The Fallacy of Letting Go

Let it Go! Contrary to what you might think, this blog is not about a certain song that won an Oscar for Best Original Song in 2014. Instead, I am referring to a phrase that Americans commonly use in response to a person’s pain. These words are often spoken when the listener believes it is time for the one in need of care to simply move on. This phrase may be heard when someone is experiencing a loss, and the listener deems that the grieving has continued long enough.

Unfortunately, those three words “let it go” may unintentionally inflict more pain on the bereaved. They imply that the bereaved has the power to instantly release the pain. These words may communicate, “It’s your own fault that you are hurting.” In some instances, the griever may hear that the pain is not important, demonstrating a lack of respect for the other.

The words “let it go” may also communicate the exasperation of the listener. The listener may feel helpless to change the situation, thereby coming face to face with her own finitude and vulnerability. It is possible that the listener has developed a timeline based on culture’s expectations on how long a person is to grieve or be in pain. Culture dictates that if a family member dies, the mourner is to be back at work within three to five days. Just let it go, will ya! Get back to work!

Contra to culture’s expectations, the reality is: If grievers attempt to let go and get back to work, they will be unsuccessful in eliminating the effects of grief. Research published by The Grief Recovery Institute Educational Foundation in 2003 reveals that the economic impact of grief in the workplace is to the tune of $75.1 billion annually. The research highlighted that after a significant loss: eighty-five percent of those at the management level described their ability to make decisions as “Very Poor to Fair,” and ninety percent of those in blue-collar jobs claimed a much higher frequency of physical injuries because of their decreased ability to concentrate. The research not only underscored the deaths of human beings but also stressed the dollar amounts for other kinds of losses (e.g. divorce, family crisis, financial loss, lifestyle alterations, etc.) that have an impact on businesses. Thus, while the death of a biologically-related person was ranked at the top ($37.6 billion), the sum total of the other types of losses comprise almost half the dollar amount of the annual cost of the effects of grief on American businesses [John W. James and Russell Friedman, “Grief Index: The ‘Hidden’ Annual Costs of Grief in America’s Workplace”]. In short, grief has an ongoing impact that has an unintentional, yet powerful, ripple effect.

Theorists and counselors in the field of loss and grief address the fallacy of let it go. Kenneth Doka writes of the myth, “Grief is about letting go” and perceives this is the most “destructive myth” concerning grief. When we are told to let go of our grief, Doka states the “mourning process” centers on “reviewing and releasing emotions we had invested in a relationship.” Instead, Doka holds that humans “retain a continuing bond with those we love” [Doka, Grief is a Journey: Finding Your Path through Loss, 14-15].

This is what makes any loss difficult: we love and we care, and this points towards our own attachment to a person or a thing. When a loss occurs, a bond is not completely severed. (While loss may refer to anything to which we form an attachment, I will focus on the death of a person for simplicity’s sake.) No matter how strong or weak the bond, the loved one is a part of me and I am a part of that person so that the other remains with me. As relational beings, the other becomes a part of us, a piece of our identity. When the other dies, a piece of me is gone, and the adjustment to this new identity involves changes in me, and changing ourselves is an ongoing, arduous journey. As Bob Baugher writes, “[Y]ou never get over the death, you get different” (italics in the original). [Bob Baugher, Coping with Grief: A Guide for the Bereaved Survivor, 65]

Currently, I am not only adjusting to a different me, but (now with the death of my second parent) I also am adjusting to a different relationship with both of my parents. The relationship is not over. I am still a daughter to Harold and Betty, and they have a continuing influence on my beliefs and actions. This awareness of an ongoing relationship with my parents is resulting in my recognition of their presence through their absence. I am grieving them (their presence) because of their deaths (their absence). As I grieve my parents, I am gaining an increased appreciation for their presence, such as who they were or what they did. One of the reasons I have enjoyed hearing stories about my mother and father since they have died is that through the stories I am learning to a greater extent about who they were. As I hear a story, I experience sadness from their absence while being grateful for their presence. The storytellers have had experiences with my father and/or my mother, and the sharing of these experiences is a way for me to experience my parents through the lenses of the storytellers while growing in my understanding of the personalities of my father and mother. The stories bring my parents to life, and through the hearing of these stories, the stories become a part of me, enhancing my current relationship with and my perspective of my parents in their absence. In fact, I wonder if my bond to my parents is growing in their absence, generating a kind of presence in absence.

