We get tangled up in things before we know it sometimes and when we do, we are faced with how we get unstuck. As we start to review what might have gotten us to where we are, we start through some of the experiences we have had to see if that can help. It’s then that we bump into a conundrum. Should we let go or hold on? Both options have been advice we have received and since they are opposites, which one do we choose?
Perhaps the problem stems from the dichotomy going on inside us. We may not want to deal with what we are facing any more so letting go of it appeals to us, but we know that is easier said than done because a decision to do that doesn’t quickly eliminate it from swirling in our thoughts. The thoughts come unbidden at such odd times like when we are just sitting at a stop light or right before we fall asleep. Could it be we are trying too hard to not think about the very thing we want to let go of?
Perhaps it’s a white bear problem. White bears? It has nothing to do with white bears! True, but maybe white bears can teach us what makes it hard to stop thinking about the problem we’re facing.
In 1987 a Harvard psychologist by the name of Dr. Daniel Wegner was intrigued by an essay by Dostoevsky written in 1863 about white polar bears. As a result, he set up a study about blocking out thinking about white bears when you are told to do so or want to do so. He had two groups of subjects, and one was told to not think about white bears and the other was asked to tell what their stream of consciousness was while thinking about white bears over a period of five minutes.
The results of the study were revealing and gave us a glimpse into why telling ourselves not to think about something makes it harder not to think about it. Wegner discovered that trying not to think of a white polar bear ironically made it only more likely that you couldn’t get one out of your mind.
In recent months I can attest to the truth of the study results. I have been grappling with something that should seem simple enough to do, but it sets up massive amounts of anxiety for me and creates a huge problem before I even attempt it because I can’t stop thinking about it. When I attempt to do it, that anxiety skews the results and the more I try to do it the greater the reinforcement of thinking about it occurs.
Maybe we hold on too tightly sometimes as we try to manage or control something and that is what gets us stuck thinking about “white bears.”
Sometimes we are unaware that we can be prone to hang on more easily than we can let go. When we hang on, it gives us the sense that we have some measure of control of whatever it is and reveals our challenge to trust letting go if that is the best choice. Clearly one is not always the right answer over the other. If we are being rescued from a fire or a near fatal fall over a cliff and someone reaches out and grabs our arm and tells us to hang on and not let go, that is exactly what we should do. Why? Because we can’t control what will happen to us when and if we do let go and certain death is likely. But is there another example of when we need to let go of the sense of needing to be in control and when holding on to the conscious idea of safety is not the right choice?
There’s a story in the New Testament of the Bible in Matthew 14 that gives us just such an example. The disciples of Jesus are out in a boat on a lake, and He is not in the boat with them. The lake is rough and the wind raging, and they fear death may come to them. They look up and are amazed to see Jesus walking on the water toward them. Peter calls out to Him and wants to know if it’s really Him, thinking it might be his imagination. Peter tells Jesus to ask him to come out and walk on the water to Him if it is truly Jesus and Jesus does just that. Peter looks at Jesus and steps out of the boat on the water and begins to walk toward Jesus as he was told, but then he recognizes what he is doing and looks down and cannot see beyond the waves threatening to overtake him. What was Peter holding onto and what was he letting go of in this scene?
Peter was sinking fast in the Sea of Galilee after he stopped trusting Jesus and focusing on Him and began to believe he needed to control the situation. We may not have been on the Sea of Galilee, but I am guessing we can all identify with something in our own lives that may have been similar. But we can’t leave the story before we remember the response Jesus gave to Peter: He reached out and offered his hand to rescue Him. It reminds me of a quote by American missionary, Jim Elliot:
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”Jim Elliot
It reminds me of what John Eldredge calls “benevolent detachment.” It means giving that thing, that person, that situation that is entangling us and troubling us to Christ. It’s not just letting go of it, it is giving it to the One who can handle it as we never can. And guess what? No matter how long we may have trusted Jesus in our lives, it’s not so easy to do because we are prone to think about “white bears” and we have not discerned well what surrendering all to Him really means and what we can gain from doing so. Even with discernment, it’s something we need to practice to recognize and release our tendency to grasp rather than release.
“The secret of life is this: If we surrender everything to Christ – including everything we are, the totality of our being – He is then able to give us his everything.”John Eldredge
What do we learn from that choice and practice?
“Nothing can be taken from us anymore because we’ve already surrendered everything.”John Eldredge