swam away. The man sat for hours on the rock waiting for her to return. Finally, he went home and tried to forget what he convinced himself was a dream. The next day, the man returned to the same spot along the ocean’s shore. He perched on the warm rock and began to read a book. Soon, he heard a splashing in the ocean that once again revealed the woman he knew from the prior day. This time, the man invited her closer, asking if she’d like to hear part of his book’s story. She moved closer. The man read chapter after chapter, each turn of the page brought her closer and closer to him. After several hours, she was positioned on the rock next to him, her upper body folded before him, her tail still emerged in water. The man repeated his visit day after day and readings from the book soon turned to conversation. She did not see his legs; he did not see her fins. Instead, the two found a connection. Love. Days turned into weeks and weeks into years and today each of them knows that their situation is not practical. He can never live in the sea and she cannot survive on land. But their passion for each other continues to drive them back to this rock. And in moments of compromise, he moves into the water and she reaches back into air. They find each other. And in their embrace, each believes – for just a moment – that if he were to jump fully into the water, her love would help him float.
But that’s just my imagination. What does the painting say to you?
(Howard Pyle’s original painting of The Mermaid is housed in the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, DE. It was painted in 1910 as oil on canvas. For more information, including the museum’s story about the painting, visit http://www.delart.org/collections/american-illustration/the-mermaid/)