A similar case may be made in our relationship with God. It is no secret that Pentecostals strongly hold to a belief in a divine encounter—the presence of God. Their worship in song in a service creates a space to experience God; prayer is a way in which to request that God intervene, and the altar is a place for encountering the divine. Traditionally, testimonies are shared in a service, which are stories of how God has intervened.

Yet, what transpires when the expected divine encounter fails to occur? Unfortunately, there is a reluctance to talk about such occasions. It may be their own uncomfortableness with questioning theology or their own unwillingness to look at their own vulnerability. Perhaps they do not know what else to say, so they utter pious platitudes, such as “You need more faith” or “You must have sin in your life.” For a Pentecostal, then, the admission that God has not removed the pain is risky business: It may become an incident of shame that says, “You are not good enough. You are bad.”

For a Pentecostal, the apparent absence of God is the elephant in the room. This is regrettable for it is in the experience of God’s apparent absence we learn about God’s presence. It is here our bond with God may be enhanced. In God’s apparent absence we learn to carry within us in a new dimension who God is. Thus, we need both stories of presence and absence in our circles.

Let us consider the Gospel of Mark, which has two emphases: miracles and suffering, or if you will, intervention and the lack of intervention. It is said that almost a third of this Gospel consists of healing. Mark often uses the word for immediately to demonstrate the quickness with which healings occur, portraying Jesus as powerful. The Second Evangelist has more power encounters with demons, disease, and death than any other Gospel to demonstrate Jesus’ superiority. Yet, an additional notable theme in Mark is that of suffering. Mark portrays Jesus as steadily moving toward Jerusalem while predicting his death three times and stating that he came “to give his life as a ransom for many.” New Testament scholar Joel Green comments that Golgotha, not the resurrection, is the climax of Mark’s story; it is the place of divine revelation while being the lowest moment in Jesus’ life. It is to be noted that the resurrection in the original ending of Mark’s story is ambiguous, as if he is inviting his original hearers to embrace ambiguity.

Stories of Jesus’ miracles and stories of suffering.

Stories of God’s presence and stories of God’s apparent absence.

Such stories would be fitting for an audience that scholars believe were being persecuted. The stories portray a tension between the expectation of an intervention by God in the form of miracles and a theology of suffering as a disciple of Jesus. It stands to reason that if they were being persecuted, Mark’s audience did not always experience God as the one who supernaturally intervenes through deliverance. Thus, the stories of suffering normalized the hearers’ suffering for the gospel’s sake while stories of miracles reminded the sufferers to continue to believe in a God who intervenes supernaturally in the lives of humanity.

Rather than merely saying phrases such as let it go, Mark enters into the pain of his hearers by normalizing their suffering through stories of suffering. Pentecostals traditionally hold up testimonies, stories of God’s intervention. What if we follow the Second Evangelist’s lead and also express what Walter Brueggemann calls “countertestimonies,” stories when God has not intervened—stories of the apparent absence of God? Both stories normalize the human experience and assist in validating the other’s experience. Both types of stories form a theology, a perspective and understanding of God. Both stories strengthen our relationship with God as we experience God’s apparent absence and presence. The stories of presence remind those that are experiencing God’s apparent absence that God still intervenes today, and the stories of God’s apparent absence serve to prompt those experiencing God’s presence to be the face of God to the hurting—God’s presence in apparent absence.

(To read more on “countertestimonies” from a Pentecostal perspective, see Stephen Torr’s A Dramatic Pentecostal/Charismatic Anti-Theodicy: Improvising on a Divine Performance of Lament.)


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